Improper race and religion references in Adnan Syed trial

Were race and religion used to prejudice the jury against Adnan Syed?

The trial that culminated in the 2000 conviction of Adnan Syed has been a hotly debated subject in recent weeks, largely because of the popular "Serial" podcast that examined the case. That debate will no doubt intensify in light of a brief that Mr. Syed's current counsel filed this month with the Maryland Court of Special Appeals seeking to overturn that conviction. But the debate has largely focused on the question of Mr. Syed's factual innocence or guilt.

While that question is an important one, we, the South Asian Bar Association of North America, write this not to opine on whether Mr. Syed is innocent or guilty. Instead, the issue that has troubled us is one that has received far less attention: The fact that Mr. Syed's ethnicity played a major role in the trial, in which he was accused of murdering his former girlfriend, a fellow Woodlawn High School student.

The 14th Amendment of the Constitution guarantees "equal protection of the laws." Relying on U.S. Supreme Court precedent, the federal appeals court for D.C. recognized in United States v. Doe (1990) that the "Constitution prohibits racially-biased prosecutorial arguments." A defendant accused of a crime must be judged in light of the admissible evidence, not on stereotypes about his background. Mr. Syed was born on U.S. soil to immigrants from Pakistan. But no matter where his parents came from, he is American.

Unfortunately, the record strongly suggests that the State of Maryland did not treat the defendant like an American when it prosecuted him. After reviewing the transcripts from his six-week trial, we are forced to conclude that he was not tried solely on the evidence but also on his background, culture and race. The nation's Constitution and values demand better.

The very start of Mr. Syed's trial raised serious questions about whether the Constitution's mandate of "equal protection" was respected. The prosecutor introduced the Baltimore teen by saying, "The defendant is of Pakistani background, he's a Muslim." He encouraged the jury to consider the defendant's ethnicity, religion and involvement in the (unexplained) institution described only as "Islamic culture."

Indeed, it appears that the prosecutor relied on ethnic and religious stereotypes in contending that Mr. Syed committed the murder because "his honor was besmirched," claiming it was the defendant's "religious beliefs" that motivated him to kill. We are not saying that arguments based on religion or ethnic background are categorically improper in criminal cases. But from our review of the record, we cannot identify any factual evidence introduced at trial to suggest that religion actually motivated the crime. While evidence was introduced that Mr. Syed's parents did not approve of his dating habits — a dynamic familiar to many parents and teenagers — the notion that Mr. Syed killed because of an honor besmirched was supported only by the prosecutor's reference to cultural stereotypes about Muslims.

Such references to the defendant's background were persistent throughout the trial. In a recent interview with the online publication The Intercept, the prosecutor now suggests that domestic violence motivated the murder, but we identified no testimony about the defendant's jealousy or anger against the victim in the trial transcripts. In contrast, the prosecutor repeatedly referred to the tenets of the Islamic faith and suggested that the defendant's apparently disobeying them by dating the victim was itself proof of guilt.

As one example among many, the prosecutor sought to convey to the jury the notion that Islam endorses harsh penalties for those who violate its scriptures. To do this, he put a teenage friend of the defendant on the witness stand and asked him: "What is your understanding of the penalty within the Islamic religion for premarital sex?" The teenager replied (evidently to the best of his theological knowledge): "That is not allowed." Many other religions have similar proscriptions that their adherents — teenagers and otherwise — routinely transgress. Would such a question be asked during the prosecution of a Catholic defendant? It seems inconceivable — at least in the absence of evidence that the defendant personally held hard-line religious beliefs that led to a murder. Yet that is precisely what took place in Mr. Syed's trial.

Despite repeated references to Islam, Pakistan and the like, the state presented no actual evidence to support its contention that Mr. Syed believed his "honor was besmirched." Instead, it appears that the state relied on insinuations that "Islamic culture" was at fault.

That type of injection of race and religion into a criminal defendant's trial is deeply troubling, in our view. Members of the legal profession — and the public at large — should not rest until all of us can be assured that prosecutors will avoid gratuitous references to race and religion and that all defendants receive a trial that is fair and just under the law.

Mansi Shah is president of the South Asian Bar Association of North America and writes on behalf of the entire organization. Twitter: @SABALegal and @mansiesq.

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