Adnan Syed is finally home with his family. Let’s reunite others unjustly incarcerated with theirs.

by: Zainab Chaudry, CAIR National

Seated in the courtroom Monday as Judge Phinn overturned Adnan Syed’s conviction and set him free, I and dozens of others wiped tears of joy as we watched tears streaming unchecked down the faces of his family members.

After over twenty years of unjustly serving time in prison and relentless efforts to raise awareness about his case by his lawyers and passionate advocates, the shackles were coming off.

Syed was finally going home.

The victory is bittersweet. He and his family have a new chance at building a life together, but they’ve also lost years, moments and memories that they will never regain.

He and every wrongfully incarcerated person deserve that surreal moment when the judge’s ruling registered and the courtroom erupted in cheers.

According to the Innocence Project, a non-profit organization that works to “restore freedom for the innocent, transform the systems responsible for their unjust incarceration, and advance the innocence movement,” an estimated 1 percent of America’s prison population, or approximately 20,000 people, are falsely convicted.

The Georgia Innocence Project, an independent nonprofit organization that helps people wrongly convicted of crimes in the state of Georgia, estimates that number is actually much higher at between 4 to 6 percent of incarcerated people in U.S. prisons who are innocent.

The fact remains that tens of thousands of incarcerated people across America are serving time for crimes they didn’t commit.

Wrongful convictions overwhelmingly affect Black and brown communities who disproportionately make up the U.S. prison population.

At least part of this troubling trend can be attributed to the absurd reality that prosecutors often measure their “success” based on conviction rates.

During a news conference Monday afternoon after Syed’s hearing, the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s office, which filed the motion to vacate Syed’s conviction based on new findings discovered during the re-examination process, emphasized prioritizing “justice and integrity over convictions.”

Meaningful criminal justice reform requires that this policy and mantra be adopted and practiced diligently by every prosecutor across the nation.

Imagine how many wrongfully convicted people would be free today if justice took precedence over conviction rates. Defendants accused of crimes deserve due process and a fair trial.

Meaningful reform also requires changing archaic, discriminatory laws that impede justice.

Maryland has consistently ranked among the worst states in the country on juvenile justice, and while progress is slow, it is happening.

During the Maryland General Assembly’s 2021 session, many advocates and organizations including youth delegates from CAIR’s Maryland office, mobilized, lobbied and testified urging lawmakers to pass SB494 the Juvenile Restoration Act which went into effect almost exactly one year ago in October.

This historic bill banned life without parole for juvenile offenders in Maryland and now allows people who’ve served least 20 years in prison for crimes committed as children to have their sentences re-examined.

It enabled the prosecution and defense to work to re-assess Syed’s (and many other) cases. During this process, they discovered issues and inconsistencies, including a Brady Violation, that caused “overwhelming concern” which helped lead to his release.

Our testimony in favor of the Juvenile Restoration Act last year stated in part that according to the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth, the “United States is the only country that sentences children to die in prison by imposing life-without-parole sentences on individuals under the age of 18.” It also noted that Maryland “was tied with five other states for being America’s worst offenders” on the issue of juvenile justice.

Passing the Juvenile Restoration Act was instrumental in overturning wrongful convictions and delivering justice in the state of Maryland in Syed’s and other cases, including that of a man quietly freed last week with the state’s intervention after serving nearly 30 years for a crime that occurred when he was 15 years old.

The Sentencing Review Unit implemented in the Office of the Baltimore City State’s Attorney is tasked with with investigating claims of actual innocence and wrongful convictions. According to its chief Becky Feldman, the unit has freed over forty people serving life sentences. The average length of time served in these cases has been over 30 years. The unit is currently working on nearly a hundred cases that meet the criteria for evaluation, with as many more in the pipeline for consideration.

In the fight for comprehensive criminal and juvenile justice reform, Baltimore’s Sentencing Review Unit deserves to be considered as a model for other jurisdictions across the nation plagued with wrongful convictions and life without parole sentences for minors.

Monday’s monumental victory is, in part, a testimony to the tremendous impact of advocacy in action on the state level. Collectively, the bill sponsors who introduced SB494, the witnesses who testified and lobbied to pass it, the lawmakers who voted in favor of it, and the prosecution and defense who’ve been working since last October to evaluate cases, are all changing lives.

While we celebrate the victories, much work still remains to be done to fight for a system where justice and integrity always take precedence over convictions. Where life without the possibility of parole is never a consideration for young people.

It’s deeply heartening to know that Syed is finally home, reunited with his family. But the work isn’t over until every person unjustly behind bars because they lack competent counsel, passionate advocates and a functional, equitable justice system is also reunited with theirs.

Zainab Chaudry is the Maryland director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, America’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization.