Adnan Syed left the court after his conviction was overturned. Why can’t others do the same? – Baltimore Sun

Adnan Syed arrived in court on Monday from the Patuxent facility wearing a white shirt, black tie and dark trousers.

After Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn overturned Syed’s murder conviction in the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, she ordered correctional officers to release him immediately.

Next, Syed, 41, walked out of the courtroom, down the steps of the Elijah E. Cummings Courthouse toward Calvert Street, surrounded by family, friends and supporters. Smiling under blue skies, Syed got into an SUV that took him to his parents’ home in Baltimore County where he will remain under GPS surveillance until prosecutors decide how to proceed with his case.

The whole scene, even the clothes Syed was wearing, looked like it was made for TV.

It’s also completely atypical of how things normally go when someone is released from police custody in Baltimore, according to defense attorneys and legal experts interviewed by The Baltimore Sun.

“I’ve never seen anyone who’s been locked up and then acquitted, exonerated or had their conviction overturned walk straight out of the courthouse,” said Natalie Finegar, a defense attorney and longtime former public defender.

Typically, when a person is found not guilty on all charges at trial or their conviction is overturned after serving a jail term, their release proceeds as follows: Officers handcuff and shackle them in the prison room. hearing, take them to a courthouse and bring them back to the correctional facility where they were being held.

It is only after the correctional officers have finished “processing” the person that they are released, which usually takes several hours, but can last for days or weeks. Normally, people are checked for outstanding warrants and detentions imposed on them in other jurisdictions.

Mark Vernarelli, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Corrections, said the agency followed Phinn’s orders when handling Syed’s case, including the order to release him directly from the police. courtroom.

Syed’s case became known internationally in large part thanks to the “Serial” podcast, which examined Lee’s murder and the prosecution of Syed, a pioneer of the true crime genre. Other podcasts, books and documentary series have since shed light on his case.

Prosecutors decided to overturn Syed’s conviction after a roughly year-long investigation with his attorney, Erica Suter, revealed two alternate suspects in the homicide, at least one of whom was not disclosed to the defense before Syed’s trial, they wrote in court documents. The prosecutors’ motion focused on the other suspects and the evidence used against Syed in the trial, which has since been found to be unreliable.

The question, legal experts and defense lawyers said, is not why Syed, whose case is extraordinary in many ways, was treated with such dignity upon his release, but why others do not benefit from the same thing.

“It would be wonderful if every defendant who was exonerated could be treated like Mr. Syed,” defense attorney Donald Wright said. “Remove the handcuffs and let them walk away, because at this point there is no legal reason to keep them in custody.”

Syed was not exonerated. Phinn overturned his conviction, but his charges stemming from the decades-old homicide are still pending.

In March, Wright represented a man in a murder case and won an acquittal at trial. Unlike Syed, sheriff’s deputies escorted Wright’s handcuffed client to the cell, despite a jury finding him innocent moments earlier.

Wright also said he was among several defense attorneys involved in post-conviction proceedings for people whose cases involved members of the Baltimore police’s corrupt gun-tracing task force. The state’s attorney’s office in 2019 sought to overturn more than 800 convictions tainted by the officers, who have since been convicted and sent to federal prison.

“In none of these cases,” Wright recalls, “was the defendant allowed to descend the steps of the courthouse.”

Judges have wide discretion to determine how things go in their courtrooms, but it is rare that a person can be released on the spot due to post-judicial treatment that needs to be completed.

“Even when the judge says not guilty, per protocol, correctional officers will chain a person back into custody,” Maryland public defender Natasha Dartigue told The Sun.

The Maryland Judiciary did not respond to questions, while a spokesperson for the city’s state attorney’s office declined to comment.

Warrant and detainee checks, depending on when a verdict or the judge’s decision is made, may not begin immediately and a person is only released once they are completed. Ultimately, there is no fixed time or method for when a person is finally released.

“I’ve had clients come home from jail in the dark,” Finegar said.

People accused of crimes who are being held pending trial have the right to wear court-appropriate clothing, such as a shirt and pants, in front of the jury. The guards escort the defendants to their places during the trial and remove their wrists before the jury enters the room.

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Court attire is permitted for jury trials because a person appearing before a jury wearing a jail suit could be interpreted as an indicator of guilt or perceived as a security threat, Finegar said.

If a person is acquitted, Dartigue said, they must hand over the jail suit pending processing.

And if a person doesn’t show up in front of a jury, they’re unlikely to even be allowed to wear anything other than the jumpsuit.

“The way the system operates on a day-to-day basis completely ignores and undermines the humanity of the people who walk through it,” said David Jaros, faculty director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the University of Baltimore Law School.

It should be noted, Jaros said, that Syed’s treatment was made possible in part because the prosecution and defense agreed before the hearing on what should happen and submitted written motions to the judge outlining their positions. It didn’t hurt that he was the subject of podcasts and documentaries, with a film crew following his family, lawyers and the prosecution before and after the hearing.

But notoriety shouldn’t get special treatment, defense attorneys said, and Syed’s mostly dignified release has lawyers wondering why post-trial processing can’t take place during or even before the scheduled procedures.

“Courts and pretrial [services] would say they don’t have the capacity or the manpower to do it instantly because of the number of people that are processed during the day,” Dartigue said. “But that would absolutely be the most humane and dignified way of doing things.”

About Jessica J. Bass

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