Sixteen years after the murder of 18-year-old Hae Min Lee, longtime presumed killer (and alleged wrongful convictee) Adnan Syed is awaiting a new trial, and one of his most ardent defenders says that continuous advocacy is the key to freeing innocents who have been incarcerated.
Attorney Rabia Chaudry, author of "Adnan's Story" and the catalyst behind Sarah Koenig's first season of "Serial," sprang to Syed's defense after he was convicted of first degree murder in 2000. In the almost two decades since, she has continued to advocate for Syed, whose retrial was ordered in June, in person and online, hoping to capitalize off momentum sparked by "Serial's" success.
"The role of the advocate is to keep public attention alive consistently and to tell a better story. And this is one thing I learned from 'Serial’ that I didn't know," Chaudry said during a presentation at Towson University last night. "I had been involved in advocacy for many years and we always talked about issues. We didn't talk about stories. And what 'Serial' did was tell a great story that got people interested in the issues."
She explained to the crowd of students and faculty that programs like "Serial" and "Making a Murder" have started to draw the public eye to the criminal justice system. People are interested in holding police and court officials accountable, but that interest has to be kept up over time in order to make any kind of difference.
"The kind of public awareness and scrutiny that can come from something like 'Serial' or 'Making a Murderer,' it has profound impacts on actual cases. These things matter, but ongoing advocacy has to be present too," she said. "If 'Serial' had gone on, and there was no advocacy or if I hadn't started blogging and tweeting and responding and saying, 'Wait a minute, there's more to the story,' we would absolutely not be where we are today."
Kathleen Zellner, an attorney who has worked extensively to overturn wrongful convictions, routinely uses social media to draw attention to court failings and misconduct. Zellner is currently representing Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who served 18 years in prison for sexual assault and attempted murder before being exonerated and convicted of an unrelated murder in 2007. Zellner's firm began representing Avery, whose story was catalogued in 2015 Netflix documentary series "Making a Murderer," earlier this year, as he continues to claim innocence.
Chaudry said Zellner is doing things right.
"She is not just a good lawyer, but she's a good advocate, because she's constantly tweeting about the case. And what she does by doing that is letting the attorney general's office in Wisconsin know that, 'I have a message for the public and they're watching you,'" Chaudry said. "What she's doing is showing the public that the state is dragging their feet."
To build on the progress "Serial" made on Syed's case, Chaudry, along with co-hosts Colin Miller and Susan Simpson, launched "Undisclosed," a follow-up podcast that is more about policy than story but still aims to investigate wrongful convictions. Despite that, she said that you'll never win an argument on social media with policy citations or statistics. Instead, she recommended using a story about your husband, your cat, your kids.
"As an advocate, I realized I used to use those platforms only for advocacy. I realized I was never posting stuff about myself as a human being," Chaudry said. "And that stuff I think is so much more effective in dealing with bigotry."
Off the airwaves, outside of "Serial" interviews and the podcast "Undisclosed," Chaudry is a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace, where she studies the intersection between religion and violent extremism, in addition to being a wife and mother.
In her talk, Chaudry also touched on issues of Islamophobia and the misrepresentation of Middle Eastern populations, a topic close to her heart—and a focus of her policy work and research. Her presentation addressed misconceptions and lingering biases that Americans have against Muslims. Not all women wear a veil or feel oppressed. Not all men are controlling or dastardly.
"Social media has not just worked in social justice issues," Chaudry said. "Even though things have been very difficult for Muslim people after 9/11, in the face of all those media images and narratives, we’re getting better at taking the narratives back."