Adnan Syed, the focus of the popular crime mystery podcast “Serial,” was abruptly released Monday after 23 years in prison. But without help from the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia School of Law, his story might never have reached millions and inspired so many to assist his cause.
The clinic first became involved when “Serial” creator and host Sarah Koenig asked for help investigating and researching Syed’s case for an episode of “This American Life.” Syed had been convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee when he was 17. Professor Deirdre Enright ’92, former Innocence Project director, convened a team of clinic students and together they waded through the facts. What they discovered was so compelling that Koenig’s potential single episode instead launched a 12-episode podcast named “Serial” — and the public was riveted.
“It just seems like everywhere you looked, there was a reason to have doubt — the motive seemed absurd, it wasn’t like he had explosive anger, her body was found in a park where dead bodies abound, deals were made with a key witness, there was a mistrial — these are some of the red flags in innocence cases,” Enright said.
Though “Serial” was downloaded 300 million times, and the clinic helped find potentially exculpatory evidence, it still took eight more years to tip the scales of justice in Syed’s favor. A new Maryland law and the fresh eyes of a former public defender who had recently joined the state’s attorney’s office, Becky Feldman, gave Syed another try at asserting his innocence.
Feldman’s work led the Baltimore City state’s attorney’s office to ask a judge on Sept. 14 to toss out Syed’s conviction because, among other problems, prosecutors had suppressed key evidence that favored Syed.
“[Feldman] was willing to see things from both viewpoints and she allowed herself to be bothered by what she saw,” Enright said.
To Enright, Feldman’s work as chief of the state’s new Sentencing Review Unit — which in the past 18 months has freed more than 40 people serving life sentences — shows why prosecutors should welcome defense attorneys into their ranks.
“People who have seen it from the defense side know the red flags,” Enright said. “They know that when you see a jailhouse informant with charges against him dropped, those things mean something. It doesn’t always mean the person is innocent, but it does mean you should look harder.”
Enright, who founded the Innocence Project at UVA Law in 2008 and helped lead it until 2021, would also like to see Virginia and other states take up measures like Maryland’s new law to help speed up justice for the wrongfully convicted. She now investigates possible reforms as a director of the school’s Project for Informed Reform and the Center for Criminal Justice.
The court gave prosecutors 30 days to decide whether they will retry Syed or reopen the Lee murder case to look for new suspects. Enright said she is confident Syed will not be retried and she is convinced of his innocence.
The podcast, with the clinic’s help, uncovered and revealed new evidence that vacated Syed’s conviction once before, in 2016. Eight clinic students were involved, including “Team Syed” leaders Kathryn Clifford Klorfein ’15 and Mario Peia ’15, who appeared on the show with Enright. Peia is now a federal prosecutor in California, while Klorfein works in-house for the Coca-Cola Co.
At the evidence locker in Baltimore, the UVA students found DNA material that had been collected at the crime scene but was never tested. They found an alternate suspect who had been released from prison about two weeks before the murder. They also discovered inconsistencies in cellphone tower data that had been used to corroborate the testimony of a problematic witness.
The podcast brought out the fact that Syed’s attorney failed to contact an alibi witness who said she was talking to him at the high school library at the time of the murder.
The evidence that ultimately freed Syed did not come out until Feldman’s review. Among many other problems the Sentencing Review Unit found, prosecutors had two alternate suspects they never disclosed to the defense team. The suppression of such exculpatory evidence is considered prosecutorial misconduct and is referred to as a Brady violation.
“I think that shows the importance of open discovery — this Brady evidence that came out was not something that we had back when UVA was investigating, because it hadn’t been provided to the defense,” Klorfein said. “So that was a pleasant surprise, but upsetting that it wasn’t discovered before he spent 23 years in prison.”
Without that evidence, another UVA graduate, Cate Stetson ’94, who co-chairs the appellate group at Hogan Lovells and co-teaches the Law School’s Appellate Litigation Clinic, argued Syed’s earlier appeal on grounds of ineffective counsel, which he ultimately lost when the Maryland Court of Appeals reinstated his conviction. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up his case.
That, Enright said, appeared to be “game over.”
Enright said she and Koenig were “agog” at the latest turn of events, to see Syed physically unshackled and released directly from the courtroom after all the years they and others spent combing through his case.
“Um, wow — it was not at all ‘game over,’” Enright said. “We heard about the motion on Friday and on Monday he walked out the door. That’s crazy.”
Syed was released quickly because of a new law that’s been in place in Maryland since last October. The Juvenile Restoration Act allows prosecutors to request reductions in sentences for those who have served at least 20 years in prison for crimes committed before they were 18. Syed’s most recent postconviction attorney, Erica Suter, immediately delivered his case to the state’s attorney’s office for review.
Although Stetson was not involved with the most recent turn of events, on Tuesday she expressed “delight” at the outcome, tempered by concern over the underlying problems with the case.
“We are also deeply dismayed at what now appears to be the prosecutor’s office’s utter failure to turn over critical Brady evidence — even while fighting tooth and nail on appeal to get a favorable lower court decision overturned, and then fighting just as hard against Supreme Court review,” Stetson said. “The arc of justice sometimes takes a long time — too long — to bend.”
That is precisely what Koenig said in a bonus “Serial” episode on Tuesday, offering the conclusion she was never able to offer her listeners when “Serial” wrapped up almost eight years ago.
“It’s hard to feel cheered about a triumph of fairness, because we’ve built a system that takes more than 20 years to self-correct — and that’s just this one case,” Koenig said in her signoff.
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.