The story of Adnan Syed has become one of the most famous criminal matters of recent American history. It’s been the subject of Serial, the most popular podcast of all time, an HBO mini-series, and a New York Times Bestseller. This meteoric rise into the popular consciousness can be largely credited to the tireless advocacy of Adnan’s friend Rabia Chaudry. Join ABA Law Student Podcast hosts Kristoffer Butler and Negeen Sadeghi-Movahed as they talk with Rabia about Adnan’s case, the role of discrimination in our criminal justice system, and what we all, law students and the general public, should learn from Adnan’s experience.
Rabia Chaudry is an attorney, the host of the podcast Undisclosed, the author of Adnan’s Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial, and the founder and president of the Safe Nation Collaborative.
ABA Law Student Podcast
Rabia Chaudry and the Case of Adnan Syed
Intro: Welcome to the official ABA Law Student Podcast, where we talk about issues that affect law students and recent grads. From finals and graduation to the Bar exam and finding a job, this show is your trusted resource for the next big step.
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Kristoffer Butler: Hello and welcome to another edition of the ABA Law Student Podcast. I am your host Kristoffer Butler, and I am joined today by my friend and ABA Chair, Negeen Sadeghi-Movahed. Welcome Negeen.
Negeen Sadeghi-Movahed: Thank you. Hey everyone. I hope you are doing well. Today we have a special guest on the show I am really excited about. Her name is Rabia Chaudry. She went to school at George Mason School of Law. She practiced immigration and civil rights law for over a decade before moving into the policy sphere.
She is the Founder of the Safe Nation Collaborative, a Countering Violent Extremism training firm, and her work mostly focused on the empowerment of American-Muslim communities and social media advocacy.
And she is also the co-host and co-producer of the hit podcast Undisclosed and has nearly 200 million downloads.
Well, many of you may recognize her from her work on Adnan Syed’s case. Adnan is a wrongfully convicted man at the center of the most popular podcast in history, Serial. Rabia is the author of The New York Times bestselling book ‘Adnan’s Story’, and I can go on and on about her because she is amazing and her bio is goal-worthy. But if you want to know more, check out rabiachaudry.com.
Kristoffer Butler: Thank you for that Negeen and welcome to Rabia. Thank you for coming and welcome to the show.
Rabia Chaudry: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Negeen Sadeghi-Movahed: So first off, we will start off with some questions to give folks some background. For our listeners who might be unfamiliar with Adnan’s case, can you give us some background about it?
Rabia Chaudry: Yeah, sure. Adnan Syed was a 17-year-old Pakistani-American boy, who lived in Baltimore suburbs. In 1999, he was a senior in high school and a girl that he dated in high school for six months the previous year disappeared one day after school; her name was Hae Min Lee. About a month later her body was found. She had been murdered, really awful tragic, and she was like such a — I mean she had so much promise and it was just such a shock to the neighborhood and the community.
And about a month after that they arrested Adnan for the murder, and he has maintained his innocence for 20 years now. And I have known him because he is my younger brother’s best friend and I have known Adnan since he was 13. I was in law school at the time he was arrested and for the last 20 years I have been kind of big sister, advocate, assistant, helping the family through the appellate process. I was there for his second trial in 2000, but I have never represented him or anything like that; I am really just kind of like a big sister and advocate for him.
And so he is still in prison, he has a life sentence for 35 years — life plus 30, excuse me, and we are just hoping sometime soon he gets a new trial.
Negeen Sadeghi-Movahed: Absolutely. I know you explained your role a little bit, but I just wanted to ask, what does being that big sister, advocate mean to you?
Rabia Chaudry: Well, I mean over the years it was really like raising money for the appeals process. I mean we have spent I would say at least a million dollars in the last 20 years; sometimes from the community — after he was convicted, a lot of the local community was kind of like — well, I mean they kind of walked away from it and so it was hard to raise the money and his parents are just very middle-class folks, they only have limited funds, so most of the years it was just kind of doing that.
There were times when I went to appeal hearings with his mother, we were the only ones in the room, so just being there to support, writing to him, visiting him. I have 17, 18 years worth of letters between the two of us. Whatever it is they need at the time.
And my kind of a public advocacy role happened inadvertently when I approached — I could tell our latest appeal was going to fail in 2000, I think it was 12, 13, and I decided to go to media. His lawyer had been representing him for years and was like listen, I think we are at the end of our road. There is nothing else I can do. And I said I am going to go to the media. And I went to — I found Sarah Koenig, who works for This American Life, and that turned into Serial, and ever since then in order to keep momentum alive after that podcast ended I continued to tell his story as his advocate.
And so myself and two other attorneys started the podcast Undisclosed and we did 40 episodes on Adnan’s case and in the course of that one of the attorneys found evidence that helped overturn his conviction. And since then I wrote a book about the case with Adnan’s contribution. It became a New York Times bestseller. That was then auctioned and recently was released as an HBO series.
So it’s been a lot of work for the last five years, and I was joking with friends a couple of weeks ago, I said well, we have kind of done everything, I guess my next move is Adnan the Musical, because I don’t know, I have to keep on going until we can get him home, and I am only half joking there.
Kristoffer Butler: So you talked about how you are personally connected to the case and how you have been working on it, even not being in representation of him. I know that there are a lot of people out there that aspire to be defense lawyers and working in public interests and they will come across cases that might be personal to them. How are you able to handle the emotional weight of all that, because one of the things law school sort of talks about is having the cases, but it never deals with the emotional or mental health side of it?
Rabia Chaudry: Yeah, you are right, law school does not teach you how to do that. I was recently at an ABA Conference and I sat in to one of the sessions where they talked about mental health and the kind of stresses, because even when you are representing clients, it’s supposed to be maybe a dispassionate representation, but it’s rarely that. And I personally don’t believe if you are going to be representing somebody and you are going to be an advocate for them that you can or even should be dispassionate. You should feel some personal stake. That’s how I feel about my clients over the years.
There is burnout, there is burnout, you require self-care and you also — I think the best thing I did with this case once Serial happened is I realized there are a lot of resources now. There are people coming forward to help us. There are other lawyers who are volunteering, there are investigators, and I removed the burden for myself.
Certainly, I didn’t have the tools and skills to do everything that this case needed, and I said okay, I am going to handle — I am going to continue to handle kind of the media side, the communications side, the public strategy, fundraising, all these things, but I delegated to people who I thought are better skilled.
And it’s really important to have a good team, a good network of people that you can reach out to; mentors, other lawyers who can — you can commiserate with, who can help you through stuff. Don’t go it alone. That’s like one of the big lessons I learned in my life is find the right team and always — people want to help, so use that resource.
Negeen Sadeghi-Movahed: I know you kind of mentioned this in your previous answer. I have been watching the HBO documentary and notice that there are private investigators who are doing work and they are uncovering amazing things that can help with Adnan’s case. Is there something about the process of working with those private investigators that might have surprised you along the way?
Rabia Chaudry: I will be honest, so I — look, the book was optioned for the series; the series is not the book. The director had her own team of investigators and producers and they just kind of worked very independently. So I wasn’t really involved day-to-day with like their investigation. Every so often they would contact me and say what do you think about this or do you have any ideas or maybe we found something that we kind of want to float past you.
I was surprised by some things actually that didn’t make it to the documentary and I am not really kind of at liberty to disclose them. Part of the issue was TV is not like podcasting. We are all podcasters here so we know we can just go on and on for as long as we want. With television, it’s like she was given four episodes, four hours to cram in a very complex case. So there were things that she couldn’t share so much.
I mean I was surprised mostly kind of like by how glaring some of the leads were that the police decided not to pursue at the time of the investigation and arrest, and I knew the investigation was faulty, I just didn’t know to kind of what extent until the investigators involved with the documentary kind of laid out, did you know that this potential suspect has this background, did you know that this potential suspect has this background, and I was kind of shocked by that.
Kristoffer Butler: With all your work in the media and the press with the book and the documentary and the podcast, how would you say that that has been able to help you frame the story of what actually happened in Adnan’s innocence?
Rabia Chaudry: It’s interesting, every medium has been kind of different, and for me, I think the book, because the book was completely my independent work, my body of work and I decided what it was going to look like.
I mean even Undisclosed, which is the podcast, I am working with Twitter lawyers. What we do is very kind of fact-based and documented. If it can be documented, we know it. I don’t float theories. I don’t tell personal stories on it. It’s different.
So for me, the book was probably the best medium to be able to tell — to explain like what was happening in the community at the time, what was happening with Adnan at the time.
For example, people ask, well, how come he didn’t testify in his own behalf? We can talk about that from a very kind of legal perspective, like why most criminal defense attorneys won’t put their clients on the stand on Undisclosed, but in the book I can talk about like kind of personal what was happening to him as a 17-year-old in prison for the first time, the kinds of people he was surrounded by and what they were telling him, and how the lawyer, I mean who failed him miserably, what was going on in her professional and personal life and just made the case.
But I did very carefully in the book first start with the actual crime and the investigation day by day; on day one this is what the police did, on day two, like day by day by day, until they arrested him. And people who have read the book, I have never had a single person reach out to me who said I read the book and I still don’t — I don’t believe he is innocent, as simple as that, because when you lay it all out and you can see it as one picture, it has a real impact versus getting little bits and pieces through many, many episodes of a podcast, it makes it a little bit harder.
Negeen Sadeghi-Movahed: As a Muslim-American when I watched — well, actually I listened to the Serial podcast first and what really struck me about the case was just how quick some people were able to jump to conclusions and how I think some people still do, and I just was wondering what you think the influence of Islamophobia had on Adnan’s case in court, but also in the court of public opinion.
Rabia Chaudry: Oh gosh, at the time it played a big — his religion especially played a big role in his prosecution, in the investigation, in the prosecution, and I would say in the conviction as well.
In the first trial, and this actually has never aired in Serial or really anywhere, but I talk about it in the book, in the first trial, which ended up with – and in this trial in I think a matter of days, the judge begins the proceedings before opening arguments by saying to Adnan’s attorney, isn’t it true that his religion has a big part to play in this case, and she said, yes, Your Honor.
I mean what? I mean this is a homicide case. His religion had nothing to do with any of this. On that ground alone I think the constitutionality of the conviction should be questioned. It’s not something that’s ever been raised in court, but it’s something that I have always been deeply bothered by and other South Asians and Muslims and any minorities have been bothered by, because this is just — it’s egregious. It had a lot to do.
And when his bail was denied, again, the State made an explicit argument about his ethnicity. She in fact said all these Muslims who are in this room, and that room was packed full of people from the community who had known Adnan growing up; clerics and businesspeople and doctors and just respectable people from the community who are putting their homes down on the line for his bail, and the prosecutor basically said, well, these are the people who are going to — this is why he is a danger to society, he has all this support from his community and they basically could help him escape.
And then she said there is a pattern of Pakistani males in the United States killing their partners as an honor killing and then fleeing and it was a complete and utter lie. She later had to apologize to the court, but at that point he had been denied bail.
And then in his trial, his religion and ethnicity was mentioned around 300 times. So the South Asian Bar Association wrote a wonderful op-ed three or four years ago that was published in The Baltimore Sun calling out all of these things and how biased the trial was against him. Yeah, it had a big impact.
Now, it’s interesting — you would think in the wake of 9/11 and there is a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment right now in this country, it just exists. We are living in the era of the Muslim ban, but I have been really heartened to see that for most people his religion, it doesn’t matter. I have rarely seen anybody make kind of — any kind of connection between his religion and this crime, because they are just looking at the evidence.
And in fact, one of the great things about the documentary was that for the first time people are going to see this story in a visual medium, they are going to see his mother wearing her scarf and his father with a big old beard and me in my scarf, and we are all looking very Muslim, but we have still gotten an outpouring of support, just thousands and thousands of people writing letters and donating to his legal fund and it’s been kind of remarkable.
Negeen Sadeghi-Movahed: What stage is Adnan’s case in right now?
Rabia Chaudry: We won a post-conviction hearing, the second one in 2016, and his conviction was overturned. He was granted a new trial. The State appealed it. So that went to the intermediate appellate court in Maryland, which is called the Court of Special Appeals. At that stage we once again won and he was given a new trial; the State again appealed it to the highest court in Maryland, which is the Court of Appeals.
About one month ago the Court of Appeals issued their decision 4:3 actually reinstating his conviction and denying a new trial, which was a devastating blow, and it was just so shocking, because the issue that they decided against him on was basically whether or not his lawyer was ineffective as a counsel, because the lawyer didn’t contact an alibi witness, and there is no court in the country that has found that not to be ineffective. I mean like it always rises to the standard of Strickland Standard, which would mean he gets a new trial, but this is the first court that not only contradicts every other court in the country, but actually contradict its own precedent and has contradicted Supreme Court precedent by finding that she was not — the deficiency didn’t rise to the level of being prejudicial.
And so, we are now — we have potentially been set back many years. We have filed a motion to reconsider with the same court. So we’re asking the same judges — the same four judges who said no, to reconsider and that the motion was supported by some amazing amicus briefs. We have an amicus brief from the Criminal Defense Attorney Association, like the U.S. Criminal Defense Attorney Association, from the Innocence Network. But we have a lot of support from the legal community because it’s such — it’s a really bad precedent.
So we’ll know in the next few months whether or not they are going to reconsider and if one judge changes his mind or her mind, then he will still get a new trial. If they don’t we’re kind of set back to zero. We have to find a whole new legal avenue to get him back in court.
Negeen Sadeghi-Movahed: And how does the press and attention around Adnan’s case in your opinion help his chances to get a new trial or hurt his chances to get a new trial?
Rabia Chaudry: Yeah, so navigating the media is always really tricky for lawyers, and believe me, his lawyer, Justin Brown, has been with us for 10 years now. He’s amazing and he’s also been very cautious about media, but what’s happening now is this — what’s happening is the media, whether it’s podcasting, whether it’s investigative reporting, other types of media does these documentaries, they are ending up taking the place of justice in the courts. They have become necessary in a way. I mean, they are shining a lot — if you look to Brendan Dassey case, you can argue whether or not Stephen Avery, of the ‘Making a Murderer’ case is, whether he’s guilty or not.
Brendan Dassey was clearly an intellectually impaired child. So people are just getting to see the system in a way that if they’ve never encountered the criminal justice system and most people in this country have not, that they are seeing it up close and personal. And that’s been really important for our cases and the ones that actually get highlighted but also because it kind of makes people aware of just the system in general and where the weaknesses are, and I’ve been very public about saying, if you are appalled that some of the things you’re seeing, then what you need is to elect the right people like you — we just kind of live blindly like just kind of apathetically not taking a moment to figure out who’s the District Attorney by the way, who is the Attorney General of my State, what’s happening?
You don’t have to wait for big massive sweeping reforms that seem almost overwhelming to happen in criminal justice, you can just elect the right DA and that’s not a difficult thing to do because many of these elections go unchallenged.
So, it’s been tremendously important to our cases. You have to be careful. We don’t report every single thing that we know because there could be a new trial. And ‘Undisclosed’ my podcast after we did Adnan’s case, we went on, we worked with The Innocence Project in different states and other defendants and did 12 other wrongful conviction cases. And in every case, we worked closely with the lawyer, we make sure not to do anything that would hurt the defendant legally. So we’re very careful as lawyers on how we are reporting any of our work.
Kristoffer Butler: So I have two questions for you so they sort of build off the same principle, but his first one is, if you have law students either reading your book or watching the documentary or paying attention in any way to the proceedings of this case, what is something that you would want law students being potential lawyers to be able to glean from your experiences in Adnan’s case?
Rabia Chaudry: It’s interesting and I practiced Immigration and Civil Rights law. Even though I had witnessed this while I was in law school this trial and everything, it kind of terrified me of the system. I didn’t want to be close to it. It wasn’t until Serial and I really dove into the case looking at it as a criminal investigator or even as a criminal defense attorney that I started understanding the system myself.
One of the things I would say is, you kind of don’t even know what field you are going to want to be in or understand it at all unless you actually have some level of practice in it, law school is great, it’s all theory, and I always recommend to law students that try different clinics, try different things, you never know what’s going to spark the joy in you, what’s going to spark the passion in you.
I went into law school thinking on a new corporate law and I also had lawyers, I’ll speak to lawyers like I spoke recently to a group of civil litigators, they have no idea how criminal defense works. Like, our fields are so specialized, they are highly specialized, but it’s good to get a little taste of different things before you kind of settle into where you want to spend the rest of your life.
Kristoffer Butler: Yeah, I agree with everything you just said. My second question would be not for just law students and potential lawyers, but just the general public, what would you want them to be able to get from your experiences in Adnan’s case?
Rabia Chaudry: Always be a skeptic. If there’s anything I’ve learned and all of this is what tends to happen is that any narrative we hear about any kind of potential criminal investigation or an arrest or conviction is always the official, it’s just the official statement. All we get is a police statement, we get the prosecutor statement after conviction; we almost never hear from defense counsel, we never hear a defendant’s story.
Now, most people who are convicted in the criminal justice system, I mean they are guilty, most people are, but when you have 98% of federal prosecutions being pled out, something might be wrong but I logically argue that 98% of people are guilty.
And so, what I would say is always be a skeptic, always know there’s more behind the headline and the story, but also know how much power you have. People feel very helpless and you don’t have to be very helpless. I mean, law students have done incredible work and just citizens have done incredible work on criminal justice issues.
There are so many needs, every single state has prisons state and federal, those prisons have needs, they have needs for classes, for chaplains, for volunteers, for all kinds of things, there’s no reason anybody can like contact them, find out what they can and can’t do, see if you can help develop a program.
I know a lady whose daughter was incarcerated. This lady had never had experience with the law and she never did anything legal in her life. Her daughter was incarcerated for something she did, and so this woman realized where her daughter was incarcerated, there’s a library there. There was no library for the inmates at all.
So she went to the warden and said, can I build a library for your prison, and she did and she had for the last ten years has been a librarian there.
So we all have a lot of potential in terms of making like just impacting the lives of people who are in the system and then on every level, there’s people who’ve been doing the work for decades, so you can all support them.
One thing I do want to say that I didn’t say this when you asked me about what I would say to law students with this and I talk about this when I talk to other groups of lawyers and law firms and whatever, bar associations, there is this real weird reverence for like precedent and finality in the law. And I think it really holds us back as lawyers and it holds back to law from catching up to the times and I am really averse to it. When a prosecutor will say things like, well, that’s kind of how it is, that’s kind of how it’s all have been but then it shouldn’t be. If something is — just because something is legal, does not mean it’s moral, right? You can have slavery, you’ve got — there’s all kinds of — thousand examples in our history. But just because it’s legal, it doesn’t mean it’s okay, and so we should always challenge what is legal and not legal.
Negeen Sadeghi-Movahed: Absolutely. Well, thank you Rabia so much for being on our show. We super-appreciate it and really, really thankful for the advice that you gave us.
Rabia Chaudry: Well, good luck to both of you and to all the students listening and thank you so much for having me.
Kristoffer Butler: Well, thank you Rabia again for coming onto the show. We really enjoyed having you on this podcast and I would like to say a special thank you to Nageen for being a guest host on this podcast. It’s always good to hear from you.
Negeen Sadeghi-Movahed: Thank you for having me.
Kristoffer Butler: We hope you have enjoyed this episode of the Law Student Podcast. We would like to invite you to subscribe to the ABA Law Student Podcast on iTunes and you can reach out to us on Facebook at ABA for Law Students and follow us and all of our student leaders at #ABAforLawStudents.
Before we go, I’ll leave us with this quote by John Adams.
“It is more important that innocence be protected than it is that guilt be punished, for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world that they cannot all be punished. But if innocence itself is brought to the bar and condemned, perhaps to die, then the citizen will say, ‘whether I do good or whether I do evil is immaterial, for innocence itself is no protection,’ and if such an idea as that were to take hold in the mind of the citizen that would be the end of security whatsoever.”
Thank you for listening to this podcast. Have a wonderful day.
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