My Profile Search Directory Submit News Contact Us Logout Alumni Home
Spring 2015UVA Lawyer - Home
Dean's MessageOpinionClass NotesIn MemoriamIn PrintFaculty BriefsUVA Lawyer Home


SERIAL Brings to Light Work of Innocence Project

By Eric Williamson and Mary Wood

Serial Brings to Light Work of Innocence Project

Katie Clifford ’15 (left), Deirdre Enright ’92, and Mario Peia ’15 discuss their participation in the Serial podcast.

“This is a Global Tel*Link prepaid call from …Adnan Syed … an inmate at a Maryland correctional facility.”

That sound bite launched each eagerly awaited episode of Serial, the hit podcast that teamed up with the Law School’s Innocence Project to investigate and track down new leads in a 1999 murder case. The 12-week series, downloaded by millions of listeners, ended in December. In April it garnered a Peabody Award—the first ever awarded to a podcast, and in May it received a Silver Gavel Award from the American Bar Association.

The podcast closed with the promise that the Innocence Project would seek DNA testing and investigate further. The school’s for-credit clinic and a related pro bono clinic give students who participate the chance to investigate, and potentially to litigate, wrongful convictions that may lead to exoneration.

Whatever the final results of that investigation turn out to be, the students involved in the effort say it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“We feel like we’re making a difference in something that the whole nation’s looking at,” said Katie Clifford ’15, who was featured on the podcast.

The Case
Adnan Syed was a 17-year-old Baltimore high school student when his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, was found strangled to death in a park. Despite apparently lacking a strong motive, Syed was sentenced to life in prison for her murder. Syed has maintained his innocence.

Produced by the makers of This American Life, the serialized re-examination of the murder case became an international sensation, with Apple reporting that the podcast became the fastest to reach 5 million downloads and streams in iTunes history. But members of the Virginia team said they never predicted how popular or expansive the reporting would turn out to be.

“Zero idea,” said Innocence Project Director Deirdre Enright ’92, with her students echoing agreement.

“We thought maybe it was going to be one episode of This American Life,” Clifford said.

Enright said the level of interest was a surprise in light of the traditional lack of funding for post-conviction relief.

“If you would have told me last year that 5 million people would want to know what we do every day, I would say they clearly don’t care what we do every day, because there aren’t funds for representing people post-conviction,” Enright said. “No one even pays people to do that. So, this level of interest feels really hopeful to me, like maybe we’re underestimating people’s interest in the system.”

The clinic’s efforts to investigate questionable convictions have made news in the past. Syed read in prison about Justin Wolfe, a Virginia death row inmate who had a defense team that included the Innocence Project, and saw similarities to his own case. This led Serial co-creator and narrator Sarah Koenig to interview Enright about those similarities and to hash out with her some of the unusual aspects of the Syed case. Their conversations form the bulk of Episode 7, titled “The Opposite of the Prosecution.”

During the episode, Enright makes Koenig an offer to help track down some of the unanswered questions.

“It’s a lot of leg work, [but] if we had a team of five students we could get those things done with people who are being supervised, so think about that,” Enright tells her. “I’m totally hooked.”

A flabbergasted Koenig accepts.

In fact, Enright added eight students to the case—five from the project’s for-credit clinic and three from the pro bono clinic. Pro bono students began work on the project in early March 2014.

Also in Episode 7, team leader Mario Peia ’15 and pro bono clinic president Clifford, who had read through all of the files, tell Koenig that, like Enright, they have doubts about Syed’s guilt.

“One of the things I found odd when I first started reading this case was how precisely [Syed] was convicted under this amount of material,” says Peia, an aspiring prosecutor now clerking in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Clifford notes during the interview that forensics reports were missing from Syed’s file for some physical evidence that was collected.

“We are curious about the results we don’t have,” she says.

The Investigation
In addition to reviewing the material Koenig and her colleagues collected, the students investigated new leads of their own. Peia said the team worked by trying to answer questions they had about Syed and others closely linked to the victim, then widening their circle. Enright suggested that they try to answer the question: If not Syed, then who?

“It sounded to us like the piece that wasn’t being addressed at all is, who were the alternate suspects?” Enright said.

Now, “We’ve got these alternate suspects—very legitimate alternate suspects,” Enright said.

Early last fall, members of the team visited the Baltimore Police Department’s Homicide Cold Case Unit, and drafted a motion for forensic testing of crime scene evidence that could potentially implicate one of the alternate suspects, and exonerate Syed.

“Really, this is how the investigation should have started. From the forensics, and go from there,” Enright said.

The crime scene—including Lee’s body—appears to have contained multiple sources of forensic information that were not pursued by either the defense or the prosecution, Enright said. Hairs not belonging to Lee were recovered from her body, and her fingernails were clipped and preserved, as was a rope found next to her partially buried remains. The evidence was not presented in court, Enright said, nor was it submitted to CODIS, the FBI’s DNA database through which law enforcement checks for hits on potential perpetrators.

The tests could exclude Syed as the killer—or they could suggest his guilt.
“And of course, there’s always the third possibility—that the testing neither inculpates nor exculpates Adnan,” Enright said. “Many years have passed, and evidence can deteriorate and degrade.”

Alternate Paths
The drive to test the evidence has been on hold for now, as Syed’s attorneys pursue an alternate route. In January 2014, a Baltimore circuit court decision denied his petition for post-conviction relief on the grounds that his attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, had been ineffective. But in May, a Maryland Court of Special Appeals remanded the case to the Baltimore circuit court to consider a new affidavit by a witness offering a potential alibi. The remand reopens the previously concluded post-conviction proceeding.

Gutierrez, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, was disbarred in 2001 after several complaints from her clients. She died in 2004.

“What’s a little bit different in this case [compared to a typical Innocence Project case] is that the defense attorney did a lot,” Enright said. “She didn’t always do the things that we wish she would have done, like test the physical evidence, but I don’t know if she’d be ineffective under the standards that we have.”

Enright said that even if forensic testing doesn’t happen, the Innocence Project will continue their investigation of the case and determine if there is enough new evidence to file a writ of actual innocence based on non-biological evidence.

“The combined efforts of Sarah Koenig and Syed’s team of supporters have already revealed many significant new facts that were never presented to the jury, and our investigation is far from complete,” she said.

A Unique Experience
As the story unfolded on Serial, Enright and the students saw their research turned into a compelling story in a unique new format.

“What ends up being on the show is about an eighth of what we all learned and know,” Enright said. For example, the show highlighted one possible alternate suspect, whereas Enright believes there are many. The Law School team also had to work with Serial on the timing of when certain pieces of information would be revealed, to allow space for the investigation to happen.

“We had many discussions about their goals in telling a story and our goals in exonerating someone,” Enright said. “Often we were on the same page, but sometimes we came right up against each other and we would say, ‘We would never do what you are about to do,’ and they would say ‘We cannot do what you want to do.’ And it was okay, it worked. But it was a challenge.”

Members of the team said the experience they’ve gained on the case, and the exposure they’ve received, can only help their careers. Most anticipate working for law firms, and said employers are always interested in attorneys with practical experience.

Other students hope to work specifically in criminal defense or, in Peia’s case, prosecution.

“The Innocence Project has been fantastic for learning prosecutorial ethics. By seeing what happens when things go very wrong in the criminal justice process, one can learn how to avoid these problems before they come to fruition,” Peia said.