The lawyer and executive producer of The Case Against Adnan Syed wants people to understand the role that Syed’s faith and ethnicity played in his story. Warning: this article contains spoilers.
Rabia Chaudry is arguably one of the most famous female Muslim lawyers in the world. The attorney came to international attention in 2014 when she appeared in Serial, the smash hit podcast about the 1999 murder of high school student Hae Min Lee. In Serial, investigative reporter Sarah Koenig dug into the investigation into Lee’s death and the subsequent conviction of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, who has always maintained his innocence.
Chaudry is an old family friend of Syed’s – they grew up together in Baltimore, and her brother was his best friend – and it was she who brought his story to Koenig’s attention. In the years since Serial launched, she has continued to fight on Syed’s behalf and campaigned for his release from prison, arguing that serious flaws in his original trial in 2000 mean he is entitled to be tried a second time.
But earlier this month, the highest court in the state of Maryland announced that it would not be granting Adnan Syed a retrial. The news came as a major blow to Chaudry, and cast a strange light over the new four-part documentary about the investigation into Lee’s death that she executive produced: The Case Against Adnan Syed.
The series, which will air from 1 April on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV at 9pm, contains several new revelations about the case, including the fact that none of Syed’s DNA was found on Lee’s body or in her car – and that the results of Lee’s autopsy may not match the state of Maryland’s theory as to how she died.
As things stand at the moment, however, these revelations have done nothing to change the fact that Syed remains behind bars, with no retrial currently on the horizon.
At a screening of the first episode of The Case Against Adnan Syed in London, Chaudry acknowledged that the Maryland court’s ruling was a significant setback in her mission to free Syed. However, she said she hoped the new documentary would help his cause.
“In many ways we are starting back at zero, and I think this series is going to bring forward evidence that I think is going to open some avenues for us,” she said. “The legal fight is continued. I thought he’d be home this year but I think it’s going to take a few more years.”
Apart from presenting evidence that could potentially help Syed’s cause, Chaudry said there was another, more “subtle” element of The Case Against Adnan Syed that she hopes will make an impression on viewers: “the fact that we are talking about a Muslim community”.
In the wake of 9/11, Chaudry said, “the only stories about [Muslims] revolve around terrorism. So for me, it’s been really important that people are able to see this story of a Muslim family and an American Muslim boy, and understand the anti-Muslim bias that fed into his conviction way before 9/11, and the uphill battle that minorities also face in in the legal system because of this.”
Chaudry said she hopes people absorb this aspect of the series, particularly given that we’re currently living in “the era of the Muslim ban in the United States”. In June 2018, the United States Supreme Court upheld Donald Trump’s decision to restrict travel into the US from seven countries, most of which have a predominantly Muslim population: Iran, North Korea, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Venezuela.
Anti-Muslim bias in the legal system is not the only way that Syed’s faith played a part in his story. In the first episode of The Case Against Adnan Syed, Chaudry explains that many of Syed’s friends and relatives were extremely wary of speaking to the authorities, and suggests that this may have meant people were reluctant to testify on his behalf. Syed’s parents moved to the US from Pakistan before he was born, and most of their community also came from immigrant South Asian Muslim families. Many of these people were used to corruption in their home countries, Chaudry says, and were heavily predisposed to view the police and judicial system with fear and suspicion.
This distrust was arguably not unwarranted. At the screening in London, Chaudry said the Baltimore police department was known for being corrupt and had “a lot of historic racism” in its background. In 2016, the US Justice Department released a damning report on the Baltimore police which denounced the force as institutionally racist, while a police officer was found guilty of fabricating evidence in a drugs case last November. Multiple other former Baltimore police officers are currently serving jail time on charges related to corruption.
“Baltimore in the Nineties was not that much different than Baltimore is today when it comes to the Baltimore police department,” Chaudry said.
But despite their suspicions about the authorities, when Syed was eventually convicted for Lee’s murder in 2000, many members of his community accepted the court’s judgement.
“When Adnan was arrested, the community rallied around him,” Chaudry said. “Everybody said, ‘This is a big mistake; something is wrong here.’” When he was sentenced to life in prison, though, “people didn’t understand what had happened,” she continued. “They kind of stopped supporting him and walked away.”
Ultimately, Chaudry said, she hopes that The Case Against Adnan Syed provides people with a greater understanding of the legal system in the US, and how difficult it can be to navigate.
“There is this perception from a lot of people who don’t understand the system that if you’ve been convicted beyond a reasonable doubt, there’s got to be some hefty evidence in there,” she said. But she thinks there were “many, many leads” and pieces of evidence that police failed to pursue – whether because of “incompetence or deliberate neglect” – that she believes could have exonerated Syed.
Viewers of The Case Against Adnan Syed will see all of the evidence relating to this particular case, Chaudry said. “But they’re also going to experience what the legal system is like anyways: how many years it takes to get another appeal, how difficult it is to get back in court, and how it takes decades to get someone another chance.”
The Case against Adnan Syed will air from 1 April on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV at 9pm, with the boxset available to stream in its entirety with NOW TV’s contract-free Entertainment Pass.
Images: Getty Images / HBO