Rabia Chaudry doesn't believe in coincidences. She believes she's been in the right place, at the right time, her whole life — and that she was destined to become the public advocate of Adnan Syed. Syed's flawed trial for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, became the focus of the podcast Serial and the upcoming four-part HBO documentary The Case Against Adnan Syed, out March 10.
"We did the biggest podcast in the world. A New York Times bestselling book. And now, HBO, the most premiere platform in the world," Chaudry told Refinery29. "Where can I go from here? I don’t have any more cards to play, at this point. This better be it, is all I keep thinking."
When Syed was accused of strangling Lee in 1999, Chaudry was a 24-year-old mother working toward a law degree. She'd known Syed for years — he and her younger brother became best friends when they were 13 and Chaudry was in college. "I remember going to Adnan and saying, 'You need to stop hanging out with my brother, because my brother is going to corrupt you,'" she recalled, laughing.
Chaudry didn't know it back then, but during those visits in a Baltimore jail, she was laying down the groundwork for a fight that would take up two decades of her life, and counting.
"I'd visit him in prison, but I'd never talk about the case. I didn't want to depress him. But I wish I had. I wish I'd doubled down and said, 'What do you know? What do we need to find out?'" Chaudry said. "I wish I had really inserted myself instead of being nervous and saying, 'Oh, they have a lawyer, they’ll figure it out.'"
In 2000, Syed was convicted of murder and sentenced to life plus 30 years in prison. For the young Chaudry, who believed Syed was innocent and the victim of a shoddy defence, this decision radically reoriented her understanding of the criminal justice system. "I grew up watching Dateline and 20/20. In those shows, the detectives always get it right," she said.
Nothing is going to happen if you don’t do anything — but something could happen if you do.
In 2014, Chaudry would pitch Syed's story to Sarah Koenig of NPR. The ensuing podcast, Serial, had the same effect on many listeners as the trial had on Chaudry. "It cast a skeptical light on the system and made people question the things that they'd just accepted for years," she said (the third season of Serial was devoted to uncovering the mechanics of the criminal justice system).
But before Serial, Chaudry had been working for the Syed family privately for years. In addition to working as an immigration lawyer and raising three daughters, she fundraised and provided logistical support to Syed family. Serial changed everything — for the genre of true crime, and for those who knew Syed and Lee.
Though Chaudry isn't recognised on the street (yet), she's a public figure when it comes to the fervent Serial discussions on Reddit. "During Serial and shortly thereafter, we didn’t know how to handle the vitriol on social media. At some point I realised none of it was working. Leaving it alone has been much more effective," Chaudry said.
Chaudry walked away from Reddit debates, but not from the case. Capitalizing on Serial's momentum, Chaudry left her law firm and devoted herself to writing Adnan's Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial, an exhaustively researched book that presents key new evidence in dismantling the state's case against Syed. "I wrote 800 pages in six months," Chaudry laughed. "It was edited down to 400." In the book, Chaudry also contextualises the Pakistani-American community in which both she and Syed were raised.
While Chaudry is happy Serial was made, she found the podcast left Syed's story unfinished and questions unanswered. "There are things from an evidentiary standpoint that they didn’t explore. Or things that they didn't get right," Chaudry says.
For Chaudry, her book was the first step in filling in Serial's investigative holes. The HBO documentary series, created by Amy Berg, is the second. "From an investigative standpoint, The Case Against Adnan Syed is tremendous. There are a lot of moving parts in this case, and that's hard to capture, but Amy did such an amazing job. What this series does is show how badly the state got it wrong," Chaudry said.
In addition to presenting a cohesive case of the 2000 flawed investigation, The Case Against Adnan Syed focuses on the families and friends deeply affected by the crime. Above all, it gives Lee a voice: The documentary interweaves Lee's diary, making her a narrator of the first episode. "It also brings Hae to life in a way that is so moving to me," Chaudry said.
Currently, Syed is stuck in legal limbo. In 2018, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals granted Syed a retrial on all charges — a major progression. Then, the State of Maryland appealed this decision and sought to reinstate his murder conviction. In November 2018, lawyers argued the case at Maryland's highest court. Judges are still deliberating.
The documentary, in a way, puts the state's evidence on trial. Chaudry hopes it works — though abandoning Syed's case isn't a question. "Obviously, if we don’t win this final appeal that’s pending right now, it’s not like we’re going to give up," Chaudry said.
Despite the day of the decision looming, Chaudry tries to avoid focusing on the outcome of her years of work. She's still calling Syed once a week with updates from the outside world (he's never heard Serial or seen the HBO documentary); she's still fighting. "Our responsibility is not to the outcome. It's to the work. My mom always said, 'You're not allowed to sit on your hands. You have to do something.' Nothing is going to happen if you don’t do anything — but something could happen if you do."