On this week’s episode of Serial, Sarah Koenig turned her focus toward the trial of Adnan Syed and his attorney, Christina Gutierrez. The episode itself gave us yet another perspective on the trial, but it didn’t offer any new evidence, other than the knowledge that Adnan sought a plea deal, a request Gutierrez ignored.
The episode, however, brought to the fore another issue. There’s a lot of debate among friends, on Facebook, and across the Internet about whether it was Adnan Syed or Jay who murdered Hae Min Lee, but there’s very little debate about one thing: Whether there was enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Adnan Syed committed the murder.
On this point, most people agree there was not, but where they cast their blame varies. Was it the fault of the police for not thoroughly investigating other suspects? Was it the prosecution’s fault for presenting an inconsistent case, or was it Christina Gutierrez’s fault for being an incompetent attorney?
Several weeks ago, I laid out the standard for an appeal on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel, and based on what we know, Gutierrez comes nowhere near fitting into that category, legally speaking. We may have a problem with her trial strategy, but that does not form the basis for a successful ineffective assistance of counsel claim (although, I’m not as certain with regard to the failure-to-seek-a- plea deal grounds).
No, the problem here is not with the cops (who isolated a suspect and built a case against him), the prosecution (who used that evidence to the best of its ability), or the defense attorney (who was, at the very least, competent). The problem here is with the jury, and that’s what makes this so troubling because we are so helpless to change it. You can appeal on various legal grounds, and occasionally, you can present new evidence. But you can’t appeal a jury’s finding of guilt. Based on what we know about the case, the jury came to the wrong conclusion: There was reasonable doubt. The jury ignored it and came back two hours later and convicted Adnan Syed, which lead to a sentence of life in prison.
That very issue is also at the root the decisions not to indict Daniel Pantaleo and Darren Wilson for the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, respectively. Yes, there’s obviously some institutional racism within the police force, and yes, some of the media coverage of both of those cases has revealed even more insidious racism. But it wasn’t the police force that failed to indict those men, and it wasn’t the media that failed to bring them up on charges.
Once again, it was the jury.
The burden of proof for a grand jury is “probable cause,” which is to say, a grand jury didn’t have to find Daniel Pantaleo and Darren Wilson guilty of murder, or of negligent homicide. They only had to find there was a fair probability that they might be found guilty. That’s a fairly low standard — the same standard it takes to issue an arrest warrant — and in the case of Eric Garner’s death, we’ve seen the video. There was probable cause. There was probable cause beyond a reasonable doubt!
The jury ignored it, just as Adnan Syed’s jury ignored the reasonable doubt.
We could blame the jury system itself, but while it’s imperfect, in the right hands, it works. That’s what’s so troubling here about all three cases: A “jury of our peers” failed to come to the right decision. Why? Because, in the cases of Garner and Brown, the juries probably held some racial biases, and in the case of Adnan Syed, at least two jurors that we heard confessed that Syed’s cultural background played a factor in their perception of him.
That presents a huge predicament for our country. These juries are designed to be representational. They reflect our society, which means our society is either dumb, can’t follow simple instructions, or they are racist, or some combination of the three. Obama can put vest video recorders on every police jacket in America, and police forces can show training videos every other week, but if juries continue to ignore the evidence and rule according to their own biases or stupidity, we are in some real goddamn trouble. Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo may have committed those crimes, but those grand juries — in effect — conspired to get them off, just as Adnan Syed’s jury conspired to convict him.
There are people to blame for the crimes, but there is no one to blame for the jury decision’s except “society.”