The case of Adnan Syed of Maryland, who served more than 20 years in prison on murder charges before his conviction was vacated on Monday, is unique because of the enormous publicity it got through the hit true-crime podcast Serial, NPR reports. One reason he was set free — because prosecutors withheld evidence that may have exonerated him — is not uncommon. Judge Melissa Phinn in Baltimore relied on an extensive review of the case by prosecutors showing that authorities knew of at least two alternative suspects besides Syed in the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, an ex-girlfriend of his. Prosecutors kept information about other suspects from defense attorneys. Prosecutors have 30 days to decide whether to proceed with a new trial or drop the charges against Syed, who has long maintained his innocence.
Syed's case highlights how the withholding of potentially exculpatory evidence by police and prosecutors can often lead to wrongful convictions. Among 2,400 exonerations in the U.S. between 1989 and 2019, in 44 percent of cases it was the withholding of potentially exonerating evidence that resulted in a prisoner's release, said the National Registry of Exonerations. Critics say a lack of accountability and transparency has made it easy for prosecutors to get away with such official misconduct, as innocent individuals brought before the justice system are made to pay — oftentimes with years of their lives behind bars — for crimes they did not commit. Such conduct is a violation of what is known as the Brady rule, which requires prosecutors to turn over any evidence that could help exonerate a criminal defendant. Current prosecutors cited two Brady violations in the Syed case: the initial prosecution's failure to disclose evidence pointing to any other suspect and the failure to disclose that one of the original suspects had threatened to kill Lee.