CAN THIS WOMAN SAVE
By ISABELLA BIEDENHARN
Photography by BRYAN SCHUTMAAT
her drive to exonerate the serial subject reopened a seemingly shut case. now, with a new book, a hit podcast, and a legion of armchair acolytes, RABIA CHAUDRY just might change the course of justice.
Her drive to exonerate the serial subject reopened a seemingly shut case. now, with a new book, a hit podcast, and a legion of armchair acolytes, Rabia Chaudry just might change the course of justice.
Rabia chaudry picks her way through baltimore’s densely wooded leakin park, stepping over fallen branches and ducking under tree limbs as she heads toward the spot where 18-year-old Hae Min Lee’s body was found in February 1999. Bits of debris—soda bottles, food wrappers, an empty pill canister—litter the area, but otherwise it’s tranquil. The trees muffle the sounds of the nearby road, and the area is awash with birdsong.
But as Chaudry surveys the area, something feels off. “That was one of the easiest treks I’ve made here,” she says, furrowing her brow as she approaches the giant, mossy overturned tree marking the leaf-covered hollow where Lee’s corpse was stashed. “It looks like there’s a path now.” She’s disturbed, but not necessarily surprised: “As Serial was happening, people came here all the time…driving up and looking for the log, taking pictures. They were obsessed with [the case] in a way that was kind of crazy.”
She’s not exaggerating. When NPR’s This American Life launched the podcast Serial in October 2014, few could have predicted it would grow into a global phenomenon, with 142 million downloads and too many spin-off podcasts, Reddit threads, and blog posts to count. Its first 12 episodes focused on the case of Adnan Syed, who was convicted in 2000, at 17, of murdering his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee—a conviction based largely on cell-phone data and the shifting testimony of Syed’s acquaintance Jay Wilds, who claimed Syed strangled Lee and that he helped bury her.
But as Serial’s host and executive producer Sarah Koenig illustrated over the course of the season, the case wasn’t nearly as straightforward as it seemed. The state spun a Romeo and Juliet tale about Syed, a Pakistani-American Muslim, and Lee, a Korean-American, whose forbidden love ended in murder. The defense floundered. Syed’s lawyer, M. Cristina Gutierrez, failed to contact crucial alibi witnesses like Serial’s breakout star Asia McClain, who claims she saw Syed in the library at the time the state alleges Lee was killed. Nor did Gutierrez ever lay out the inconsistencies in Wilds’ story or put Syed on the stand to discuss his relationship with Lee, which had ended on good terms. Chaudry—who’d known Syed and his family for years—had trusted Gutierrez, a well-known Baltimore defense attorney, to exonerate the sweet 17-year-old kid she’d watched grow up. But that trust quickly dissolved. In the end, Syed was sentenced to life in prison, plus 30 years, for the kidnapping and murder of Lee. “I was like, ‘What the hell just happened here?’ ” Chaudry remembers. “That’s when I got involved on a deeper level.”
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She details her 16-year fight to prove his innocence in her new book, Adnan’s Story, out Aug. 9. In crisp, powerful prose, Chaudry, 42—a former civil rights and immigration attorney who now works in policy—walks readers through the case and initial trial, Serial and its impact, and her own podcast, Undisclosed, which details the mind-boggling new evidence that came to light after Syed’s conviction. Serial may have brought the case and its flaws to the world’s attention, but it was Undisclosed that eventually helped Syed come out of a February 2016 post-conviction relief hearing with an order for a new trial.
Soon after Syed’s arrest, Chaudry began visiting and exchanging
letters with him. “I helped him through the appellate process the best I could,” she says of the years between 2000 and 2013. “I wasn’t a criminal defense attorney. I’m not an investigator. There wasn’t a lot I could do.” Syed lost appeal after appeal, and finally Chaudry, fed up, made an executive decision. “The courts had failed us, and the systems failed us. We had to go to the media,” she says. “I had initially thought I would try to find somebody from the Baltimore area who knows the judges and the prosecutors, maybe had some sources,” Chaudry explains. “I just wanted somebody who could find evidence in a way that we couldn’t.” Sarah Koenig was the first name she came across, a former Baltimore Sun reporter who had written about Gutierrez when she was disbarred years before.
The courts had failed us, and the systems failed us. We had to go to the media.
They met, Koenig was interested, and soon the radio producer was carting musty boxes of case files out of the Syed family home and calling and visiting Syed in prison. As the investigation grew, one episode originally intended for This American Life turned into a 12-episode spin-off podcast. Each segment of Serial focused on a different aspect of the case, including Wilds’ story, the cell-phone-tower pings that allegedly placed Syed’s phone in Leakin Park the evening of Lee’s murder, and what happened in the Best Buy parking lot where Wilds claimed Lee was strangled. As the series unspooled, listeners debated: Was Jay making it up? Was Adnan hiding guilt behind his palpable charisma?
Chaudry acknowledges Koenig was instrumental in shining a global spotlight on the case, but she says, “Serial was hard. I wished I could enjoy it like the world enjoyed it, but it made me physically sick. Their editorial discretion, to me, meant they weren’t telling the full story.” For example, Koenig focused on incidents where Syed had stolen small amounts of money from the mosque donation box as a preteen but didn’t touch at all on Wilds’ actual criminal record. Chaudry also sees problems in Koenig’s treatment of the police, who she believes coached Wilds’ statement. “She was very deferential. She was like, ‘They were essentially good guys doing their jobs.’ These are not good guys.”
More explosive discoveries followed, which Chaudry, Simpson, and Miller ultimately decided to chronicle on their own podcast. Undisclosed: The State v. Adnan Syed launched in April 2015, giving Serial devotees another place to delve into the case’s mysteries—albeit, as Chaudry allows in the first episode, not necessarily an unbiased place.
Serial was hard. I wished I could enjoy it like the world enjoyed it, but it made me physically sick.
Once the podcast was under way, the three lawyers, along with other experts, continued to amass new evidence. When Chaudry converted tapes of Wilds’ police interviews to digital audio, for instance, Simpson discovered that a tapping sound occurred on the tape each time Wilds made a mistake in his story, and immediately after the taps, he would correct himself—lending credence to the theory that the police influenced his testimony. In addition, Lee’s autopsy report proved to be inconsistent with the state’s timeline. The cell-tower discoveries, coupled with an affidavit from McClain, helped win Syed a new post-conviction relief hearing in February. Chaudry’s depiction of the PCR hearing in Adnan’s Story is utterly riveting—high stakes, a breakneck pace, brilliant expert witnesses—and ultimately Judge Martin Welch ruled in June 2016 that Syed deserved a new trial.
Chaudry, Syed and his family, and the legal team are thrilled, of course, but the situation is bittersweet. “That’s still 17 years of his life, gone,” Chaudry says, revealing that she broke down in tears while recording the final lines of the Adnan’s Story audiobook days after the ruling was announced. “And it’s not just him—his entire family’s life would have been different. He would have had kids by now. There’s a sense of real pain that it took this much effort, time, energy, money, and global attention to do what the courts should have done a long time ago.” She knows it won’t be easy for him if he gets out, either. “I can’t help but wonder…he was 17 when he went in, right? The last time he could walk from one place to another without getting permission was when he was 17,” she says. “I wish he could go somewhere where nobody knew him for a little while, so he could adjust. It’s going to be hard either way. But it’s okay. We’ll deal with it.”
For now, she’s letting herself breathe a sigh of relief. Just weeks ago, prestigious global firm Hogan Lovells announced their pro bono involvement in Syed’s case. “Now I feel like, Adnan, you’ve been delivered into good hands,” she says. “I’ve done my job. I just want to take a nap.”
UPDATE This here is a link to an update on the case, where it could go and what the next best possible steps are that could happen, click here for video.