Friday, March 11, 2022
On Tuesday, Adnan Syed and the State of Maryland filed a Joint Petition for Post Conviction DNA Testing. So, what does this mean?
Prior DNA Testing
On March 29, 2018, the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland (Maryland's intermediate appellate court) issued an opinion affirming Judge Martin Welch's opinion granting Adnan Syed a new trial. At the time, the State was being represented by the Maryland Office of the Attorney General. While the state Attorney General was appealing this opinion to the Court of Appeals of Maryland, it struck a deal with the defense to do DNA testing of crime scene evidence.
That DNA testing was done starting on August 14, 2018, ultimately leading to a report issued on October 13, 2018. None of the DNA testing led to a DNA profile that tied Adnan Syed to the crime scene. Conversely, swabs from Item 12, a "shorter wire" found by Hae Min Lee's body, yielded "a single source, female DNA profile. The profile is that of an unknown female (Unknown Female #1)." Given that they were able to conclude that Hae Min Lee was the source for other DNA profiles on other evidence retrieved from the crime scene, it seems safe to conclude that this other female was not Hae Min Lee.
Based on the results of this DNA testing, the State offered Adnan a plea deal (that would have led to his release in 2022), which he rejected. Subsequently, on March 8, 2019, in a 4-3 ruling, the Court of Appeals of Maryland reversed a reinstated Adnan's convictions.
Juvenile Restoration Act
Last year, Maryland passed the Juvenile Restoration Act, which took effect on October 1, 2021. The Act, inter alia, allows "courts to consider resentencing juvenile lifers after they’ve spent a minimum of 20-years in prison and have demonstrated that they’re no longer a danger to the public." Adnan is a juvenile lifer who has spent 20+ years in prison and thus would be eligible for possible relief/release under the Act.
In addition to the Juvenile Restoration Act, the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office has a Sentencing Review Unit, which can recommend release for, inter alia, "individuals who have spent at least 20 years in prison on a sentence for a crime committed as a juvenile (age 17 and under)." Again, Adnan has spent at least 20 years in prison for crimes he allegedly committed at age 17.
The Joint Petition
As noted in a Baltimore Sun article, in Spring 2021, Adnan's attorney -- Erica Suter, the Director of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law -- reached out to the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office, which is now handling the case, about additional DNA testing.
The idea for retesting DNA came up as Suter worked with the city prosecutor’s Sentencing Review Unit following Maryland’s passing the Juvenile Restoration Act, which enables those convicted of crimes before they turn 18 to petition the court for a sentence modification, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said in a statement.
This ultimately led to the Joint Petition filed on Tuesday.
First, one of the notable things about the petition is that it's a joint petition, signed by both Suter and Becky Feldman, the Chief of the Sentencing Review Unit. Section III of the Joint Petition notes why this is important:
In other words, things can be expedited, with no need for the judge to hold a hearing before deciding to approve additional DNA testing. This means (hopefully) that the testing can be accomplished fairly quickly.
Second, the petition makes clear that the absence of DNA connecting Adnan to the crime scene is significant, even if the DNA testing does not implicate anyone else. In Section I.B. of the Joint Petition, which contains Adnan's request for DNA testing, it states the following:
But while this is part of Adnan's request, as noted. this is a Joint Petition that was also signed by the State, which indicates that the State believes the absence of DNA tying Adnan to the crime scene would be exculpatory and (at least somewhat) support a finding of innocence. This is corroborated by Section II of the Joint Petition, which contains the State's Response. It states the following:
Type and Scope of the DNA Testing
So, is there reason to believe that Touch DNA testing of crime scene evidence such as Hae Min Lee's clothes decades after the crime could implicate someone else and exonerate Adnan? There have been exonerations in similar cases. For example, Frank Steling was convicted of the 1988 murder of Viola Manville. 18 years later, in 2006, Touch DNA testing was done, and "[r]esults on two key areas of the clothing where the perpetrator would have grabbed the victim while beating her and dragging her body conclusively excluded Sterling and implicated [Mark] Christie."
If DNA testing doesn't tie Adnan Syed to the crime scene, this will be further strong evidence of his innocence. If that testing ties someone else to the crime scene, we might finally have clarity on the question of who murdered Hae Min Lee.