Like many people, I heard about Serial through the grapevine. I wasn’t a big podcast listener, even though I grew up on public radio; I settled into my experiments with audiobooks instead. But the premise — a high school senior is arrested for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, but the evidence that sent him to jail is shaky at best — was too intriguing to pass up. I’m so glad I listened. It is thanks to Serial that Undisclosed: The State vs. Adnan Syed and Truth & Justice with Bob Ruff came into my life.
When I first listened to Serial two years ago, my reaction after the first episode was, “He didn’t do it.” At the time, all twelve episodes had been released, but none of the spinoffs. I can’t explain why I was so convinced of Adnan’s innocence — maybe because I grew up in a Muslim household, with strict parents; because I was once a pre-med student; because if I had dated in high school, I would have hidden it away just like he did and not because of my “honor” — but I never had any doubt that this was a story of wrongful conviction.
I’m a Chicago native: I’m no stranger to the idea of wrongful convictions, of the prison-industrial complex, of mass incarceration. Before Mike Brown and Eric Gardner had their lives taken from them, there were hundreds of victims of police brutality about whom we might never hear. Between 2003 and 2009, 61.5% of arrest-related deaths were because of police homicide. Did you hear that after Sandra Bland, five other black women were found dead in their jail cells in July 2015 alone? I sure as hell didn’t.
Adnan’s story, then, and the idea that he was innocent and sitting in jail, didn’t surprise me. I lost the idea that law enforcement is supposed to be on our side a long time ago — I don’t think it’s possible to go to the University of Chicago and come out still holding that belief.
But let me backtrack, and tell you a bit about the case.
Picture it: you're a high school senior again. The year is 1999, the city, Baltimore. You've just headed back to school after winter break. You're in the magnet program, where everyone knows each other pretty well. Adnan and Hae have broken up again, although it seems like it's for good, this time, since they're both seeing other people. Stephanie's birthday is coming up. Krista's is afterwards, and she's having a party--after having a few days off due to the snowstorm.
Then you hear that Hae's gone missing. A few weeks later, they find her body in Leakin Park. A few weeks after that, they arrest Adnan for her murder.
I don't think many of us can really empathize with the pain that their friends went through--losing not just Hae, but Adnan as well. I'm not even talking about the families, here. Seventeen and eighteen years old is when you think you're on top of everything. You're about to go to college, or about to work, and death is the farthest thing on your mind.
Hae was killed on January 13, 1999, and her body was found on February 9, 1999. Nineteen days later, at 5 am, Adnan was woken up at and taken for a six hour interrogation. He wasn't allowed to speak to his parents or his lawyer. He maintained his innocence the entire time.
I'm not going to go through the details of the case, both leading up to and past Adnan's arrest. Listen to the podcasts for that. The summary is this: the State claimed that Hae had broken Adnan's heart and in doing so and dating another man, Adnan had killed her to defend his honor as a Muslim man. Their case lay on the testimony of one of Adnan's "friends," and Adnan's cell phone records to show where he had been the night of Hae's death. There was no physical evidence tying Adnan to the burial scene.
Somehow, that added up to a life conviction plus 30 years in prison.
(And seriously, if you listen to Serial without Undisclosed and Truth & Justice, you are straight up doing it wrong. You MUST listen to all three in order to get a full picture of this case. Serial is wonderful storytelling, but Undisclosed and T&J go through every bit of the case until there aren't even scraps left.)
Did Adnan kill her? That was the question most Serial fans asked once the podcast was over. Serial revealed some major problems in the case--from timeline and fact inconsistencies with the main witness, to questionable (at best) police conduct, to the erratic behavior of Christina Gutierrez, Adnan's lawyer. The audience seemed split. But Adnan's legal team hasn't given up in the seventeen years since his arrest: they've filed motions and petitions to have another trial, to have his conviction thrown out. They've had appeals and been denied. They've held hearings and been denied.
Then in February of this year, Adnan's defense council was granted a post-conviction relief hearing--meaning, that even though Adnan had been convicted, the defense could lay out their case for having a new trial. They wanted "relief" based on three motions: 1) that Cristina Gutierrez provided ineffective assistance due to her failure to contact an alibi witness; 2) that the State did not hand over exculpatory evidence to the defense in the form of a cell phone tower cover sheet; 3) that Cristina Gutierrez provided ineffective assistance due to her failure to cross-examine the State's cell phone expert.
Adnan's case was one of the first to use cell phone towers as evidence of location, which established the State's timeline for Hae's murder. In fact, prosecutor Kevin Urick said that it was the power of the State's primary witness combined with the cell phone data that put Adnan in prison. That's how important it is to this case.
But cell phone tower data must be read understanding how the provider collects that data. How can you understand a map if you don't have a key? To that end, the company provides a cover sheet, a legend to understand what you're reading. It is the duty of the State to hand over such evidence to the defense.
Especially if it says INCOMING CELL PHONE LOCATION DATA IS NOT RELIABLE.
Last week, after a miraculous four months of deliberation, the presiding judge sent out his opinion on the case. Judge Welch was brought out of retirement because he sat on Adnan's last PCR hearing--the one where he denied Adnan relief. Both sides thought having Judge Welch back would be fair in the interest of justice.
On point one: while it was a serious failure on Cristina Gutierrez's part as defense council to not contact Asia McClain as an alibi witness, Asia's testimony was not linked to the critical time point of 7pm, when Hae's body was supposedly buried. (In fact, Judge Welch says that the State did not conclusively establish a time for Hae's death, but they are locked to their narrative from Adnan's trial.) Therefore, Adnan's petition for relief on this point is denied.
On point two: while the State did doctor the cell phone cover sheet that explained how that company interprets cell tower data, the defense had the original sample in its files. The State did its due diligence by handing over possible exculpatory evidence to the defense. Therefore, Adnan's petition for relief on this point is denied.
On point three: given that Cristina Gutierrez has the fax cover sheet in her files, it is unacceptable and inexcusable that she did not properly cross-examine the State's cell phone expert. Therefore, Adnan's petition for relief on this point is granted.
Adnan's team only needed to win on one count. Adnan's conviction has been removed, and, legally speaking, is in the same position he was in when he was first charged. He's getting a new trial as an innocent man.
I have always been a big believer in justice. (In fact, the tarot card for my birthday is either Justice or Strength, depending on the deck.) I was raised with a healthy love of Poirot and murder mysteries. But you don't have to be a true crime lover to appreciate the complexities of this case. You don't have to be a lawyer to see that everything about this is completely messed up. If you believe that Adnan is guilty of Hae's murder, then you cannot believe it is according to the State's timeline.
By now, there are a thousand things demonstrating Adnan's innocence. I'm not going to list them all. But I am going to talk about why these things might be important.
In April of 2015, a firefighter named Bob sat in his basement and recorded an episode of a show he called The Serial Dynasty (later renamed to Truth & Justice). By now, dozens of podcasts had been released after Serial's ending, the most recent of which was Undisclosed. Run by a close friend of Adnan and two unrelated lawyers, Undisclosed went through all of the evidence in the case in strenuous detail. Bob, like many other listeners, wanted a place to talk about it.
Now, one year later, Bob is a full-time investigator who works for the wrongfully convicted--and is working to expose the injustices in Smith County, Texas. His main focus at this moment, a man named Edward Ates who was convicted for murdering his neighbor, has recently been accepted by the Innocence Project. Ed might be out of jail and united with his wife and children within the next year, if we're lucky.
Systemic change doesn't happen when the voices of the marginalized and oppressed are the ones shouting. It's a sad reality, but we need the voices of the privileged and those in power to join us in order to make change happen. The families of incarcerated individuals and academics have talked about the prison-industrial complex and mass incarceration for years, but only lately are the rest of us listening. Here is another issue: any of us just don't hear about these things unless something happens to directly cause us to experience it.
It is easy to be complacent. It's easy to think someone else will take care of larger problems that may not even affect us. But the truth is, systemic problems affect all of us, whether or not we realize it. We all benefit from rethinking gender norms. We all benefit from removing the stigma from mental illness. What is hard for many of us to realize that being in a position of privilege and power isn't something others are trying to shame. Others just want our help. Most people have some sort of privilege, even if they are marginalized in other ways.
I wonder: would Serial have taken off if a woman of color was the host? If Bob were black, would he manage to get as much done? This isn't a criticism of either Bob or Sarah Koenig, just an observation. Rabia Chaudry, a Pakistani woman, worked for fifteen years to get attention on Adnan's case, but it was Sarah's intervention that caused the international outrage. Bob is able to travel for his cases and take precautions necessary without raising a ton of suspicion. Again, this isn't a criticism of either of them; Sarah is a great storyteller, and Bob is a friend. But it's true: some of us have it easier than others. In an early episode of Truth & Justice, Bob talks about being one of the most privileged human on earth: male, white, straight, Christian. It was with that statement that Bob won my loyalty, because he knows his privilege and is still fighting to do something for others who don't have it.
What's interesting to me is just how much of these changes and fights happen online. People call online work "slactivism" and say that there's no change on the streets because of a Twitter hashtag. Maybe, for many cases, that's true. But how many hashtags lead to more thoughtful conversations at the workplace, or more contentious voting choices? I can say that for the first time, I thoroughly researched all of the officials running for public office when I voted a few months ago. That's a direct result of understanding that our elected officials have the power to change policies if we keep them accountable. For the first time, I reached out to my state senators to protest gun violence after Orlando. How many other people decided that enough was enough after seeing the pictures of the victims circulate online?
We need people who are in a position of privilege to fight with us, but getting to that point can be next to impossible. That's why it's so important that people believe Adnan is innocent--because believing in his innocence means believing that there is a problem with the criminal justice system. Being more critical of the system leads to being more critical of other topics--policies around education, reproductive rights, queer discrimination, racism. Caring about one topic in social justice is like trying to eat one chip: you begin to realize how to many other issues intersect with the one you care about, and care about them all.
This post was originally featured in a Tuesday Telegram. Every Tuesday, I send out a message that may or may not later be turned into an edited blog post.
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