A Baltimore teenager, Adnan Syed, was forcefully awakened early Sunday morning by detectives. Told to dress, he was quickly cuffed and escorted out of his room. The family patriarch was out of town. His mother Shamim was frantic. Tanveer and Yusef, the other Syed brothers, were helpless in the chaos.
The 17-year-old would not return home on February 28, 1999.
Adnan was arrested, charged, and convicted for the murder of Hae Min Lee.
From the beginning, Adnan has been imprisoned for what seems like a lifetime. Some land mark events have happened while behind bars: Four presidential elections, five separate Olympics, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina. Adnan did not experience the private milestones that hold greater meaning such as attending senior prom, graduating high school with friends, attending college, etc.
The premiere of a podcast in 2014 shifted everything. The obscure case of Adnan’s ex-girlfriend’s murder was formed into twelve captivating episodes on Serial. Rabia Chaudry, friend to the Syed Rahman family, is responsible for directing this case towards the podcast. Rabia recently published ADNAN’S STORY, a book entailing Adnan’s life from prior to conviction until now, in addition to her journey.
Hae and Adnan met during Biology class on their first day of 9th grade. Although the Woodlawn High freshmen would officially become boyfriend and girlfriend during junior year, they surreptitiously kept their relationship away from family. Dating is forbidden for Muslims, especially for the Syed household. Otherwise, why wouldn’t Hae and Adnan go for each other? Both were good looking, scholastic, and athletic.
Ordinarily, they acted like regular American teenagers.
Meanwhile, Rabia lived a stricter lifestyle. She was married into a traditional joint family system. A 22 year old mother and wife, Rabia juggled living with her husband’s family while interning for law school. Weekend stays at her mother’s home brought solace. With her toddler in tow, Rabia didn’t have to think twice about preparing meals and cleaning the house. One evening during her very deserving R&R, the local news reported about the disappearance of a teen, Hae Min Lee. After school on January 13, 1999, Hae vanished without a trace. Everyday she astutely picked up her niece at daycare around 3:15PM.
But on this fateful Wednesday, the child was not picked up.
The Lee family reported Hae missing to the Baltimore County Police.
Rabia watched the segment in utter oblivion without knowing her significant role in the missing girl’s case for weeks, months, and decades to come.
Hae was strangled to death and hastily dumped in Leakin Park. Her body was discovered on February 9, 1999, by a janitor trekking the park because he needed to pee very badly. Family and friends became very shocked when Adnan was arrested for Hae’s homicide, especially for Rabia because that was her younger brother’s best friend.
Jay Wilds implicated during multiple police interviews in multiple version of events that Adnan killed Hae. Jay was just the middleman. He assisted the killer by transporting their cars, burying the body, and dumping shovels utilized for the crime scene. Even during a 2014 interview with The Intercept, Jay perjured himself by stating another story of events that happened on January 13, 1999.
In conjunction with Jay’s testimony and cell phone tower records supposedly tying killer and accomplice around Leakin Park, Adnan was convicted during his second trial (the first resulted in mistrial). Life plus thirty years was his damning sentence.
While Adnan was assimilating into prison, Rabia was dealing with her own problems. A fight that erupted one night in 2001 led her to leave her home, daughter, and marriage. As hardworking and devoting Rabia was towards the family she married into, her spouse outright lied to Child Protective Services that she fed drugs to their child. Thankfully, Rabia was cleared of any wrongdoing and her ex-husband relinquished custody.
Adnan served some of his early sentence at Jessup. This prison was conveniently located 20-30 minutes from where the Syed family lived. Jessup was remarkable for being very lax. A few times in the year friends and family of the inmates would corral in a yard or gymnasium for special family visits. Barbecue and live music served as the main events. Sometimes during these gatherings couples would openly have sex while guards looked the other way, even though kissing and hugging were not allowed for per longed periods. A sight like that would make any outsider blush. Then came the time when the prison librarian asked Adnan to drop off some books in her car. He literally walked outside with the keys in hand and placed the books in the trunk.
One of the highlights of Adnan’s Jessup stint was meeting Kandra. In otherwise regular and restrictive codes that would normally set in place with most facilities, people could casually stroll in during visitation at Jessup without requiring to be on a predetermined list. The young, mocha-skinned college student from North Carolina was hanging out in the visitation room when she first noticed Adnan.
Kandra was transfixed on the handsome stranger.
The feeling was reciprocated quickly. Long story short, Adnan and Kandra got married in 2008. As doting, communicative, and in love the pair were, the marriage didn’t last for long. This chapter of Adnan’s life would be a surprise to many Serial listeners because the podcast never mentioned it.
Rabia met her current husband, Irfan, while handing out flyers regarding Adnan’s case during an Islamic convention. A measly $178 was collected in donations. Soon after Irfan emailed Rabia about possibly raising funds or petitioning to write letters for her imprisoned friend. Irfan was a faceless figure in Rabia’s mind because she held a vague memory of the people she interacted with at the convention. Eventually they became pen pals. Irfan mustered up the courage in proposing to his future wife on instant messenger (adorable pre-smartphone move). Rabia held off until they finally married in 2005. A baby was on board a few years later.
The whole time Rabia did not stop championing for Adnan.
The turning point occurred one August night in 2013. While scouring Netflix, Rabia caught eye of West of Memphis. This true crime documentary dealt with the faulty convictions of three Arkansas teenagers for a triple homicide that occurred in 1993. One of the teenagers, Damien Echols, was sentenced on death row. The entire time that Adnan has been imprisoned, he felt reluctant to share his case with the media. Learning about the advocacy and media that accompanies investigations like the West Memphis 3 was inspiring. Rabia decided enough is enough: she emailed Sarah Koenig that night. Sarah had previously written a Baltimore Sun article about Cristina Guiterrez’ disbarment in the legal community. Cristina represented Adnan during his two trials.
Sarah was working on This American Life, a popular public radio show, when the Rabia’s email arrived. I appreciate that Sarah didn’t stammer or budge. Right away she looked into the case.
And so the journey began…
Serial became a juggernaut success. Premiering on October 3, 2014, Rabia and company literally did not foresee people getting enamored with a case involving a Muslim teen and his Korean ex-girlfriend.
I hadn’t ever heard of This American Life. Talk radio was never in my radar. Entertainment Weekly tweeted something along the lines of a new podcast to obsess about every Thursday. And they sure were right. I instantly downloaded Serial without any hesitation. A true crime story told on a podcast?
Hae Min Lee’s case was the first true crime mystery I had ever heard on any podcast. The date of her disappearance threw me in for a loop because my birthday is January 13. My Serial obsession was utterly real. Everyday I scoured the Serial subreddit, Rabia’s Twitter and blog, and constantly discussed episodes with passionate followers on social media. During Monday afternoons I watched those Google Hangouts where a Georgia media professor, Pete Rorabough, would go over the latest episode with Rabia. Vividly I remember eating Doritos while hearing their analysis.
During Serial’s run I first glimpsed Adnan through photos. The metamorphosis from boy to man happened so fast. There are pictures of a slim and beardless Adnan in his teens, then there are prison photos where he’s just heavily bearded and packed with muscle. Truly the transformation stunned me.
The internet posted a video where Hae was interviewed by a local education channel shortly before her death. Hae made a special highlight of this interview on a doting note to her new boyfriend, Don. This video blew my mind. Seeing her in complete motion was too surreal. I replayed the interview a couple of times for my brain to process the rawness.
Dedicated listeners like myself woke up around 5AM EST for the Thursday premieres. While we didn’t want Serial to completely cease, all the good things must end though. The final curtain call happened on December 18, 2014. The last episode was pretty satisfactory. I remained melancholy for more material but at the same time was happy to have participated in such a unique moment in podcast history.
The day after Christmas, December 26, 2014, I dropped off my Abe Lincoln stamped envelope in a mailbox. Yours truly wrote to Adnan. Five weeks later my anticipated reply finally arrived. Adnan’s words were very courteous. Besides acknowledging my support, he was guessing the etymology behind my name and mentioned having watched American Hustle starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. Overall the tone was friendly.
The excruciating wait in between letters became an exercise. I learned right away the pain and plight of families of inmates for being limited and restricted in communication. Exorbitant prices on phone calls and weeks of wait in receiving mail is downright exhausting and unfair for the incarcerated. Adnan personally wrote back twice. To think that he has been through this for 17 years with his family and friends is unthinkable.
A host of podcasts about the podcast surfaced immediately. People still couldn’t stop talking about the murder. Two bloggers separately and meticulously wrote about Serial. Susan Simpson and Colin Miller’s blogs caught impressive wind with Rabia because of their legalistic and investigative insight. All three individuals banded together for Undisclosed —the podcast that delved deeper into Hae Min Lee’s case— in April of 2015.
Undisclosed has successfully amassed 100 million listens.
Bob Ruff from Truth & Justice is not afraid to ask the tough questions. Going straight to the source are the parts I appreciate most about Bob, like when he messaged Jay about the Crimestoppers reward or asked Don about the falsified time sheets. I wish I was passionate about something like how Colin continually blogs about case law. Susan’s swift observation on every little detail is a worthy trait. Rabia has been a dedicated crusader since the get-go. She’s gotta be the most self-involved person I’ve ever seen. I cannot forget about Sarah Koenig’s inviting and moving storytelling.
Collectively everybody possesses admiring qualities.
ADNAN’S STORY serves as a double-down for people who understand the case inside and out. My dad thought the guy on the book cover was Nasir from HBO’s The Night Of. I literally laughed hearing that. Introducing the podcasts and blogs beforehand would be useful in understanding the gritty details. “Life Plus Thirty” and the subsequent chapters were my favorite. Adnan’s imprisonment ignited family dysfunction, pain, and struggle. Despite it all, through letters written to Rabia and personal anecdotes discussing the chapters, Adnan sounds positive and strong. He never wavers in his convictions.
The movement towards broadcasting potential wrongful convictions is making memorable measures. Brenden Dassey from Making A Murderer had his conviction overturned. Recently on the Reply All podcast, a series of episodes called “On The Inside” featured the case of Paul Modrowski, a teenager convicted on a theory of accountability charge for a 1992 murder in Chicago. The upcoming theatrical release of Southwest of Salem focuses on four Texas women who were convicted for raping kids. There will always be room for a fresh pair of eyes to reevaluate faulty investigations.
The case of Adnan Syed is crumbling before the state of Maryland. Many forces are uncovering information that brings even more reasonable doubt. Asia McClain serves as a trusting and credible alibi witness on Adnan’s behalf. Jay’s accounts and the prosecution’s theory contradict their versions of the murder. Hae’s boyfriend, Don, wasn’t investigated with the vigor like her ex. Seemingly there are gaps in Don’s alibi.
The most fundamental part in this whole advocacy was Adnan being granted a new trial. The steps going forward are percolating in the background. Adnan’s case would not have garnered the special attention without new key players analyzing the investigation. Whatever actually happened on January 13, 1999 remains a mystery among armchair detectives, lawyers, journalists, and many other people who are equally fascinated. We all remain in wait.