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Rabia Chaudry on how HBO’s Serial documentary will impact Adnan Syed’s future

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Alicia Lutes
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Serial star Rabia Chaudry

The Serial star has warned that the case’s popularity might actually hinder its outcome…

In 2014, the podcast Serial took the world by storm and arguably ushered in our current era of true crime obsession. It also helped secure the subject of the series, Adnan Syed, a second chance at redemption in a case many believe was mishandled. And in 2019, one of his biggest supporters and defenders – lifelong family friend, attorney, and advocate Rabia Chaudry – is hoping a new documentary series about Syed, HBO’s The Case Against Adnan Syed, will help in his appeal case happening now. 

So who is Chaudry and what does she think about the support surrounding Adnan’s plight? We’ve got all the details you need, below. 

How it all started

Chaudry has been a family friend of the Syed family for ages – so much so that she even wrote a book about him. But she wasn’t involved as heavily in the first trial, as she was raising a child as a single mother in law school. 

“I was in law school when Adnan was arrested,” she explained to members of the Television Critics Association’s 2019 Winter Press Tour in Pasadena, California. “I had a lot of trust and faith in the system because there was a system. There’s due process. There’s constitutional rights.”

And then Syed was convicted of the murder under fairly questionable circumstances – as the podcast Serial deftly contended – and Chaudry knew she had to fight. In fact, being an accomplished lawyer, she knew the justice system could only take them so far; it was she that got Sarah Koenig’s attention to try and make it right.

“I realized how much was stacked against the defendants, how the victims’ families were impacted.” She even added that the proceedings “had a real effect on my career and my faith in the system. Because if one link in the system is broken, that travels all the way down to the defendant, you know?”

When the trial went as it did – convicting Syed and forcing him to spend life in jail for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee – Chaudry felt changed. “Having sat through the trial and witnessing what I did while I was in law school,” Chaudry explained, “it deterred me from ever practicing criminal law.”

Instead, she set about becoming an advocate not only for Syed, but for others who may have been wrongfully convicted, both in law and on her own podcast, Undisclosed

What’s happening now?

With Chaudry’s dogged persistence, and the help of many a Reddit sleuth, the stage is set for new evidence and advanced testing methods to be used. But it wasn’t an easy road to get a new trial, something that was granted in 2016 thanks to Syed’s new legal team’s ability to convince the courts that his prior lawyer, Cristina Gutierrez, provided ineffective assistance. (Gutierrez was disbarred in 2001, two years after she defended Syed, with her own consent. She was diagnosed in 1999, the year she represented Syed, with multiple sclerosis complicated by diabetes and said it negatively affected her job.) And just so you know, it’s an uphill battle to get new trials in these instances in the United States.

Perhaps the most substantial addition to the case? Asia McClain, a high school classmate of Syed’s who may be his alibi. McClain has signed several affidavits contending that she was with Syed in the library during the period determined to be Lee’s time of death. But the state did not make it easy for her to support Adnan: in fact, they actively attempted to dissuade her from doing so, going so far as to insinuate had enough evidence to prove his guilt and her claim wouldn’t help his case.

We had a chance to ask her about the runaround the prosecution gave her. “As a private citizen, I don’t have a lot of experience in the legal realm,” McClain explained. But when she realized she may be an alibi for Syed after listening to Serial and was met with roadblocks at every turn, she felt “it was very eye-opening to see the type of treatment that a normal person can get for just trying to do the right thing. That was something that I personally did not expect.”

Thankfully, with the help of the publicity surrounding the case, McClain may finally have her chance to defend Syed in court. The new trial has been delayed, but it’s still coming – and Chaudry is ready to fight.

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Will it change Adnan’s future?

Just because it’s one of the most talked-about cases in the last ten years, doesn’t mean Syed will be guaranteed a totally fair trial. As Chaudry noted, “systems protect themselves. … For example, in [The Case Against Adnan Syed director] Amy [Berg]’s amazing documentary, West of Memphis, the same thing happened, you know? Any time a wrongful conviction seems to be, like, getting successfully challenged, the system closes in. It doubles down. It triples down, and it tries to protect itself. It’s not always about the truth. It’s about maintaining status quo.”

She went on, warning that the case’s popularity might actually hinder its outcome. “It is more complicated when there’s so much notoriety around a case, because it gives more incentive for the state to save face and save the conviction and fight harder. It gives less incentive for witnesses to want to talk, and sometimes, it gives more incentive for people who shouldn’t be talking to want to talk. So, it can complicate things.”

It was a sentiment echoed by director Berg. “Three and a half years later, I still feel very frustrated that the police detectives didn’t do their job in a thorough way, because we probably wouldn’t be sitting here today if there was more of an investigation done at the time.”

Even with all that going up against them, Chaudry remains optimistic. “People always ask about how the attention that this case gets…affects the legal proceedings. And I think that’s really hard to judge. There’s no solid answer there. But judges are independent. They’re not going to be affected by a TV show.”

HBO’s The Case Against Adnan Syed does not currently have a UK release date.

This story was originally published on 11 February.

Image: Getty

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Alicia Lutes

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