If you listened to the wildly popular podcast Serial, you likely gasped in outrage more than a few times hearing the way Adnan Syed’s murder trial was handled. Whether you believe he’s innocent in the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee or not, it’s hard to argue that he got a fair trial, and it’s even harder to argue that our legal system isn’t seriously flawed… especially if you spend any time listening to Rabia Chaudry.
Chaudry is a family friend of Syed’s who brought his case to the attention of Sarah Koenig, a producer at This American Life, and opened the world’s eyes to Syed’s 2000 conviction. She recently released a book titled Adnan’s Story, and sat down to speak with SheKnows about it.
What she has to say not only about how Adnan’s case was handled, but also about the case of Joey Watkins (the case she’s currently unraveling on her Undisclosed podcast) was handled leaves you wondering just what is going on in this country. We pride ourselves on everyone being innocent until proven guilty, but Chaudry points out systemic flaws in our justice system that perpetuate just the opposite.
“Adnan was arrested before they did any testing on the forensic evidence they found,” Chaudry said. “Something is backward to me about that. The hair found on Hae’s body was tested after he was arrested. Then they go and interview all of the people at high school after his arrest. These things really impact witness statements. They have a singular focus, which is to find evidence to make their case — not to find evidence and then make the case. So I think that is to begin with completely backward. I think they should gather evidence and then decide what suspect it points to. “
She also believes there’s inconsistency and a lack of review in the way persons of interest are treated. For example, with Syed, she says they took the fingerprints, the hair sample and saliva swabs, but they did none of that with Don, Hae’s boyfriend, who she was supposed to see that day.
“They did not fingerprint [Don], they did not get his hair sample. That hair they found that didn’t match anyone else. It could have been his,” Chaudry told SheKnows. “They found 16 sets of fingerprints in the car that didn’t match anybody… nobody knows. They didn’t fingerprint anyone in Hae’s family — not an uncle, not a cousin. There’s so much that should have been done.”
She also finds it infuriating that in so many cases witnesses’ statements are not taped, which leads to significant problems.
“A lot of time reports aren’t written for days or weeks after. In [Syed’s] case, there were some reports written in September for interviews that had taken place in March. Think about that — how are you going to remember exactly what happens? The second thing is you end up with whatever that detective wants us to know. He decides what’s going to be in that report. He can leave things out. This happens all the time. You go back to witnesses years later and they say, ‘that’s not what I said.’”
She also believes in the need for open files, which was not the case during Syed’s trial. “The defense should have access to everything the state and prosecution have access to. There’s no reason unless you’re trying to manipulate evidence, there’s no reason to hide evidence you find. The state has all the power to gather evidence, the defense has almost none. If truth and justice is really what the state is interested in, then everything should be available to everybody,” she said.
So has anything gotten better in the 16 years since Syed’s case? “No,” she says, bluntly.
On the other hand, she says the way Syed’s religion and ethnicity were brought up over and over again in his trial would not be allowed by the Muslim community today.
“The climate is much worse today than it was then, but the big difference today is that the Muslim community is also much more organized today if something like this were to happen today. We are now aware enough, we have grown up as a community that we wouldn’t allow that to happen. We would shut that down. In ‘99 the adults in our community were our parents, and they didn’t know how to handle these things. We didn’t have civil rights awareness — today we would.”
She says while in the last couple of years the state has backpedaled in a couple of interviews and said Syed’s case had nothing to do with his religion or ethnicity, that’s simply not true.
“You’re outright lying,” she said. “You brought up his ethnicity and religion dozens and dozens and dozens of times. The defense didn’t introduce that. That was your evidence. The state is the one who called witnesses like one of Adnan’s peers as a kid at the local mosque and asked… how do you pray, how do you hold your hands when you pray, is premarital sex allowed. Now for them to dial it back… they know that it was egregious. It was unconstitutional. They should be ashamed of themselves that they even did it. They know that they were wrong. “
So what are the chances that Syed will get a fair trial if he is ever granted one? Will his story end like that of Brendan Dassey, whose conviction for helping his uncle kill a woman in 2005 was recently overturned?
“[The state] can’t get away with a thing now if it goes to trial again — which I think is highly unlikely — because I think the state knows they’re in deep doo-doo. Jay (Wilds) is completely useless, the medical evidence doesn’t support their theory, the cellphone stuff is just complete junk science. What are they going to hang their hat on? We are prepared for everything, have an incredible legal team right now. We are so prepared. If it goes to trial, we win. If it doesn’t go to trial, and they offer him some kind of deal, I don’t know how that would be handled.”
As for Syed, Chaudry says he’s more optimistic today than ever, though he has a healthy reservation as to what the outcome might be.
“He’s OK,” she said. “But at the end of the day, he’ll never get back his 17 years with his family.”