Presumption of Innocence

by Jeannine Sherman
October 7, 2022

Clarification


I have a general policy of avoiding disclaimers in my writing. So maybe we’ll call this a clarification. I’m not your best source of information on the Adnan Syed case. MLFA has not worked on the Adnan Syed case; our work is on national security issues in federal courts, not on first-degree murder trials.


The reason I feel compelled to write about this case is that it brings to light a lot of issues that we are fighting for at MLFA. It also reveals to me certain aspects of the Muslim community that I’d like to address.


If you haven’t listened to the Serial podcast (Season 1) about Adnan Syed, I do recommend that you check it out. I reference the podcast, but I don’t think I spoil it.


Innocence and Suspicion


“My God, no one believes in me. I could never explain how that felt.” -Adnan Syed


In the Serial podcast, Sarah Koenig is contacted by Rabia Chaudry, who always believed in Adnan’s innocence. Sarah starts investigating, with the objective of remaining neutral. I admired the way she struggled to remain objective. I think if she had set out to prove Adnan’s innocence, it would have been a less believable story. I don’t necessarily want to hear from another defense lawyer – I appreciated hearing from a journalist who was trying to be objective.


This objectivity is one uncomfortable point that she makes – there’s a difference between building a case and finding the truth. The prosecution in Adnan’s case felt compelled to ignore evidence. Recently, we’ve learned that they also withheld evidence that would likely have acquitted Adnan. But we all have confirmation bias – I felt challenged by Sarah’s reflections, noticing how quickly I pick sides when I’m searching for the truth.


Koenig talks about how when they started, she had this faith that they would be able to uncover the truth. Her podcast leaves everything kind of messy. I think I expected a case where it was just pure outrage, that people would work for their conviction rate or be racist/Islamophobic and just put away an innocent man. But there are so many complicated layers.


Koenig expresses frustration that Adnan can’t remember precise details from the day of the murder. Deirdre Enright from The Innocence Project explains, “When you have an innocent client, they are the least helpful person in the world.” Basically, if you committed a murder, you’re motivated to cover it up, to find a story. Living your life generally doesn’t involve keeping track of alibis and time stamps – that’s not the behavior of an innocent person.


I cried through the parts when Adnan talks about how being under suspicion has changed his life. This is so close and important to the work we do at MLFA. We work to restore the presumption of innocence, but the journalist emphasizes how hard it can be to stay in this mindset.


So many of us as Muslims feel like we’re under suspicion just for existing.


Koenig didn’t make this about religious or cultural politics, although she didn’t completely ignore the topic either. In Adnan’s bail hearing, the prosecution states that there’s a pattern of behavior in which young men from Pakistan (“Pakistan men”, as she calls them) murder girls and then run away to Pakistan. Later, the prosecution recants and has this removed from the record; however, it still shows how Adnan may have been perceived within the justice system.


Trevor Noah points out: “What does it say about America that it takes a podcast to help free a man from prison? I think it says that either America needs to reform its justice system or podcasts need to become part of the justice system..” Clearly his suggestion leads into a joke, but his point is really interesting. Didn’t Adnan’s case deserve this level of attention? Shouldn’t we take it very seriously when we may be putting an innocent teenager behind bars for the foreseeable future?


Trevor continues, saying, “I find it weird that America confuses ‘fixing a mistake’ with a happy ending”. I’m grateful that Adnan is free, alhamdulilah. But none of it really feels resolved. I don’t really see the happy ending yet. I hope that the DNA evidence that they’re still processing 23 years after the murder will clarify something insha Allah.


Double Lives


I’m a parent, so maybe this point bothered me personally. When the prosecution was trying to paint a picture of Adnan, they highlighted his “double life”, implying that only a sociopath could live one life as a religious kid at the mosque and at home with his parents, the other life as a normal American kid with his friends from school.


Adnan may have hesitated in his conversations with the police because he didn’t want his parents to know he had a high school girlfriend. The police may have perceived this as guilty or nervous without understanding or respecting the cultural context.

“At the end of the day, if I had been just a good Muslim…” – Adnan Syed


I understand what Adnan is saying, but I don’t like where it’s going. His is not a cautionary tale. It sounds like he was a good, sweet kid who truly cared about people. In spite of everything, it sounds like he’s grown into a kind, good-natured man who still cares about people. Whatever haram choices he made as a teenager have no place in the discussion of whether he murdered someone.


Teenagers are figuring out how to be adults in the world and the time that they live in – that’s actually their job. There’s bound to be some disconnect between the parents’ expectations and the kids’ reality – most teenagers probably keep some secrets from their parents.

As American Muslims, I don’t want us to create too much separation for our kids. Muslim and American are not mutually exclusive. Actually, being a part of the society in which we live is the right thing to do, although obviously not at the expense of respecting our own faith.


Shaykh Jamaal Diwan, a scholar in California, emphasizes the universality of Islam: “We have a responsibility to the place that we live in… The people you live with are your brothers. The people you live with are your people. You have a responsibility to those people… We have to be able to relate to them and reach out to them.” Our efforts at MLFA reflect this integration, working with American tools and American systems to create a more just society for all.


I worry that sometimes we judge others too harshly. Halal is halal, and haram is haram. I’m not a religious scholar, and I’m not trying to sweep anything under the rug. But I worry that our youth perceive being Muslim as being (or acting) perfect and sinless. This is not what it means to be human. We were created to make mistakes and to find our way back to Allah.


“If you were not to commit sins, Allah would sweep you out of existence and would replace you by other people who would commit sins, and then would ask forgiveness from Allah.” (Muslim, Tawbah, 9, 10, 11)


I don’t want us to set up our teens for failure or create impossible standards for them. We should be able to be with them and guide them through their mistakes, not to reject or deny them. We should protect the reputations and the core goodness/fitrah of our young people. Our sins do not define us, and they should not keep us away from the masjid or the community. Au contraire – they should bring us closer.

I want a conclusion, but I don’t have one. This story keeps opening for me, into more and more questions.


I see questions and connections – connections to the experience of growing up in an immigrant family in the United States, to the question of how to integrate into American society without sacrificing Islamic values, to how our Muslim communities are able to effectively serve our youth, to the need for reform of the criminal justice system, to the discrimination and targeting of Muslims…


Alhamdulilah, an opening is a precious thing, even if you were waiting for a conclusion. May Allah open our hearts and guide us to where we need to go.


Sources


Serial: Season One (serialpodcast.org)

Sarah Koenig, the Host of ‘Serial,’ Talks About Adnan Syed’s Release – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

Prosecutors narrowing in on different suspect in killing of Hae Min Lee, sources say – CBS Baltimore (cbsnews.com)

Who is Adnan Syed and is he still in prison? | The US Sun (the-sun.com)

Hae Min Lee’s family asks Maryland appeals court to halt Adnan Syed’s case pending appeal – Baltimore Sun

HBO finale reveals Adnan Syed had been offered a recent plea deal in murder case featured in ‘Serial’ podcast – Baltimore Sun

YANSS 210 – How a psychologist convinced 70 percent of subjects they were guilty of a crime they didn’t commit, and other stories about the fallibility of memory – You Are Not So Smart

Serial’s Adnan Syed Freed from Prison & TikTok’s NyQuil Chicken Craze | The Daily Show – YouTube

MLFA 20th Anniversary Virtual Symposium

Innocence Project – Help us put an end to wrongful convictions!