Pulling up to the mosque I didn’t know what to expect but I dressed for the occasion…..I guess??? I wore what I’d wear to temple, a long salwar top and jeans. But was this appropriate for a community briefing on the post-conviction hearing for the now infamous anti-hero of the "Serial" podcast, Adnan Syed?
A room filled with brown people who looked like me immediately brought a sense of comfort. Rabia Chaudry, an attorney as well as Adnan Syed’s advocate and family friend, had just started speaking. “For 17 years Adnan has maintained his innocence….” her voice being broken by tears. It struck me that after all this time a few words about Adnan so quickly moved her. I had gotten to know Rabia a bit over the past year – she was tough, smart, confident and clearly, human.
But Syed had much more than this packed room of supporters, probably tens of thousands more outside these mosque doors. Was I one of them? Standing in the crowded basement of adults and children adorned in #FreeAdnan t-shirts…..not exactly.
I came to Baltimore, Maryland to attend Adnan Syed’s second post-conviction hearing. Syed was the subject of the phenomenally popular Serial podcast that reexamined his conviction for murdering his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999. After listening to Serial, I attempted to interview the trial prosecutor, Kevin Urick, in January 2015, but he stood me up. I then contacted Rabia along with Susan Simpson, an attorney and blogger who was instrumental in getting Syed ‘another bite at the apple’ as we say. We proceeded to do three one-hour Serial ‘specials’ dissecting different aspects of Syed’s case for MSNBC.com.
Still, I do not know whether Syed is innocent of this crime. As a criminal defense attorney I think about guilt versus innocence all day, every day. But with Syed here is what I know: this kid got screwed from every single facet of the criminal justice system from the police to the prosecutor to his lawyer and even the trial Judge. I’ve read the trial transcripts, reviewed some of the evidence, spoke to many experts and bottom line, Syed did not receive a fair trial. Full stop.
So when Syed got another chance at a new trial through a second post-conviction hearing I knew I couldn’t miss it. Now that I was peripherally acquainted with the significant parties, now that I knew way too many flaws in the process I didn’t just want to read about it. I had to witness it all unfold for myself.
What exactly was I going to do there? I was not asked to go for television purposes, and although I’m a renowned trial-junkie in my New York City courthouse was I really going to spend money on travel to just sit and watch this hearing? And just not work?
I concocted a way to be useful to the masses who couldn’t attend but who would be glued to social media for updates. I’d tweet, do video interviews and periscope, (didn’t even know what that was until boarding the train for Baltimore whereupon I accidentally buttscoped twitter, ooops!). Having access to Rabia, Susan and perhaps others who would go on camera during the court breaks may allow me to provide a novel service. I was hoping…..
The first day of the hearing I walked into the courthouse with Rabia but when I entered the press room and she walked down the hall our paths diverged more than logistically. I wasn’t there as a member of #TeamAdnan; I didn’t sit with Rabia, the family, Susan and other supporters; I was going to sit with the press.
Walking into the press room was equal parts thrilling and terrifying. Of course the first person I saw was Sarah Koenig. Koenig who hosts "Serial" was, to me, the singular reason Syed got this far. I’ve said this before and I will say it again – there is no Justice without exposure. And that is the remarkable feat that Sarah Koenig accomplished for Adnan Syed.
The press room was filled with reporters; real ones, not the pseudo lawyer/journo that I was attempting to be. And despite how intimidating that was, I did what I always do. I manufacture confidence. I’m an experienced trial attorney, I’ve been working in news for a while too, I could do this.
With the group of reporters, we march into the courtroom for the grand entrance of Syed; no one has seen recent pictures of him so there was some curiosity. A bit after 930am a door in the back of the courtroom swings open and Syed enters flanked by officers. He’s wearing light blue prison attire, a kufi on his head donning a long beard – and he is HUGE. Seriously. BIG. Like prison jacked lifting weights in the yard BIG. After that moment I ceased to pay much attention to him, unlike many others. Maybe that’s the lawyer side of me. I was fascinated with the attorneys, the witnesses, the entire process; but what “the defendant” was doing was not relevant. During the hearing his role appeared minimal at best. Strange….almost like being a guest in your own home.
Getting into the groove of watching testimony, then sprinting to the press room to tweet was quite daunting, especially because coffee was initially banned. Balancing what tidbits from court needed immediate tweeting versus what was better left for interviews required circus like juggling. The one constant in the frenzied week was the comradery of the press room. Every reporter I met was gracious in sharing information, helping this outsider and supporting my endeavor – it was astounding. Lawyers don’t play as nice.
The quality of reporting challenged me every minute to raise my game; the effort was thoroughly exhilarating. Because there is no tired, there is no hungry, there is no limit when you feel absolute joy in doing good work. Still it was not lost on me that my self-satisfaction sprung from a young couple’s tragic plight.
I am fortunate to have a small, albeit undefined, role in this particular pursuit of justice. Yes, I am a lawyer. Sometimes, I am a journalist. And for a week in Baltimore I was simply, the messenger.
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