Adnan's Story:The Search for Truth and Justice after Serial by Rabia Chaudry (St. Martin's Press, 2016)
Injustice in the American system of jurisprudence is a hot topic, especially today with groups such as the Innocence Project investigating old cases in which the convicted have an opportunity to have their cases examined outside the confines of our legal system. As scientific testing methods, particularly DNA evidence, have become more sophisticated, hundreds of wrongly convicted inmates are seeking opportunities to clear themselves and be set free. When cases are reversed following such scrutiny, one cannot help but ask the question “Is there something fundamentally wrong with the justice system in America today?” This is one of the essential questions underlying Rabia Chaudry's Adnan's Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial.
In recent years the media has played a huge role in the public's obsession with criminology, particularly with television shows such as CSI, Criminal Minds, and Forensic Files. Last year's Netflix phenom, The Making of a Murderer, exposed the case of a man, Steven Avery, who was wrongfully convicted in a rape case in Wisconsin, that evolved into an even darker story as it has developed. Podcasts, such as Serial, produced by Sarah Koenig, of This American Life, have reached more than 500 million listeners internationally so the scope of scrutiny is spreading world wide.
Adnan's Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial is an intensely detailed account by Rabia Chaudry, whose brother Saad, was Adnan's best friend, of the investigation, trial, and aftermath of the conviction of Adnan Syed for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lin. The crime, which happened in Baltimore, Maryland on January 13, 1999, became the focus of Serial when Chaudry brought Adnan's case to the attention of producer Sarah Koenig. The podcast, which ran for two seasons and won a Peabody Award in April 2015, is considered groundbreaking in its exposure of a non-fictional crime story.
Following the conclusion of Serial, Chaudry and two of her associates, Colin Miller and Susan Simpson, picked up the loose threads of Adnan's story by investigating the crime in even more depth, bringing to light grave mistakes made by the police department as it sought to bring Lee's killer to justice. Chaudry was then approached to compile her detailed knowledge of the case into Adnan's Story.
There is no denying that Syed's arrest, trial, and conviction are built on a circumstantial (and that's using the word loosely) case. There are gaping holes in the police investigation that even a novice detective has to question when reading about the shoddy investigation. However, as Chaudry points out herself in the book, she is not a writer; she is a lawyer, and the book, dense with details and clumsy in its writing style, is not an easy or fluid read.
Chaudry includes many of the original documents submitted at Syed's trial in the book as well, and while they are fascinating and important, the font is so tiny that one needs a magnifier to read them. Thus, instead of being helpful, the documents were distracting because it is such a struggle to decipher the tiny print.
Also, despite the many documents included, there are only two photographs in the book; the cover photo of Adnan Syed (his high school senior portrait) and one photo of the model of what Hae's body looked like in situ at the gravesite. If so many documents could be included as text, the book screams for a counter-balance of photographic information as well.
All that being said, Chaudry includes a great deal of important information that was never dealt with in either podcast, Serial or Undisclosed. (And if you haven't heard the podcasts, I highly recommend them. Stream them through your phone, or other electronic devices). The most insightful information that Chaudry presents is about Muslim faith, culture, and place in American society today. The average American operates on assumptions about Muslims that are, once again, gleaned from media exposure, headlines, and unfortunately, the post 9/11 world of terrorist attacks and extremism.
The rich information provided elegantly by Chaudry helps the reader construct the world in which Adnan Syed, his family and friends live. Growing up in a strict Muslim family, Adnan realized that there were expectations on him to succeed academically and to observe his faith by taking on leadership roles at the mosque, modeling after his devout father.
However, the pull of being an observant, young Muslim and an American teenager, was huge on Adnan and his friends. Adnan explains the dichotomy in his own words, “For some of our friends, life became very stressful. Those with parents who were very strict ended up in extremely difficult situations as they tried to do the things that normal kids did. Their households would become very chaotic as the parents struggled to enforce a strict code of behavior. The friend would rebel, and it would create a very turbulent home life. The sad irony is that it would usually cause the teen to engage in the most reckless behavior of all of us, like drug and alcohol abuse and failing classes.” (p.87)
And that is why, when the story broke that Adnan, a model student, had been arrested for the murder of his girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, the community went into a state of shock. Chaudry quotes her own reaction, “She was Adnan's girlfriend? Adnan?? Had a girlfriend? Hae was his GIRLFRIEND??!” I yelled in disbelief. (p. 84)
The strengths of Chaudry's account are bi-fold. She presents the story of a Muslim teenager who is caught in the maelstrom between two dichotomous cultures, and she does this in a way that helps those who are unfamiliar with the beauty of the Muslim faith understand and respect it. At the beginning of each chapter Chaudry incorporates a quote from a respected Muslim leader or book that helps to define the substance of the chapter. Adnan's Story is told in the context of its culture in a way that those of us who do not understand it, can at least begin to fathom the depths of the nightmare felt by the community in Adnan's arrest and conviction.
The second strength of Chaudry's account is that it brings back into focus the true tragedy of the case; the death of Hae Min Lee, a beautiful, talented, young woman, who was brutally murdered and tossed into a casual grave where she lay for several months before her body was discovered. If Adnan did not commit the crime, which Chaudry avers continually, then the killer is roaming free; unpunished and having the opportunity to do it again. Chaudry's final chapter suggests her theory of what actually happened in a plausible and satisfying way.
Adnan's Story, though weighty in its prose, is worth the effort, particularly is one is a true crime aficionado. This is an ongoing case, by the way, as the result of public pressure, has forced the state of Maryland to finally give Adnan a new trial. On the day that Adnan Syed goes free, if in fact that ever does happen, he will owe his life and freedom to the devotion of Rabia Chaudry, who has never stopped fighting for him, believing ultimately that innocence and goodness will prevail, even in a system that is corrupted badly.