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Q&A with Rabia Chaudry

The attorney talks about Serial, Adnan Syed, and what went wrong in his case.

The question, “Who killed Hae Min Lee?” was on the minds of many across the country as this Baltimore murder case, and defendant Adnan Syed, became the subject of the first season of the podcast Serial. Attorney Rabia Chaudry has an inside view, as a close family-friend of Syed’s who initially brought the case to Serial producer Sarah Koenig’s attention. Her book, Adnan’s Story, details her work to get his conviction overturned, and she joined us to talk about the process, the podcast, and what went wrong in the case.

How does it feel to be a published author?
I feel like I haven’t had the time to let it sink in yet. I had some friends over last night and I gave them each a copy because I had a bunch of author copies and they kept saying, ‘Rabia, you have a book,’ and I was like, ‘Huh?’ I also think it’s also because my head is really in the space of what’s happening in Adnan’s case. Right now, what’s occupying my brain is that his conviction was vacated. I’m so glad I did the book and he was a part of it, but I’m still thinking about the case.

And the news that a judge ordered him a new trial in June makes the book that much more relevant right now.
I’m very thankful. There was a part of me wondered how it would feel if the book came out and we had gotten a ruling in which we lost. It really would have felt horrible.

At what point in the process of his case did you decide to write this book?
Serial was ongoing and I was blogging along with it, and, I think it was maybe six or seven weeks in, when a literary agent called me who had been listening to Serial and reading my blog and had taken a look at other things I had written. She said, ‘Hey, have you thought about writing a book?’ And I had not at all. In fact, I wasn’t interested. I was exhausted and overwhelmed. But what she made clear was that somebody was going to write the book about this case and I was in the best position to do it. That was an argument I couldn’t dispute, but I did talk about it with Adnan. It was stressful for Serial to control the narrative, and it could be just anybody to come in and write the book. I told him, ‘If you give me permission and if you’re ok with it, I’ll do it.’ And he said, ‘Do it.’

When did you decide to get involved with Adnan’s case?
Not from the beginning at all. I was in law school and I lived in Virginia. He had an attorney. It was right after he was convicted. It literally might have been the same day or a few days after. Because I was like, ‘What happened here?’ I wasn’t able to attend a lot of the first trial, just the last few days. It was astonishing how this happened because I could tell the state didn’t have a case. So right afterwards, I told him that it literally came down to the time after school, he had to account for himself for a half hour, and how could he and his lawyer fail to do that? That’s when he told me he’d gotten letters from Asia McClain, and she said she specifically remembered seeing him in the library that day. But Adnan said his lawyer had called her and it didn’t check out. So I told Adnan to give me her contact information, and when I met with her, she told me nobody had ever contacted her. That’s when I realized what had happened here, and I got involved. It was shocking.

You’ve been working on this case for years. How do you keep yourself motivated to keep going?
I know him personally. You can’t walk away from somebody you know and care about. For years, it was about the post conviction. We kept thinking once we had the post conviction, we get Asia in front of a judge, that’s it. It was a huge failure on the part of his lawyer, it basically proves his innocence. It took a long time to file the post conviction, and when Asia didn’t show up and refused to cooperate, then we had to think of another plan of action. That’s when I decided to go to the media.

What was it like for Adnan’s case to be on Serial, and then have the podcast end in the inconclusive way that it did?
I really envy everyone who got to listen to Serial and love it and be enthralled by it. For me and Adnan’s loved ones, it was horribly stressful. For us, it was like Serial or bust, this is our last big chance and we might not get another opportunity. We spent almost a year with Sarah thinking, ‘There’s no way that she can look at all of this and not say he’s innocent.’ That would have been what we were looking for. But more than that, what we were hoping for was that she would uncover some evidence that would move the case forward. It was a relief when it was over. We had no idea what she was going to talk about, who she was going to talk to, what she found. We weren’t privy to that.

The last time she came to interview me, a week or two before the end, she said she hadn’t found a smoking gun. And I remember thinking, ‘Should I ask her, should I ask her?’ and then I just did. I said, ‘Sarah, what do you think? Do you think he’s guilty?’ And she told me that in her heart she thinks he’s innocent. And we weren’t being recorded when this conversation took place. But that’s not where she left off in the podcast himself. She said she didn’t think he should have been convicted, which to me is a little bit different. I don’t know why there is that discrepancy between what she said to us and what she said in the podcast.

Why do you think she and others haven’t been able to find a so-called smoking gun, and why has the case gone the way it has?
This is very typical of cold cases left untouched for decades. You’re talking about trying to find evidence that’s not nailed down 16 years ago, to go back and now talk to witnesses and get cell phone records that should have existed in the file. If the investigation had been done thoroughly in 1999, we wouldn’t be struggling now. I’m convinced there was evidence that police found that they got rid of. For example, Adnan’s incoming cell records. Who makes a request to a cell phone company saying they only want his outgoing calls? How could they not have gotten Hae Min Lee’s pager records? It doesn’t make sense, and now we can’t get them. Even if Sarah didn’t find a smoking gun, we have found a couple of real serious pieces of evidence.

Do you blame anyone in particular for the path the case took?
There’s enough blame to go around. If any single party had done their job, this result wouldn’t have been reached. If the police had thoroughly investigated, Adnan would never have been charged. The prosecutor played really dirty and didn’t give the defense the documents they needed. In the book, I talk about Adnan’s defense attorney telling the court she doesn’t know what time the prosecution is alleging the murder took place. But [Christina] Gutierrez, the defense attorney, also failed. If I didn’t know what the state’s theory of the case was, I could check news reports and do my best to build a case for my client.

What is your view on the testimony of Jay Wilds, who told the court he helped Adnan dispose of Hae’s body?
If you look at local convictions, you’ll find that false confessions, even false confessions against yourself, are a very common component. There are people who falsely confess that they committed murder. The police in this case have been implicated in other similar Baltimore city cases in which it was found that they coerced witnesses. In the book, I mention that Jay was told, ‘It’s either you or him. Either we’re going to charge you with the murder, or him.’ Jay’s story keeps changing, because every time there was more evidence, the police had to go back to him and his story would change with the new evidence. All these years I thought Jay might actually have done it, because he knew details of the crime. But he didn’t know anything—he knew what the police knew, and as the police knew more he knew more. That’s such an obvious indication, and we’ve had experts look at this, and they say this has hallmarks of when a witness is being fed information about the case.

What’s it been like for Adnan through this process?
It’s been emotionally difficult for him, but obviously, we knew it wasn’t going to be easy exposing yourself to the media and scrutiny. There’s a purpose for it, and that was to get him another chance in court, and it worked. If we had done this and it hadn’t worked, there might have been some regret from us, but there’s no regret. It was worth it. He’s doing well, we talk all the time. Now, we’re starting to think about issues we never thought we’d think about, like re-entry and what he’s going to do when he gets out. We don’t know what the state is going to do, but I’m confident either way that he will come home fairly soon.

How has this affected his family?
His parents are overjoyed. But with the joy, there’s always going to be a sense of grief and pain that it took 17 years of his life. He grew up in prison—now he’s 35, and I think we’re all a little worried about him adjusting. I’m always going to hold anger about this.

Who do you think killed Hae?
That’s not a question that I’m prepared to answer, first of all because it’s a live, ongoing investigation, but I think in the book I make a clear argument for where the investigation, if it’s re-opened, should begin, and that’s with her boyfriend at the time, Don.

Adnan is Muslim, and of Pakistani descent. What role do you think race and religion played in his case?
I’m not saying that if he wasn’t Muslim they wouldn’t have charged him, but I do think they used his religion and his ethnicity against him. You cannot make the argument that it didn’t matter, because if it didn’t matter, it wouldn’t have been mentioned. There was a purpose in bringing it up over and over.

What do you hope changes because of Adnan’s case?
There are immediate repercussions I want to see in my lifetime, and that’s for Adnan to come home. I want him to be made as whole as much as he possibly can. I want to see the prosecutors in this case be disbarred. I want to see the cops pay for this. But there’s no accountability in the system. You can’t get away with things like coercing witnesses in other occupations. I want accountability.