For her steadfast and powerful advocacy of a family friend wrongly convicted of murder, Rabia Chaudry is one of the Lawyers We Love™.
If you’ve been hiding under a rock, you won’t know the story of Adnan Syed, the Baltimore high school senior convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend in 1999.
Rabia Chaudry is the driving force behind his blind luck.
Rabia was a second-year law student at George Mason when Adnan was arrested for the murder of Hae Min Lee. She’d heard of the murder because Adnan was her little brother’s best friend.
A longtime friend of Adnan’s family, she’d watched him grow up in the 90s with the other kids in Baltimore’s thriving Muslim community. She could never believe him capable of killing a fellow student and dumping her body in a park.
But as a struggling student, newly married (to an abusive man) and with a newborn baby, she could do nothing to help Adnan at the time.
Even after passing the bar exam — it took a few tries — and starting a career as a government lawyer, Rabia could offer little more than moral support. Her own specialty was immigration law, not criminal defense.
But she continued to support Adnan’s innocence following his conviction. She stayed in touch, found him lawyers for appeals, maintained the case files and studied them for clues that could free him.
Like most post-conviction appeals, Adnan’s got flushed. His life sentence was beginning to look like life.
Fifteen years after Adnan was convicted and sentenced, Rabia took her box of files to This American Life producer Sarah Koenig, and the Serial podcast was born. The series never determined Adnan’s guilt or innocence, but it punched enough holes in the prosecutor’s case (and in Adnan’s incompetent defense) that a new trial was deemed necessary.
Public pressure didn’t hurt. Downloaded half a billion times, Serial’s success compelled mainstream media to cover Adnan’s case. It also inspired criminal justice bloggers and subReddits to investigate the case.
Some of those investigations hit pay dirt, casting serious doubt on cell tower evidence and witnesses that were crucial to Adnan’s conviction at trial.
Rabia wasn’t always happy with the way Serial told Adnan’s story. She wanted the producers to view and portray him as an innocent victim of the criminal justice system.
But she was dealing with good reporters, and the best reporters try not to take a position on their stories. They do their jobs and let their readers and listeners make up their own minds.
Rabia, on the other hand, is an advocate. It’s her job to take a firm position and argue it. When Serial finished its season, she started a podcast of her own, Undisclosed, to tell the story as she saw it.
And she wrote a book, just released this month, fittingly entitled Adnan’s Story.
The state of Maryland has appealed the order granting Adnan a new trial, but it’s widely expected to fail. The state could certainly retry him, but the case they won at trial is in shreds, and they’d face thousands of online investigators who believe in Adnan’s innocence.
Adnan Syed could soon be a free man.
The way pro se litigants are treated in court makes us pick on lawyers a lot here. But Rabia Chaudry is a true advocate. Adnan is someone she’s never represented, someone who’s never paid her a dime.
I have the highest respect for what she’s done in his case.