Rabia Chaudry started one of the biggest pop culture phenomenons of the 21st century: Serial. Almost two years after the smash-hit podcast ended, she's still fighting for Adnan Syed to be released from prison – and has just written a book about him. In a Stylist.co.uk exclusive, Moya Crockett speaks to Chaudry about Sarah Koenig, Islamophobia, and why she believes Jay is innocent too.
You might not recognise her name immediately. But unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last two years, you’ll have heard of the beast unleashed by lawyer Rabia Chaudry.
Serial, a true-crime investigative podcast delving into the story of an American teenager convicted for murdering his ex-girlfriend, was the unexpected pop culture phenomenon of 2014.
The most popular podcast of all time, it triggered almost universal fascination from the public and cultural critics alike. It had, at the last count, been downloaded or streamed more than 68 million times, and won a prestigious Peabody Award for its “innovations of form and its compelling, drilling account of how guilt, truth and reality are decided”.
It also made household names out of its central characters, teenagers in Baltimore when the murder took place in 1999: Adnan Syed, the alleged killer; Hae Min Lee, the 18-year-old victim; and Adnan’s former friend Jay Wilds, whose testimony secured his conviction.
Part of what made Serial so compelling – and frustrating – was the fact that it raised more questions than it answered. Over the course of journalist Sarah Koenig’s investigation, many listeners (and, occasionally, Koenig herself) found it near-impossible to wrap their heads around the idea that Adnan could have possibly killed Hae.
Almost everyone who’d ever known him said he was a good kid, a lovely boy; when Koenig spoke to him on the phone from prison, he came across as disarmingly gentle and sincere. Then there was the breathtaking incompetence of Christina Gutierrez, the lawyer who failed to prevent Adnan being sentenced to life in prison, and the apparent shakiness of the evidence on which he was convicted.
But then. But then. If Adnan didn’t kill Hae, why was he unable to recall what he’d been doing on the day she was murdered? Almost week-by-week, Koenig’s attitude towards Adnan and his story swung between sympathy and suspicion. Irrecoverably hooked, millions of listeners swung with her.
Rabia Chaudry’s faith in Adnan’s innocence, in contrast, has never wavered.
Now 42, Chaudry, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer, knows Adnan and his family of old.
Growing up, her little brother Saad was one of Adnan’s best friends. It was Chaudry who initially brought Adnan’s case to Koenig’s attention back in 2014, in a last-ditch attempt to shine a light on what she still believes was a shattering miscarriage of justice.
But while Serial might have seemed like an alchemical, near-perfect match of story and storyteller, Chaudry says there was nothing particular about Koenig that initially marked her out as the woman for the job. In fact, Chaudry says she wasn’t initially convinced Koenig was the right fit at all.
“She was no longer a local reporter, and I was looking for somebody local,” she tells Stylist. “But I thought, OK, let’s give it a shot. Let’s see what she can find.”
We’re speaking over the phone: I’m in London, and Chaudry’s in the States, doing press for her new book, Adnan’s Story.
Down the line, she’s civil, but cool and direct, with a no-nonsense Baltimore accent.
It’s the voice of a woman who's taken hardly any time off in the past few years, working evenings and weekends in order to juggle full-time work – Chaudry is a senior fellow at the US Institute of Peace – with raising two daughters, as well as spearheading the millennium’s most high-profile murder case. It’s the voice of woman without time to waste.
Filling in the gaps
I had assumed, simplistically, that this book simply forms another part of the long-term free-Adnan strategy. After Serial ended, Chaudry co-produced her own podcast, Undisclosed, which – unlike Serial – dedicated zero time to speculating whether Adnan might have killed Hae.
Rather, it focused on tearing apart the evidence on which Adnan was convicted, and presenting alternative theories as to who might have done it.
However, Chaudry immediately rejects the suggestion that Adnan’s Story might help speed up the path to his release.
“Ideally, [the book] should not have any impact on a court proceeding,” she says. “Neither judges nor juries are allowed – or are supposed – to be considering any information from outside what’s presented in the courtroom.”
The importance of Serial was not so much to investigate the case, but to bring attention to it. And we needed that attention
Rather, she says, the book’s purpose was to give the public a deeper understanding of Adnan himself. “Sarah told a story in Serial,” she says. “Undisclosed has done a really in-depth legal and investigative study of the case.
“But what’s missing is the personal story of 17 years of [Adnan]: his family, the community, his faith. That’s why it was important to fill in the gaps.”
It’s been well-documented that Chaudry – and Adnan’s family – weren’t always entirely comfortable with the way Adnan’s story was presented in Serial. For people who’d never doubted Adnan’s innocence, Koenig’s skilful flip-flopping – that undercurrent of “But what if…” – was sometimes frustrating.
“You know, they are a team of human beings,” Chaudry says today. “There were things that they got wrong, and there were things that they presented… not fully.”
Ultimately, however, she’s grateful to Koenig.
“The fact that I didn’t always agree with what was being said and I had some misgivings about how things were presented sometimes – not always, but sometimes – it kind of doesn’t matter at the end of the day,” she says.
“The importance of Serial was not so much to investigate the case, but to bring attention to it. And we needed that attention. Without that attention, the court might not have paid attention.”
Nevertheless, it was the threat of yet another journalist latching onto the case that spurred Chaudry into writing Adnan’s Story. She says she had never even contemplated a book until a literary agent contacted her with a warning: either you write it, or someone else will.
“That was what really convinced me,” she says. “The idea of someone else telling the story, instead of Adnan and myself doing it.”
The issue with the ‘Adnan Show’
The insatiable public appetite for more, more, more information about the case means that any book about Adnan was bound to do well, whoever wrote it. But what will have Chaudry’s version flying off the shelves is the fact that around 60 pages contain new material written by Adnan himself. Chaudry has also included a selection of Adnan’s letters to friends and family from prison, sent over the last 15 years.
Even if you’re one of the (many) people convinced of Adnan’s innocence, it’s easy to feel slightly uncomfortable about the whole thing. Thanks to Serial, Undisclosed, and now Chaudry’s book, Adnan has been given a platform that most prisoners could only dream of. For better or worse, this is now the Adnan Show. And amidst all the courtroom hoopla and conspiracy theories, we risk forgetting the one person who can’t be given a voice: Hae.
In June this year, Adnan was granted a new retrial by a judge in Maryland, setting aside his conviction for Hae’s murder. Hae’s family swiftly released a statement: “We do not speak as often or as loudly as those who support Adnan Syed, but we care just as much about this case. We continue to grieve. We continue to believe justice was done when Mr Syed was convicted of killing Hae.”
I wish that [Hae’s family] could just be patient and let this story continue to be told… We’re not quite done yet
Back in November 2014, meanwhile, Hae’s brother posted on a Serial conspiracy theory thread on Reddit: “TO ME ITS REAL LIFE. To you listeners, its another murder mystery, crime drama, another episode of CSI… I pray that you don’t have to go through what we went through and have your story blasted to 5 [million] listeners.”
Chaudry is tough, but she isn’t unsympathetic to the pain that Hae’s family will be exposed to as Adnan continues to make headlines. At the same time, she doesn’t waver in her conviction that he deserves to have his voice heard.
“I mean, look, I can’t imagine how difficult this must be for [Hae’s family],” she says. “But that cannot preclude justice for somebody who’s wrongfully incarcerated. So while I respect their sentiment, I wish they were able to have a little bit of faith in the many, many people who have looked at the case and said, ‘Something is very wrong here.’ I wish that they could just be patient and let this story continue to be told. There’s an ongoing investigation, and there’s much yet to be revealed publicly. We’re not quite done yet.”
Will there be a retrial?
Despite the promise of a retrial, anyone hoping for Adnan’s imminent release will be disappointed. Maryland’s attorney general intends to fight the ruling granting him a new trial, and the state has asked that all trial proceedings be halted. The earliest a retrial could conceivably take place would be 2017 or 2018. Chaudry, for her part, doesn’t believe one will be granted at all.
“I cannot imagine the state trying to retry this case,” she says. “I think they’ll be cornered at some point and have to order some kind of deal.” Her money’s on what’s known as an Alford plea, which allows the defendant to maintain their innocence while being legally still found guilty. “It lets the state off the hook, and it lets the defendant come home.”
If they are granted a new trial, however, Chaudry is confident they will win. She and the team of legal professionals with whom she worked on Undisclosed have, she says, a raft of new evidence that would change everything if heard in court.
It was, in fact, her Undisclosed co-producers who changed her mind on a pivotal issue in the case: that of Jay Wilds.
In defence of Jay
At trial in 2000, the prosecution painted Jay as the unwilling accomplice to Adnan’s Machiavellian mastermind, using his testimony to secure Adnan’s conviction. Jay knew details that only someone who was at the scene of the crime could have known; in court, he stated that Adnan had shown him Hae’s body in the boot of his car, in the carpark of their local Best Buy.
For many Serial listeners, the question isn’t: “Who killed Hae?” It’s: “Was it Adnan or was it Jay?”
But Chaudry is as convinced of Jay’s innocence as she is of Adnan’s.
“No, I don’t think it was Jay,” she says, when I bring him up.
You think it was someone else?
“I’m positive it was someone else.”
Jay couldn't keep his story straight because they weren’t his stories
Of course, she won’t say who – although she stresses that when she says “someone else”, she’s thinking of someone specific; a third party whom she doesn’t believe has been investigated properly.
But she wasn’t always so sure. “I always thought it was Jay, because that is the simplest answer. It’s like, well, if it wasn’t Adnan, it had to be Jay – because Jay knew all these details of the crime that nobody else knew, not even Adnan.”
Now, however, she believes that Jay was manipulated and exploited by the police, who had decided ahead of time that they wanted to pin Hae’s murder on Adnan. Chaudry’s explanation for why Jay knew so much about Hae’s death? He was set up.
“The reason Jay’s stories kept changing was the police kept gathering new information,” she says. “They would return to Jay for an interview, and all of a sudden, his story would change to match that information. So this is why Jay couldn’t keep his story straight – because they weren’t his stories.
“He was being fed information by the police, and he had to keep accommodating them as they continued their investigation,” she continues. “That’s why, to this day, Jay is like: ‘You know what, actually, I wasn’t at the burial, I don’t know if [Hae] was killed at Best Buy, I don’t what happened at Best Buy, I was told she was killed at Best Buy.”
I don’t think Jay knows a single thing. I think he was railroaded by the police… And I think he did what he had to do to protect himself
She pauses. “I don’t think Jay knows a single thing. I think he was railroaded by the police – which is not uncommon – and told that either he was going to be charged with the murder, or Adnan was going to be. And I think he did what he had to do to protect himself.”
Whether or not Chaudry’s theory is correct, it seems beyond reasonable doubt that the case was seriously mishandled by police. In the event that Adnan is exonerated, however, Chaudry doesn’t believe that anyone who took part in the first criminal investigation will be held accountable.
“No, I think there’s zero chance of that,” she says, with a hollow laugh. “[The police] are not held to account for killing black men on video, and I mean, that’s on video. There’s never accountability [for police]. That’s why the system remains broken.”
Race, religion and prejudice
Race was one of the issues burning in the background during the initial investigation into Hae’s death. Adnan is the son of Muslim Pakistani immigrants; Jay is African-American; Hae was born in South Korea. Jay has explained the fact that he didn’t go to the police immediately after Adnan told him he had murdered Hae by saying that, as a young black man growing up in ’90s Baltimore, he had learned to fear and distrust the police.
Adnan, for his part, saw his Muslim faith utilised in court, as a prosecutor tried to suggest that he murdered Hae because, in breaking up with him, she had “besmirched” his “honour”.
And of course, this all took place before 9/11, before the Iraq War and the rise of Isis, before the arrival of a Republican presidential candidate who has repeatedly called for Muslims to be banned from the US. Islamophobia is worse in contemporary America, far worse, than it was when Adnan was first sentenced to life in prison.
However, Chaudry doesn’t believe that, in the event of a retrial, the prosecution would try to use the matter of Adnan’s faith in the same way.
“I think if we had a retrial, they would have to be very, very careful about how they approached these issues. In fact, I think they would not approach these issues,” she says. “[And] even though there’s much more anti-Muslim bigotry now, I think our community is much more prepared with a response.”
During the first trial, she says, the wider Muslim-American community was “not organised”. “At this point, though, if somebody tried to use those types of issues, we would very, very quickly shut that down.”
Conversation turns to what will happen if Adnan is released. Is he prepared for the media onslaught that will inevitably ensue? He’ll be almost unbearably famous. Publishers, publicists, journalists (fans, too, I’d imagine) will all be beating down his door. It would be difficult for anyone to deal with, let alone someone who’s been in prison for the past 16 years. But Chaudry is confident he’ll be able to handle it.
“You know, he’s one of those people,” she says. “As a 17-year-old he had to learn how to adjust in prison. I think he’ll figure it out just fine. He’ll have a lot of family and community support, and it won’t be easy, but I think he’ll be OK.”
And Chaudry? What will she do, when – if – this chapter of her life comes to a close?
“Even though people don’t really realise [it], I do have a full-time job, and I do other things,” she says. “So I will continue my work. And I’m going to go back to my life.”
Adnan's Story by Rabia Chaudry (Century, £14.99) is out now.
Top image: photo by Ayesha Ahmad.