Tuesday, October 11, 2022
Juvenile Sentencing in the U.S. and the Case of Adnan Syed
Adnan Syed was seventeen years old when he was charged with an adult crime, tried in adult court, and given an adult sentence (life imprisonment plus 30 years). When he walked out of court on September 19, 2022, he was forty one. Adnan had served twenty three years in prison for a crime he committed when he was a kid.
There has been so much written and recorded about Adnan’s case since the “Serial” podcast debuted in 2014. There’s no need to summarize it all here. In fact, I am going to ignore a lot of what is being currently discussed–DNA evidence, Brady violations, the prosecutor under investigation, appeals of the decision to release Adnan and put him on home detention. I am also not going to discuss Adnan’s innocence or guilt. Instead, what I am going to focus on is the life plus 30 years sentence that was imposed upon him and, more broadly, the human rights violations that are juvenile sentencing in the United States.
I have to admit that I come at this case from unpopular or even seemingly contradictory stances. When I first listened to the Serial podcast in 2014, I was convinced that Adnan was not innocent. Second, regardless of or despite what he did, I don’t believe that he should have been in prison for as long as he was and I’m glad he’s out of prison.
My Human Rights at Home Litigation Clinic students and I have been representing individuals for the purposes of juvenile life without parole hearings here in Missouri for the last two years. We have represented eight individuals, so far, who were sentenced to life without parole for crimes they allegedly committed when they were kids–Ages fifteen to seventeen years old. Seven of our eight clients have had parole hearings. Of those seven, all received out dates, and five individuals have already been released on parole after more than thirty years inside. These cases have been lifechanging for my clients, for my students, and for me.
One of the minor ways this work has changed my life, is that I now can’t stand true crime podcasts, or true crime tv shows, or any of it. I have no desire to figure out who dunnit or to listen to the hosts call for a witch hunt for a supposed murderer. With my post-conviction work, none of that matters to me. My clients are all human beings who have been in prison since they were kids. They have faced some of the worst things that any human has to face–lack of adequate healthcare, constant fear, fights, endless solitary confinement, hopelessness, lack of adequate food and water, tortuous security tactics, being cut off from friends and family and even religious services during the pandemic, and no real opportunities for rehabilitation. I will fight for my detained clients’ release forever.
Here in Missouri, our legislature enacted bill SB 590, reforming sentencing for juveniles convicted of murder in the first degree. Now instead of being sentenced to life without parole or the death penalty, judges may also sentence juveniles to life with parole or to between 30 and 40 years in prison. To be clear, this change did not ban juvenile life without parole in Missouri, instead just made the sentence non-mandatory. In 2021, the legislature enacted SB 26, allowing offenders sentenced to fifteen or more years as a minor for nonviolent crimes to apply for parole after fifteen years of imprisonment. Next Missouri needs an overhaul of the parole hearing process, but I’ll leave that discussion for another date.
Unlike Missouri, Maryland, where Adnan Syed was convicted, has prohibited sentencing a minor to a life imprisonment without the possibility or parole or release. In addition, Maryland law now states that individuals, like Adnan, who were sentenced to juvenile life without parole may petition a judge after serving at least twenty years, to reduce their sentence. Maryland has gone further than Missouri in both of these respects. Missouri is not resentencing and has not banned juvenile life without parole.
Moreover, the United States is the only country in the world that allows for the sentencing children to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In fact, human rights law requires that children under the age of eighteen years old be detained for the shortest period of time possible, and their sentences must be proportionate to the circumstances and gravity of their offenses, as well as their own individual circumstances and needs. In some countries juveniles are not sentenced to prison at all.
Sarah Koenig in Serial Episode of 11: Rumors asked “can you tell, really? Can you tell if someone has a crime like this in him? I think most of us think if we know someone well, we can tell.?” Essentially she is asking: How can you know a person’s character? How can you tell what a person is capable of? What if you change those words to ‘How can you know a child’s character?’ I believe a child’s character, even the character of a child who is 17 years old, is not fixed. Instead, I assume a child’s character is going to change, mold and grow, over time, depending on life circumstances and more. To me, knowing a child’s character seems an impossible task. I think that’s what the U.S. Supreme Court was getting at in dramatically curtailing juvenile sentencing over the last couple of decades. Children sometimes do really bad things, but they can still grow up to be beautiful, wonderful human beings, all of the time, if given the opportunity and support. The law and legal system needs reflect that, at the international, federal, state and local level.