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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Column: Justice serially falls short

Crime shows and true-crime programs are nothing exceptional to an American audience. It would, in fact, be a struggle to find a time where there is not one of the many “Law and Orders,” “Nancy Graces” or “Blue Bloods” on television. In spite of this seemingly overdone narrative, a fresh, true-crime program emerged once again at the forefront of American pop culture in September.

“Serial” — a 12-episode podcast detailing the 1999 murder of a high school senior from Baltimore — amassed nearly 1.5 million listeners per episode. Generally (and without spoilers), the podcast focuses on narrator Sarah Koenig as she attempts to discover who murdered Hae Min Lee and whether police were correct to arrest Lee’s ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed.

Syed became the state’s main suspect after another student came forward with damning eyewitness testimony. Besides Syed’s inability to report a sufficient alibi, the eyewitness testimony allowed the state to convict Syed successfully despite the lack of other evidence. Last week, however, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals granted Syed an appeal, placing further doubt on the prosecution and returning “Serial” to the front page.

One of the program’s major strengths is how it challenges audience members to imagine themselves as the subjects. As Koenig points out in the first episode, our memories are fickle, and if our life imprisonment came down to remembering where we were for 21 minutes, six weeks ago, most of us would be in prison. Who do we know to be guilty, and when are we wrong?

Finding a solid number of wrongful convictions in the U.S. is impossible. But a 2008 study published in the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies argues that at least 2.3 percent of death sentences were wrongful convictions.

Estimates put the overall wrongful conviction rate between 0.5-2.5 percent of guilty verdicts. Even if this number is closer to 0.5 percent, that still leaves thousands of innocent people behind bars and dozens wrongfully executed.

When asked why this number is so high, Jason Kreag, assistant professor at the James E. Rogers College of Law, described several factors that play into this rare, disconcerting pattern. Failure by the prosecution to disclose favorable material to the defense (a legal obligation), false convictions and the manner in which juries rely on eyewitness testimony all play into innocent people going to prison.

According to the Innocence Project, a nonprofit, 30 percent of exonerated cases involve false guilty pleas, and 72 percent involve witness misidentification. Reducing the importance juries can place on these kinds of “evidence” could start lowering this trend. Only concrete information such as DNA evidence, forensics, video or audio recordings, or multiple eyewitnesses corroborating the same story ought to have a place in the courtroom.

In addition to the flaws that exist within the courtroom, the appellate process also raises some eyebrows. Despite the numerous evidentiary objections raised in “Serial,” including obvious discrepancies in the prosecution’s case, Syed’s appeal was only granted for a claim of “ineffective counsel”; Syed’s lawyer may have acted irresponsibly by not investigating Syed’s potential alibi.

For Syed, an appeal is an appeal and should not be considered anything other than a tremendous victory. But as a broader examination of the appellate system, this case reveals a troubling tendency. As Kreag explained, the appellate process validates the finality of a verdict and, consequently, is unlikely to reverse a guilty verdict unless there is a significant revelation or incontestable DNA evidence. Even if a case seems fishy, the likelihood of a successful appeal after a guilty verdict is almost nil.

Incorrectly convicting people only 1 or 2 percent of the time is an admirable statistic. Clearly, the vast majority of people found guilty in the U.S. are, in fact, guilty. But when the lives of innocent people are at stake, the U.S. can and must do better. After all, our legal system was designed to uphold a maxim articulated by Benjamin Franklin: “[It] is better a hundred guilty persons should escape than that one innocent person should suffer.” To succeed at achieving this goal, we need to treat eyewitness testimonies and guilty pleas with far more scrutiny, and appeals, barring irrefutable DNA evidence, need to be more accessible.

Even if “Serial” has failed to answer the question of what happened on Jan. 13, 1999, it has succeeded in generating new conversations about the justice system. Hopefully the U.S. can seize the opportunity to create meaningful, impactful reform.


Jacob Winkelman is a sophomore studying political science and English. Follow him on Twitter.

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