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The Case of Adnan Syed: Media Spectacle and Juvenile Justice

news cameras on courthouse steps

In 2014, the first season of the hit podcast Serial aired. It told the story of the murder of Hae Min Lee and the subsequent trial and conviction of her one-time boyfriend, Adnan Syed. Each episode explored evidence for and against Syed’s guilt, and, by the end of the season, both host and listeners were left with lingering doubts. Eight years later, on September 19th, 2022, Syed’s sentence was vacated, and he was released from prison after serving 23 years.

The case against Syed in 1999 was based primarily on two forms of evidence: the eyewitness testimony of Jay Wilds and cell phone tower evidence that purportedly supported Wilds’s description of the events of the crime.

Though the specific details changed from one telling to the next, Wilds’s basic story was that Syed strangled Lee to death in her own car in the parking lot of a Best Buy and then called Wilds for help with disposal of her body. The two allegedly worked together to bury Hae in a shallow grave in a nearby park. A cell phone expert in the original trial testified that the locations that Syed’s cell phone pinged that day corroborated Wilds’s basic account of the events that took place on the day of the murder, including pinging in the location where Hae’s body was later found.

Sara Koenig, the journalist who hosted and did much of the research and investigation for the show, was drawn to the case because of some of the clear holes in both the initial investigation and the trial. Among the most noteworthy of these was an eyewitness, Asia McClain, who claimed to have interacted with Adnan at length at the local library at precisely the time the state alleged that he was committing the crime. Though Syed’s lawyer, Christina Gutierrez, was aware of the alibi witness, she never contacted McClain and the jury never heard about the alibi. Gutierrez was disbarred for unprofessional conduct in a different case shortly thereafter.

The only evidence the state gathered to corroborate the eyewitness testimony offered by Wilds was the cell-phone evidence. Even at the time, that evidence suggested an elaborate and improbable route through the city on the afternoon of the murder. During their investigation, Koenig and her team found disclaimers from the cell phone company at the time which explicitly said that it could not confirm the veracity of reported locations associated with incoming calls. And yet pings associated with incoming calls were used to corroborate eyewitness testimony and to ultimately convict Syed. During both the bail hearings and the trial, the state engaged in racial stereotyping about violent and passionate Middle Eastern men to suggest that Syed killed Hae because he couldn’t endure having his “honor besmirched” when she broke up with him.

In light of the reporting in the podcast, many listeners concluded that the state did not meet its burden of proof in the case. Syed may or may not be guilty, but the evidence presented against him should not have led to a conviction.

Serial was one of the first massively successful podcasts; in many ways it defined the genre. And this resulted in tremendous media attention on the case.

Despite all of this attention, it was a new law passed in the state of Maryland that finally led to the reexamination of the facts of the case — the Juvenile Restoration Act. Among other provisions protecting youth, the act provides some potential relief for offenders who committed crimes while still juveniles. If an offender who committed the crime for which they were convicted was under the age of 18 at the time, they can ask the court to reduce their sentence and possibly even let them out.

Syed’s case qualified, and this initiated a sentencing review which required the state’s attorney to look at the case with fresh eyes. When she did so, the attorney found a handful of shocking things, including handwritten notes in the prosecutor’s files suggesting an alternate suspect in the case. This information was never shared with Syed’s attorney. Since the Syed conviction, Bill Ritz, one of the main detectives responsible for interrogating Jay Wilds, has been investigated for coaching eyewitnesses.

The totality of the evidence — the constantly changing eyewitness testimony, the erroneous cell-phone evidence testimony at trial, the existence of other viable suspects — suggested that the state could no longer justifiably hold Syed in prison any longer.

This does not mean that Syed is innocent, only that the case against him was hopelessly flawed at many stages.

This case introduces a cluster of questions about justice and the role of emerging technology in the criminal justice system. Perhaps most noteworthy is the question posed by the Juvenile Restoration Act that necessitated the reassessment of Syed’s case. At the heart of this issue are questions about what it is to act autonomously and the kinds of mitigating factors that might diminish a person’s culpability. We tend to think of children as moral patients rather than moral agents — moral agents are thought to be able to think clearly about alternatives and to effectively weigh their reasons for action given their interests and the interests of those about whom they care. They are capable of considering consequences carefully and of choosing to act in the interest of what they take to be the good. Moral patients, on the other hand, are sentient beings who are not capable of engaging in this kind of reflection for one reason or another.

It is clear that infant children cannot act autonomously; they are moral patients. It is less obvious where the cutoff point is for older children.

When we speak about teenagers outside of the context of their criminal culpability, we are quick to acknowledge that the changes young people go through at this age can make them almost unrecognizable to their loved ones at times. Hormones, intense emotional reactions, and mental health struggles that are common among people this age cause people to act in ways that might be less autonomous than we would expect from a moral agent. People this age can also often be easily manipulated by charismatic figures who seem to have all the answers. These kinds of considerations led to the ruling that Lee Boyd Malvo – 17 years old when he participated in the spree killings known as the D.C Sniper Murders – must be resentenced in Maryland.

The case also poses the related question of whether juveniles should be sentenced to life in prison without parole when their conviction was secured on the basis of circumstantial evidence. Such convictions are always less than ideal because they could be miscarriages of justice, but the harm done when the offender is a juvenile is particularly acute because it potentially prevents them from engaging in all of the life and character-building that is critical to late adolescence and early adulthood. The Juvenile Restoration Act recognizes the complexities of cases involving minors and, going forward, bans all sentences of life without parole for juveniles in Maryland.

Serial transformed Syed’s case into a cultural phenomenon. Internet sleuths all over the world assessed the evidence and discussed their findings with one another. This podcast marks a shift toward crowd-sourcing detective work.

Since it came out in 2014, countless other podcasts have made true crime cases their focus. The hosts of these podcasts often do not have the background in reputable journalism that Sara Koenig has — many hosts are just armchair sleuths pontificating about cases with a beer and a microphone in their garage. Some armchair sleuthing, such as the work done by civilians explored in the Netflix documentary special Don’t F**k With Cats, leads to progress in a case. Perhaps even more often, however, idle speculation and rumor mills end up unfairly maligning people and ruining their lives.

The media influences also raise issues of fairness.

How many convicted people like Adnan are out there who were convicted on the basis of unreliable witness testimony whose cases didn’t get made into popular podcasts?

It can be a good thing for a convicted person when the case against them is viewed with a critical eye. But most convicted people do not get this chance since the appellate process typically focuses on procedural fairness and not on factual innocence.

Finally, a highly public case like this leads to even more pain for the victim’s families. Syed was convicted in 1999. Going through that process was difficult enough for families and now countless people are questioning whether the courts got the conviction wrong. Though this sort of scrutiny can be useful to achieve justice, relitigating a case, either literally or figuratively, can leave a family feeling like the very worst moments of their lives will never end. The state prosecutes criminals using taxpayer money and these stories become part of our culture and our collective identity. As such, there is a sense in which these stories belong not just to individuals but to communities. There is also a sense in which they don’t — individuals and their families are the parties who actually experienced the pain and devastation caused by a crime. Even if the wrong person was convicted, sensitivity to the victims remains important.

Streaming services for podcasts, movies, and television have led to a proliferation of true crime entertainment. Though one of the goals may be justice, it would be disingenuous to suggest that they do not use tragic crimes to entertain viewers. At the very least, the proliferation of the phenomenon should motivate discussion about the role that true crime storytelling plays in our culture.

Juvenile Justice: Charging Minors as Adults

close-up photograph of youth in handcuffs

Children should be treated differently from adults by the criminal justice system. They should be treated more leniently, and this includes how they are treated by the police, judged by the courts, and – most obviously – the punishments they are given.

I take it that most people believe this, at least to some extent. Nobody thinks that a five-year-old who steals a Mars bar deserves the same punishment as an adult. But when a child commits a heinous crime, we are often far too quick to abandon our commitment to treating kids fairly.

Just last week, another school shooting saw four children die in Michigan. The shooter, a fifteen-year-old boy, has been charged as an adult. Even though rates of children being charged as adults are falling, estimates say that 50,000 children a year are still charged as adults. Recently, in upstate New York, Eric Smith was released after 27 years in prison. Smith was charged in the juvenile courts, yet while headlines mentioned that he was a child killer, they failed to mention that he, too, was a child. If kids should be treated more leniently, then the reactions in these cases by the prosecutor and press are flawed.

One might think that sometimes crimes are so heinous that kids deserve to be tried as adults. Perhaps some crimes are so egregious that they deserve the strictest possible punishment, and perhaps the state needs to communicate that some crimes are hideous, or perhaps some crimes suggest someone is beyond rehabilitation. But I also suspect that, often, calls to punish kids as adults are based on a mistake: that because the act is heinous, it deserves the severest punishment. And I think we should push back against this. Let me try to explain, by exploring why we should be lenient to kids in the first place.

The obvious starting point is that the criminal justice system is part of the state, and the state treats kids differently from adults all the time. Thirteen-year-olds can’t drive, seventeen-year-olds can’t smoke, twenty-year-olds can’t drink (though, absurdly, they can give their lives for their country). And why are kids treated differently by the state in all these other domains? The obvious answer is: kids are less mature; they can’t be trusted to make informed decisions about the risks involved in smoking, drinking, and driving. They aren’t quite as able to see why what they are doing is wrong and they possess less self-control.

If kids are less mature – as they so often are – then shouldn’t they be treated more leniently for their crimes? If we think that, roughly, how much you should be blamed should match how responsible you were for the bad thing that you did, and if we think that kids are less mature and thus less responsible, the answer seems to be obvious: yes, of course kids should be treated more leniently.

We can nuance this argument further. One point worth discussing is that our brains do not mature until we are 25, so this might even suggest we should be lenient to people who are traditionally classed as adults. But we might want to allow for a cut-off, here: we might think that, although they are not fully mature, 23-year-olds have a suitable enough knowledge to be treated like adults. When is a kid mature enough to be punished as an adult? That’s a point for debate, and it might also be true that some kids should be punished more like adults than like kids. But I take it for granted here that if we have a distinction between punishing as a juvenile and punishing as an adult, we can roughly sort offenders into one of two camps.

It’s also worth noting that this argument does not – as is briefly discussed here – claim that kids do not know right from wrong. That would be absurd: kids clearly do sometimes know they are doing wrong. Yet kids might know something is wrong but not fully appreciate the wrongness, they might not quite grasp why it is wrong. And kids might know something is wrong but be less able to resist it than adults.

But what about if a kid is as mature as an adult? Gideon Yaffe thinks that we should start from the supposition that kids should be treated more leniently, yet the above argument fails since it allows for some kids not to be treated more leniently. For instance, if a kid is morally mature, according to this argument they should be punished just the same. (Yaffe’s answer is interesting: kids can’t vote, and he thinks criminal responsibility tracks how much say we have over the law. But that is too much to go into here.)

I don’t think I buy Yaffe’s argument. It seems plausible to me that if a particular kid is fully mature, then perhaps they should be punished like an adult. Though there is an argument that it might be too hard to discern if a kid is mature enough, and we should just always treat kids as though they are not mature enough for full criminal punishment. (And it is also worth noting that such a consideration does not apply to the cases we are discussing. The Michigan shooter was plausibly suffering from mental disorders, as was Eric Smith – so his lawyer argued. So charging either of those as adults seems flawed, especially when mental disorders also tend to require more lenient punishments.)

Yet even if there is an exception so that mature kids are punished like adults, there is no principled exception to say that kids who do awful things should be punished like adults.

But, the retort goes, what they did was so heinous they must be punished as strongly as possible. This rests on a mistake. Our argument does not turn around what was done but who did it. In one of the greatest pieces of modern moral philosophy, P.F. Strawson made this point. If you tread on my toe, the pain is the same, but the level of blame I give you will differ depending on whether you accidentally trod on me or whether you did it maliciously.

We can grant that a murder is heinous, whilst still holding that children who perpetrate these acts are owed separate consideration. The thing they did was heinous, but their doing it was less heinous than if an adult had done it. To charge kids as adults requires more than just pointing to the fact that what they have done is awful. It requires showing that they deserve to be punished like adults, despite the prevailing assumption that they are less mature, and so a lesser punishment is appropriate.

Re-Examining Scared Straight Programs

photograph of teen boy confined behind chain link fence

In the United States, summer camps for kids across the nation make up a $4 billion dollar industry. However, not all summer camps are designed to be fun. “Scared Straight” programs are designed to deter at-risk youth by forcing them into an exaggeratedly violent and threatening prison setting for 1-3 days. The purpose of these programs is to encourage children to change their actions which could eventually lead to adult conviction. Parents voluntarily pay for their children to be sent to these programs, a decision which some child psychologists have labeled as “child abuse.”

Are prison camps for kids ethical? Is it right to use fear to elicit a change in behavior? Are there certain disciplinary tactics which should be off-limits to parents?

Public awareness of these camps first began with the documentary “Scared Straight!” which aired in 1978, and won an Emmy and Academy Award for its depiction of children sent to prison camps. Awareness increased due to the A&E TV series “Beyond Scared Straight” which documented the experiences of children in prison camp programs for 9 seasons. Most recently, Vice ran a mini-documentary feature in 2018, which contained highly disturbing footage. One of the most documented “scared straight” prison camps for kids in the U.S. is “Project STORM,” a camp based in North Carolina, whose existence is predicated on the belief that “punishment and fear (i.e. getting tough on crime), is one approach to reducing juvenile crime.” Participation in the program costs between $75-100 and lasts 12 hours, including an overnight stay.

While many would agree there is some utility in allowing parents agency over personal parenting decisions, where should the line between children’s rights and parental discipline lie? One place to turn for answers might lie in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international agreement with 140 signatory countries, including the U.S. who has signed but failed to ratify. The Convention recognizes 40 rights that children are entitled to, including protection from abuse and violence as well as the prioritization of their best interests by parents and governments. Though the Convention does not define abuse and violence, child abuse is defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as ”any recent act…on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation.” Studies have shown that certain forms of punishment, such as corporal punishment, negatively impact the emotional and physical well-being of children. With this in mind, it is clear that any program which uses physical and emotional violence, or the threat of violence, against children would be widely recognized as immoral in violating the rights of children. It is also hard to justify “scared straight” programs even from a consequentialist perspective. The American Psychological Association maintains that physical discipline is ineffective as well as harmful. In fact, Scared Straight programs have been found to actually increase the likelihood of criminal conviction for children who partake in them.

However, even if such camps appear to violate the rights of children, do the rights of parents to choose their own disciplinary methods present an irresolvable tension? Legally, parents have the right to exercise “reasonable force or reasonable punishments on their child to control, train, and educate.” This right is often referred to as the “parental discipline privilege.” While many states recognize this right as a defense during allegations of child abuse, the legality of an action does not necessarily make it moral. However, there is some utility in generally allowing parental autonomy in raising children. After all, parents often know their children better than anyone else, and therefore are the most qualified to make disciplinary decisions which will be simultaneously effective and appropriate to the child’s temperament. Additionally, giving parents more autonomy may lead to better outcomes for children, as some advocates claim. Parents who feel criticized or judged may also be more likely to react harshly to their child’s misbehavior due to embarrassment.

It’s also worth examining whether the moral culpability of parents rides partially on their motivation. The decision to send one’s child into a Scared Straight program might be the best decision a parent believes they can make, or they might see it as a last resort to teach their children to stay out of trouble. Parents who turn to these programs may feel they do not have the time, money, or energy to invest in helping their children make better decisions, so they rely on fear as a remedy. While generally ineffective and arguably abusive, parents who believe the promises of Scared Straight programs may ultimately be making a decision which they believe is ultimately positive for the child. For example, a single-parent trying to make ends meet, whose child has been expelled might believe that the program is the most manageable option for helping their child choose a different path. While parents who send their children to such programs for minor problems or who have historically abused their child, might be less excusable in their decision. Whether or not one believes that even well-intentioned parents should know better is likely the determining factor in whether or not one believes parents are fully culpable for the immoral and inhumane treatment of children in these programs.

Turning to Scared Straight programs themselves, is using fear as a method to elicit “positive” behavioral changes okay? If the programs were indeed highly effective, one might argue that the cost of such deterrence is worth the benefits. Incarceration has severely negative impacts on an individual, and some might believe that one traumatic weekend at a scared straight program is well-worth it. On the other hand, perhaps it is never okay to use such methods, as they are irreconcilably wrong in themselves. The use of fear to elicit or deter certain behaviors is highly debated within the psychological and sociological fields. “Fear appeal,” as it is often referred to, is “a persuasive message that attempts to arouse fear in order to divert behavior through the threat of impending danger or harm. Though the concept of fear appeal is commonly used in public health and marketing-based settings, this strategy is also clearly present in Scared Straight programs which use extreme, and arguably exaggerated circumstances of prison, to encourage kids to do everything they can to avoid criminal prosecution. This overload of fear might be the reason for its ineffectiveness as studies have found that extreme fear can effectively shut down the subject and may even lead to risk denial for those especially susceptible to the threat. If one believes that effective use of fear which leads to positive outcomes is justified, then the moral problem with Scared Straight programs is their ineffectiveness. On the other hand, if one believes that no matter the outcomes, the violent and threatening methods employed by these programs are wrong in itself, the most ethical answer is to simply abolish the programs altogether.

Parents are not only the main legal guardians of their children, but also the protector of their rights. Sometimes, parents make decisions which they believe will benefit the child, but lead to more harm than good. It is clear that Scared Straight programs which mentally and physically torment children have severely negative impacts on children and are highly ineffective. Until they are fundamentally reformed or ultimately abolished, they will likely continue to motivate shocking documentaries and critical exposes.

Should Minors Stay in Adult Prisons?

In many states, minors charged with certain crimes can be tried as adults. Although some of the minors who enter the system are convicted of serious crimes, many are charged with non-violent offenses. The argument for trying minors as adults is that it ensures public safety – however, research shows the opposite. In Jessica Lahey’s article in The Atlantic, the issues with trying and housing minors as adults are laid out. Is it really ethical, and even for the societal good, to try and imprison any minor as an adult?

Federal laws prohibit the housing of juveniles alongside adult prisoners, but many states do it anyway. This housing situation causes minors to be far more likely to be sexually abused and suffer violence from inmates and staff alike. The National Inmate Survey states that 1.8% of 16 and 17 year olds imprisoned with adults have suffered sexual abuse in prison, and 75% of those cases have been victimized by staff. This information alone is enough to question the morality of imprisoning a minor as an adult. In order to comply with federal laws that say minors must be housed in a separate section than regular adult inmates, many states transfer their juvenile prisoners out of the state. This causes the minor to potentially lose access to visits from friends and family, and also contact with his or her lawyer. Losing contact or access to a lawyer – a right guaranteed in the constitution – puts the minor at risk for being unable to report any abuses and in an even more disempowered position. They also lose the emotional support provided by friends and family, which makes the prison experience easier from a psychological standpoint. This lack of contact creates psychological stress and trauma that affects minors very dramatically. Minors imprisoned in adult prisons also are unable to participate the rehabilitative programs provided in the juvenile system, which offer vocational training, counseling, and education that makes re-entering society as an adult simpler. In fact, minors who are tried and imprisoned as adults are 34 times more likely to re-offend; this begs the question of whether trying minors as adults offers any benefit to public safety at all.

Denying certain minors the services their peers receive may be unethical, as it arguably sets up a certain group for failure or selects a certain group to be more likely to suffer stress and trauma. While certain minors commit very serious crimes that warrant consideration, non-violent offenders who are tried as adults should be allowed the same services as their peers, and offered a chance at rehabilitation. The juvenile justice system was created for a reason, and therefore should be utilized in the vast majority of circumstances.