How just is justice?

Has anybody else been listening to the podcast Serial? It’s the recounting of a journalist looking into the closed case of a homicide from 1999. A man named Adnan Syed was found guilty of the murder in 2 hours after a 6 week trial almost 15 years ago. Since then, his best friend’s sister has been working tirelessly to study the case and prove his innocence. She introduced the journalist Sarah Koenig, author of the program, to the case and asked her to help research. Serial is the result.

While listening I keep finding myself coming back to the presumption of innocence that seems to be lacking. Half of the show time is spent with Sarah flipping back and forth or complaining about flipping back and forth on her opinion of Adnan and his guilt. I know that it’s just a show but I think that her attitude is representative of the general population’s. And I find that problematic.

Our legal system is based on a presumption of innocence. Or at least it does in theory. But when you look around you, at tabloids, the news, social media-any place where people are capable of giving an opinion- you’ll see that opinions are formed regardless of evidence or the necessity for every person to have an opinion on every topic.

Presumption of innocence means that when someone is on trial for a crime, it is the jury’s responsibility to view them as innocent and to hear all of the facts of a case and THEN to deliberate and decide if they felt that the prosecution (the State) provided evidence that proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime. That’s a hefty definition but put simply it basically means wait until you hear the whole story from all sides to decide whose version is accurate.

My legal background is minimal. I was in a law magnet programs for four years and on a Mock Trial team in high school for two years. I had teachers who were former Public Defenders and teachers who were cops but my coaches were all defense attorneys and they had a strong influence on my justice beliefs.

One of these beliefs was highlighted in particular during last week’s episode. A former detective turned consultant reviews the case and shares his opinions. When asked if he thought the detectives in the case had handled it well he responded that they had found a suspect and had built their best case around him.

This is a problem. A detective’s job is not to find someone to blame for a crime. It’s to put THE someone who has committed the crime in a place where they can’t hurt people. They can’t do that adequately if they are exclusively building a case around one suspect and ignoring evidence that doesn’t support that decision. That’s not what justice should be.

To me, it is a problem that we are eager to condemn people. In the show a representative from the Innocence Project talks about how people have immediate judgements about someone on trial simply because “if they hadn’t done something wrong they wouldn’t be here in the first place.” This belief undermines the very basis of our legal system, that an individual is considered innocent until proven guilty.

The way that Sarah flips back and forth on the show highlights this. She’s so eager to label Adnan “guilty” or “innocent” when the fact that she’s so focused on him means that there are potential other suspects who are being ignored entirely. And this is someone who is coming to the table 15 years after the investigation. Imagine how the detectives and the jury felt when they were given the responsibility of finding and punishing the murdered of an 18 year old girl.

It’s hard to see the world as bigger than yourself. I’m failing now as I become frustrated that people don’t see the legal system the way I do. But I do think that as cops, detectives, journalists, and even individuals we have a responsibility to incorporate objectivity into the legal system. It’s not easy but it is important.

We run into the danger of a corrupt system that’s more of a trap than a form of just punishment and legality when the only evidence it takes to condemn someone to a lifetime of incarceration is an exploitation of racist stereotypes, selected pieces of a deal-receiving, known-to-lie witness’s testimony, and some cell tower records that only correspond with ¼ of the story.

This issue is bigger than this case and I don’t see it being solved by my writing about it. I don’t know that there even is a solution. But my hope is that these thoughts inspire reflection and enough cynicism for you to question your own perceptions of guilt and what it takes to prove it. Your opinion matters.


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