“She’s adorable-looking, but you definitely shouldn’t mess with her,” Sarah Koenig remarked in the first episode of the wildly popular “Serial” podcast. “She’s very smart and very tough, and she could crush you.” Koenig was describing Rabia Chaudry, best known for her tireless campaign on behalf of Adnan Syed, whose dramatic murder conviction and tortuous appeals process were chronicled in the podcast’s first season. Chaudry, a lawyer and a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace, expands on the story in this fascinating new book and details her 17-year struggle to win a new trial for Syed.
Syed was a 17-year-old high school student when he was arrested in late February 1999 in the murder of his former girlfriend Hae Min Lee, whose body had been found in a shallow grave in Baltimore’s Leakin Park three weeks earlier. After a trial in which, Chaudry contends, the state “committed prosecutorial misconduct” and “suppressed favorable material evidence,” Syed was convicted and sentenced to life plus 30 years.
Adnan is like a brother to me, and for seventeen years now my family and I have stood by him as he maintained his innocence.
“Adnan is like a brother to me, and for seventeen years now my family and I have stood by him as he maintained his innocence,” Chaudry writes. “This book will tell the stories ‘Serial’ didn’t and address issues of justice, bigotry, faith, community, devastation, healing, and hope from the point of view of Adnan and those who support him. I am here to tell Adnan’s story as, after so many years of living it and studying it, I see it.”
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Chaudry’s clear, vivid and highly readable account of the case will bring the story to life for readers unfamiliar with the podcast, and devoted “Serial” fans will find fresh insight and a vast amount of new material, including more than 100 documents, transcripts and letters. Chaudry’s legal training serves her well as she marshals her defense, but so too does the Pakistani heritage and Muslim faith she shares with Syed. She is convinced that Baltimore police “went after Adnan because he was Muslim and Pakistani” and that, early on, the investigators allowed faulty evidence to “narrow their suspect list down to one.” She explores the ways that misperceptions about matters such as “honor killings” may have shaped the outcome and illuminates the manner in which first-generation American Muslims, torn between respect for their families’ culture and the demands of assimilation, undertake a “complicated dance of fear, respect, and love.”
Over the years, Chaudry has gone to extraordinary lengths on Syed’s behalf, even drawing money from her student loans to help cover costs and, on one occasion, handing out fliers for days at a time to raise a princely $178. Her efforts seem all the more remarkable when weighed against her personal struggles, which include the dramatic unraveling of her first marriage and an ugly fight for custody of her young daughter. She writes of these battles with a notable lack of self-pity and recognizes that they have “truly turned my backbone into steel.”
Chaudry does her best work guiding the reader through an otherwise impenetrable mass of legal proceedings. She skillfully navigates the bewildering inconsistencies in the testimony of Jay Wilds, the key witness at Syed’s trial, whose plea deal and the circumstances surrounding it, she asserts, “violated Adnan’s due process.” Chaudry is also passionate about the “catastrophic decision” to hire Cristina Gutierrez as Syed’s defense attorney. Though Gutierrez had once been a “legal legend” in Baltimore, she was seriously ill at the time of Syed’s trial and would be disbarred a few months after her client’s conviction. When Chaudry discovers that Gutierrez had largely failed to chase down a potential alibi witness, her frustration boils over: “I have felt a lot of anger over this case, but certain moments of absolute rage stand out,” she says. “This was one of them.”
Not surprisingly, Chaudry devotes considerable space to the manner in which Syed’s cellphone records, “the only real evidence in the case,” were used to support the prosecution’s timeline of the murder. In particular, Chaudry underscores Gutierrez’s failure to mount an effective cross-examination of the telephone engineer whose testimony appeared to offer scientific corroboration of Syed’s guilt. Chaudry’s careful attention to this matter seems to anticipate the dramatic development in the case that came this summer. On June 30, Baltimore Circuit Judge Martin Welch vacated Syed’s murder conviction and granted a new trial on the grounds that Gutierrez had rendered “ineffective assistance” with regard to the cellphone evidence. Although “Adnan’s Story” was written before that news broke, Chaudry has added a gleeful note to the book expressing her hope that “very soon Adnan will be home with us.”
Unlike Koenig in the “Serial” podcast, Chaudry makes no pretense of allowing for the possibility of Syed’s guilt. She is unapologetic in projecting her “abiding belief that he is innocent” onto every aspect of her reporting and even presumes to know what he is thinking as he sits through Wilds’ damning testimony: “None of it was true, but he had to sit there and listen to the lies, conscious of the eyes and attention of the courtroom of people behind him.” Some readers will balk at this, but few will dispute that the case against Syed was deeply flawed and that a new trial is warranted. “The case for Adnan’s exoneration,” Chaudry insists, “can be read in this book.”
Daniel Stashower reviewed this book for The Washington Post.