Innocent until proven guilty

Do we really have the right to a fair and speedy trial?

Adnan Syed continues to maintain his innocence after spending the past 15 years in prison with a life sentence plus thirty years stretching out ahead of him.

It was 1999 when Syed was a senior in high school that he was charged with the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. In an interview, Syed said, “I could never describe the pain of how it felt to believe that everyone thought I was a murderer.”

Because he was seen as a murderer even before his first trial, classmate and acquaintance Asia McClain didn’t step forward as an alibi until almost two decades later. She believed that the police knew what they were talking about when they claimed Syed killed Lee. She believed she must be mistaken that she had seen him in the library on the day and at the time they claimed Lee had been murdered. She believed the police would get the right guy.

This is a small part of the greater tragedy of our criminal justice system. Innocent until proven guilty has become just a saying when we label people as “suspects,” “defendants,” and “inmates.”

Since Syed’s conviction, a family friend Rabia Chaudry fought to exonerate him by not only digging into the facts of the case, but by giving him back his humanity by telling his story.

Syed’s case isn’t unfamiliar in the U.S. There was a record number of people exonerated in 2015 after being wrongly convicted of crimes, according to a report by the National Registry of Exonerations, a project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Northwestern University School of Law.

“We have hundreds of instances where someone’s innocence was proven,” said expert on police interrogation and false confessions Richard Leo in the Criminal (In)Justice podcast.

“The tactics [of interrogation] are meant to break people down by making them think the situation is hopeless, there’s no way out, they’re going to be convicted no matter what and the only way to minimize the damage or escape is to agree to the accusation,” Leo said.

In other words, it takes away their humanity.

Tactics like this are what cause hundreds and hundreds of cases of proven false confessions, according to The Innocence Project, an organization founded in 1992 that works to exonerate those who were wrongly convicted through DNA testing and works to reform the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.

As of Oct. 2016, The Innocence Project reported 344 DNA exonerations. A recent exoneration was of Teshome Campbell of Illinois who was released Jan. 29, 2016 after being wrongly convicted and imprisoned for 18 years for a murder he didn’t commit.

“Human bias even affects the outcomes of DNA analysis and the application of ‘scientific evidence’ in trial,” wrote Chaudry in her 2016 book “Adnan’s Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial.”

“An exponential increase in exonerations has replaced stories of how horrific crimes are solved with stories of how horrific practices by some law enforcement and prosecutors ensure convictions at all costs,” she wrote.

Chaudry remains firm in her belief in Syed’s innocence—and after following her investigation into his case, so do I. But beyond this, Chaudry as begun the Undisclosed podcast, which is researching cases through The Innocence Project beyond Syed’s story. Because you see, Syed is only one of thousands of innocent prisoners convicted because of human bias and ineffective police-work.

As for Syed, he continues to fight his wrongful conviction. With the victory of retrial granted this past June, in a statement read by his lawyer Justin Brown, Syed said he was grateful for the opportunity to present new evidence to the court and that he continues to keep fighting to prove his innocence—innocence that he has maintained since day one.

Because one innocent person in prison is one too many.

Grace King, Executive Editor

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