Just because you've listened to "Serial" doesn't mean you know the whole story. And for Rabia Chaudry, that's not enough.
The first season of the "This American Life" spinoff revisited the investigation and trial that followed the 1999 murder of Baltimore high school student Hae Min Lee, for which her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years. Throughout the massively popular podcast's 12 episodes, host and executive producer Sarah Koenig wrestled with the question of Adnan's guilt. In June, a Baltimore judge granted Syed—who has never wavered from proclaiming his innocence—a new trial after 16 years.
But there's so much that "Serial" listeners never learned. What about the lividity evidence? Could the discoloration pattern visible on Hae's body—caused by the settling of blood—contradict the state's account of her time of burial? Those tapping sounds heard on the recordings of police interviews with Jay Wilds, the prosecution's star witness: Could they indicate that detectives were coaching him? And what do we make of Don Clinedinst's time sheets? Hae's boyfriend and coworker's alibi—he told law enforcement that he was at work when Hae vanished—has come into question for multiple reasons, including that the store manager was his mother.
All these revelations and more are detailed in a new book by Chaudry, without whom "Serial" would never have happened. It was she, Syed's family friend turned public advocate, who reached out to Koenig in 2013. An attorney and a Jennings Randolph Senior Fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Chaudry launched her own podcast "Undisclosed" with Susan Simpson and Colin Miller to examine overlooked evidence in Syed's case and other convictions.
Adnan's Story raises a sharp, meticulous case against the prosecution and discusses another potential suspect, but it also serves as an intimate account of how Syed, his family and friends, and the broader Muslim community in Baltimore weathered his trial and conviction.
I spoke with Rabia on the phone on Wednesday about the most compelling new evidence that's been uncovered, anti-Muslim bias in the U.S. legal system, and her biggest grievances with "Serial."
I was moved by the way you described your own struggles, especially in your first marriage, and those of Adnan’s family, particularly his brothers—aspects of the story that "Serial" didn’t touch on. Was it difficult deciding whether to include these more personal details?
No, especially when it came to Adnan's family. It was vital. It was important because I want people to understand that we're not just talking about a person in a vacuum. These are people who have families. They're brothers. They're sons. I wanted people to understand the injustice is not just to him. It was like the whole family fell to pieces and, to this day, are really deeply broken. On my end, I needed to explain because people are not quite clear what my role has been, or was I his lawyer this whole time, or was I investigating his case the whole time, or what was happening to me.
The other thing is a lot was cut out. I wrote 850 pages and… [Laughs.] I had a lot to say. So you know, about 400 pages cut out. A good portion of that was a really detailed explanation of what had happened in my marriage. It was important for me to include that because I wanted people to understand that I had been a survivor of domestic violence, and then I went on to represent many, many women in my legal practice who were also DV victims. So I not only had firsthand experience of that phenomena but represented so many women who have been through it. I understand the patterns. I understand how this works.
It must have been tough to leave that out.
It was, a little bit, but it was okay. I was like, "You know what? If I need to supplement certain things, I have my blog always.”
It was powerful to read some of Adnan’s own letters—it struck me that this is in many ways the first time he’s had agency over the telling of his own story. Did you know you wanted to include his voice when you first started working on this project?
Oh, absolutely. That was really a very important part of it for me, because I knew the frustration he felt and all of us felt with "Serial." But you know, the truth is this: He had agency in writing this, but even that was limited, because until he's out, there are lots of things he can't tell us about. As you can tell, in the book, there isn't a lot of detail about what life has been like in prison, because he is not in a safe place to tell those stories yet. So even in that respect, the agency is a little bit limited. Yesterday at the book launch, I said, “The book is called 'Adnan's Story,' but really we're not really gonna know his story until he's out.”
I imagine it must be hard, on some level, to reconcile that this is a real murder case with terrible consequences that you are all too familiar with, but also that "Serial"—for all the positive and productive attention it brought to Adnan’s case—was a source of entertainment for many of its listeners. Has that ever made you feel uncomfortable?
It was only uncomfortable when people would come at me and say, "Oh, my gosh. It's so much fun! It's so exciting, and I can't wait until next week." I would just look at them like, "You know what? You can keep that to yourself. It's real life." But the thing is, without the entertainment value, we wouldn't have the attention we needed on the case. So it was a necessary kind of challenge. We had to have the attention, and we had to have the entertainment value.
In the book, you describe coming across West of Memphis on Netflix and deciding it was time to reach out to a journalist. Now that you’ve experienced Adnan’s case on "Serial," has that changed the way you see true-crime documentaries like that—or, more recently, Making a Murderer? Do you think you see them very differently from the way any member of the public would?
No, only because I know that there's a lot of editorial discretion. There are a lot of decisions that have to be made. There are decisions based on ratings and… You know? I mean it's practical. Even political decisions have to be made on these issues. So I didn't even have to get as far as listening to "Serial." I've done a lot of speaking on different issues. I've done a lot of media interviews. You do a story, and you read it, and you're like, "Wait a minute. That's not what I meant." So it happens, and so I understand that. That's why it's important to have transparency and have more information available. I know that things are not always what they seem.
I was really interested to read about the complexities of your relationship with Sarah Koenig and the mix of mutual respect and friction you experienced. Of the various editorial choices and omissions that "Serial" made, which was the most difficult for you to accept?
Well, there were certain editorial decisions that were bothersome, and then there were certain outright errors. I think the outright errors were a little more—well, I don't know. It could go either way, I guess. Yesterday, I was at the book launch, and Phillip Buddemeyer, who was a city surveyor, who helped the initial team of responders basically disinter Hae's body, was there at the event. And he came up to me, and he said, "You know, Sarah Koenig in 'Serial' said that I died in 2010," and he's like, "I'm alive." He's like, "I contacted, and I said, 'Hey. Look. I'm still alive,' and they never apologized or corrected it." I was like, "Yeah, there's that."
I'll give you an example. I knew about this conversation [Jay] had with Sarah, how he had gotten belligerent and threatening and crazy—crazy—on her, and she didn't want to touch that. She didn't want to talk about it. She didn't want to talk about his criminal record, ever, and he had all kinds of things that happened. But with Adnan she brought in his middle-school, stealing-from-the-collection-plate exploits.
If you're gonna set this up as it's either Adnan or Jay—because that was kind of how she set up the story, right?—then you have to give them equal treatment. That's not fair, is what I would say. Another thing that definitely bothered me was the detectives. We have documented proof of their misconduct on other cases. She never reached out to those parties to find out what had happened, and these issues happened around the same time frame as Adnan's case. And she was like, "They were basically good guys, doing their job." I'm like, "We're talking about the Baltimore City Police. Do you have any idea what's going on down there?"
One of the most striking aspects of your book was the sharp relief into which you drew the anti-Muslim bias that Adnan contended with. And it’s hard to believe that, even now, we have a presidential nominee who’s proposed a ban on Muslims entering this country. If Adnan were to stand trial for the first time today, do you think the the system would treat him better or worse than it did in 2000?
I think defendants face different kinds of prejudices and vulnerabilities. If you're a black man, it's something different. If you're a poor white person, it's something different. That might always be an issue, but the difference today would be that in 1999, the Muslim community, we knew [the prejudice] existed, but we had never been slapped in the face with it like we were in this case, and we didn't know how to respond. And the funny thing is that in the last couple years, the state has rolled back on it. [Syed’s original prosecutor Kevin] Urick has said, "No, it wasn't about that at all. It was just a crime of domestic violence." Uh, what? Even the state is pulling back on that and saying it wasn't about his religion or ethnicity, although it's all in the record.
But if they were to try it today, we would know how to respond to that. We are well-organized enough, and we would have the cognizance and the legal tools to deal with it, whereas at that time, everybody was just kind of blindsided. But I can't imagine that the state, at this point, would try to retry the case and, again, frame it as this Muslim honor killing.
Reading the transcripts from the trial, it was like something from the 1950s—or earlier. It was surreal.
Yeah. And that was another thing. Sarah kind of didn't take it too seriously. I was like, "Well, I don't think they would have raised the issue if it wasn't an issue."
In the book, you write of wondering whether Sarah would be “able to approach our community with total objectivity.” In retrospect, do you think she did?
Honestly, I think she did. I think she did the best she could. In fact, I think she was so objective about it, that she didn't even consider that anybody else could even have an anti-Muslim bias. I don't think she approached any of us with any kind of bias. She really treated us like people and Adnan as a human being. I appreciate that very much. But I think what she did not realize was that in '99, that's not how things went down.
One of the most moving lines from Adnan in the book was when he wrote, “It is not that I do not care if people believe I am innocent or not. It is just that I cannot let it affect me.” I couldn’t help but wonder: How do you feel? Is it still painful when people express their doubts about his innocence?
I did a radio interview today with [SiriusXM and CNN host] Michael Smerconish. If you listen to it, and this just happened today, you will see how visceral my reaction is. I feel very protective. It makes me very angry. When people talk to me about it, I feel like saying, "Would you say what you're saying to Adnan's mother?" He's like my little brother. You can think what you want. You don't have to say it to me. I find it deeply disrespectful that people want to try to approach me and say, "Hey, this is what I think. I think he’s a psychopathic killer," because I am going to immediately have a very, very angry reaction to that because this is somebody I love and care about.
If you could go back in time and give yourself any advice before you embarked on the process that led to "Serial," what would you say? Is there anything you wish you’d known?
One piece of advice I would give myself just to save myself the emotional stress—and my family and all of us—is to stay off Reddit. And to understand how Internet trolls work, because that was actually very emotionally hurtful to a lot of us, me, Adnan's brother, my brother. But other than that, I feel like we did the best we could, all of us. I would not change a thing. "Serial" did an amazing job. "Serial" brought together the people who then were able to find the evidence to get him a new trial. What more could I ask for?
Molly Fitzpatrick is senior editor of Fusion's Pop & Culture section. Her interests include movies about movies, TV shows about TV shows, and movies about TV shows, but not so much TV shows about movies.