I first moved to Baltimore in February 2001, just a year after Adnan Syed was found guilty of murdering his ex-girlfriend and fellow Woodlawn High School classmate Hae Min Lee. The story had largely disappeared from the news by that time, because it seemed like an open-and-shut case. According to the narrative, Adnan Syed had killed his ex-girlfriend, then dumped her body in Leakin Park with the assistance of his friend and drug dealer. The state had made a strong case against him and Syed had been found guilty on all counts.
In "Adnan's Story: The Search for Truth and Justice after Serial," Rabia Chaudry writes movingly of how Syed's community collapsed around him. His Woodlawn High School friends and teachers—despite knowing Syed as a friendly, sociable, honors student and athlete—seemed to accept the guilty verdict. So did many people in the Muslim community in Baltimore. She recounts meeting one Pakistani-American socialite, a fan of Serial, who flippantly told Chaudry, "Even though I think he's guilty, it's rather wonderful what you've all done." During the investigation and the trial, Syed's support in his community had begun to disintegrate, Chaudry recounts. Friends of the Syed family, to whom Chaudry refers as the "aunties and uncles" of Baltimore's Pakistani Muslim community, disappeared from their lives slowly, until the Syeds felt abandoned.
On the other hand, Chaudry, a law student at the time, and her family always believed in Syed's innocence. During Syed's trial, Chaudry had been frustrated with his lawyer's incompetence and the strain of religious bias she sensed in the prosecution's case. Eventually, when other legal avenues seemed closed to Syed, Chaudry contacted the media to tell his story. The rest is well known: Sarah Koenig, formerly of the Baltimore Sun, featured Syed's story in, as Chaudry writes, "something called a podcast." Though Chaudry's immediate thought was "What the heck was a podcast?" "Serial" quickly became the most successful one in history. It won a Peabody Award and, to date, has been downloaded more than 500 million times.
Koenig and her team thoroughly investigated Syed's case, but Serial did not declare Syed's innocence. However, it did raise important questions about gaps in the State's case against him—enough to create a global sensation and a movement to give Syed a new trial. Collaborating with two partners, Susan Simpson and Colin Miller, Chaudry hosted her own successful podcast, Undisclosed, in which she revealed the evidence that Serial had left out: a potential new suspect, evidence that Lee's body had been kept somewhere for several hours before being buried in the park, and proof that the police had coached the key witness, Jay Wilds, during his testimony. The social media campaign in support of Syed continued to mount.
And now we have "Adnan's Story," the newest addition to the "Serial" canon, and Chaudry's attempt to recount the story from the beginning to the present moment: in which, as America knows, Adnan Syed has finally been granted a new trial. (The book actually ends with the cliffhanger of the family and support team awaiting Judge Welch's ruling, but the final edition has been updated with a letter by Chaudry.)
Chaudry writes convincingly of the way in which the state found Adnan guilty on the basis of his religion. She describes the troubling involvement of Mandy Johnson, a so-called "expert" on Muslim culture, who was hired as a private investigator early in the case. As Chaudry discovered during Sarah Koenig's thorough investigation for "Serial," Johnson had provided the police with a memo about Muslim culture. The memo, which had been found in the police files but had never been seen by Syed's defense team, can only be described as racist. According to Chaudry, one section of Johnson's memo included information on "Sexual Attitudes" of Muslims, including the stereotype that "a reasonable option for strict Muslim family, if one of its men engaged in pre-marital relations with a non-Muslim woman, would be 'arranging for her demise.'"
In addition to defending her community against such entrenched racist tropes, Chaudry calls attention again and again to a lack of good police work. For example, why was Don Clinedist, Lee's boyfriend at the time of her murder, dismissed as a suspect so quickly? Why was it not revealed that his alibi, his manager at LensCrafters, was actually his mother and that his time cards were altered? In fact, Chaudry outlines and supports quite convincingly the way in which the state—perhaps subscribing to the racist beliefs about Adnan's Muslim faith—fabricated the case against him, including moving Lee's car from its original location to match Jay Wilds' ever-changing story and to pin the crime on Syed.
Chaudry also describes the people who failed Syed: his lawyer, Cristina Gutierrez, who never interviewed Asia McClain, a Woodlawn student who claimed that she'd seen Adnan at the Woodlawn library at 2:45 p.m., the time he was allegedly murdering Lee. Chaudry also indicts Bilal Ahmed, a member of the community who initially hired Gutierrez and who was a mentor to Syed, but was a person leading a double life.
"Adnan's Story" often turns the narrative over to Syed in the form of long letters he writes to the outside world—some of the most intriguing sections of the book. He maintains his innocence and regrets the way in which his family has been affected and his religion maligned. While he grew up attending the local mosque and being raised in a Muslim family with conservative values, Syed says that he also enjoyed the life of a typical American teenager; many young people feel that tension between the pull of their parents and the temptation of their friends, and a Muslim Pakistani teenager is no different. In one letter, he says, "I'll be honest, I hate hearing/reading that portion of my adolescence being described as a 'double life.'" He also describes how, as a prisoner, he feels emotionally burdened by the assumption that he is guilty, and his compulsion to act in ways that don't evoke further suspicion. Ironically, he writes that his fellow prisoners know him better than anyone, and he is grateful for their trust in him: "The people in here know I am not a liar or manipulative because they have been around me for almost 17 years, and I have never exhibited those characteristics." Adnan Syed, who was granted a new trial this summer, will have a chance to make that case in court in the days ahead.
While it often feels unwieldy and the prose overwrought, Chaudry's book will appeal to "Serial" fans because of its fascinating store of information (the final version is apparently much shorter than the original manuscript, which was around 800 pages). Part legal thriller and part cultural memoir of the Pakistani Muslim community, "Adnan's Story" is an engaging and worthwhile read.
"Adnan's Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial," by Rabia Chaudry, St. Martin's Press, $26.99