Adnan Syed was granted a new trial in 2016 after 16 years in prison for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. This exemplifies the importance of the media in providing hope for those who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes, according to Rabia Chaudry, who initially raised awareness for Syed’s case.
Chaudry, the author of the best-selling book “Adnan’s Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial,” spoke this Thursday in the Intercultural Center Auditorium alongside Martin “Marty” Tankleff, a lawyer who was wrongfully convicted of murder and spent 17 years in prison. Tankleff was released in 2007.
The event was sponsored by Georgetown’s Prisons and Justice Initiative and moderated by PJI Director Marc Howard, a longtime friend of Tankleff who worked to secure his freedom.
Syed, who had been imprisoned since 2000, was the subject of Sarah Koenig’s exculpatory podcast “Serial” and Chaudry’s own podcast “Undisclosed,” which profiles wrongful convictions.
“Serial,” now in its second season investigating the case of Bowe Bergdahl, has over 500 million downloads, and “Undisclosed” has over 100 million downloads.
Chaudry, an immigration and civil rights lawyer, said she never expected such a popular response to her work advocating for Syed.
“I think shock is probably the right word, not just surprised but completely shocked, and not just me, I think Sarah and the entire team, nobody expected this response,” Chaudry said.
According to Tankleff, the media plays a pivotal role in not only providing support in favor of freeing an individual who could have been wrongfully convicted, but also in spurring other people to come forward who may provide information useful to winning the case.
“I know in my case that when the media started to write more about it, more witnesses came forward,” Tankleff said. “Wrongful conviction cases are like puzzles in that one little piece can contribute in making it clearer. Your individual piece may not mean anything to you, but when you start connecting five of these little pieces connecting it really helps tell the story.”
Tankleff said focusing on each case individually can draw attention to systematic issues in the criminal justice system.
“By focusing on one case, each has become exponentially larger as people get referred to it,” Tankleff said.
Chaudry said although the role of media was significant in bringing Syed’s case to light, it was also essential in humanizing him. According to Chaudry, Koenig’s podcast made this possible.
“What I learned as an advocate, which I now use in my other work, is that you’ve got to tell the story first,” Chaudry said. “You’ve got to get people interested first and then you can follow up with ‘now this is the ask, this is what I need you to do.’”
Race also played an important role in Syed’s case, according Chaudry. Chaudry said the prosecution used an anti-Muslim bias to justify its theory for Adnan’s motives for committing the crime.
“It was very openly argued in front of the judge that you know, they framed it as an honor killing, although technically honor killings are something else,” Chaudry said. “They said basically ‘this is a jilted young Muslim man.’”
Each year since 2014, more than 100 people have been exonerated, but according to Tankleff, these numbers do not reflect how many innocent people are still behind bars.
“We really don’t have enough resources to litigate all these cases,” Tankleff said. “Every law school in America should have an innocence project, every law firm, especially the big ones who have the time and resources, because how many are we missing?”
Events and Program Coordinator for the Center of Jewish Civilization Michelyne Chavez (SFS ’15) said the event was essential to spur forward action on this important issue.
“I found that the conversation was very insightful and eye-opening, something very necessary for students to hear so the Georgetown community can start transitioning from being aware to being active,” Chavez said.
Scott Dennis (COL ’17), who attended the event, said the focus on new media and its use in drawing focus to individual wrongful convictions was especially fascinating.
“I think the best part of the discussion was about how things like “Serial” can draw broader attention to these issues and how there is this balance, this fine line you have to walk between how do we call attention to specific stories but at the same time call attention to the broader issues?” Dennis said.
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