As students shot from one end of the hall to the next, many couldn’t help but to wonder what the message #FreeAdnan meant, a hashtag plastered across countless light-blue t-shirts and hoodies worn by various individuals who clearly weren’t there for law school. However, many of them got schooled in law nonetheless, as organizers of the international movement to free a young Pakistani Muslim, born and raised in neighboring Baltimore County, put forth a forum to help organize, mobilize and educate supporters of Adnan Syed.
Organized by Syed’s brother Saad, along with University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law professor Douglas Colbert and adjunct professor Chris Flohr; the #FreeAdnanForum was an extension of the growing movement garnered by the wildly popular podcasts Serial and Undisclosed, which spurred millions of people to pay close attention to the case involving a 17-year defendant who was convicted of the murder of his former girlfriend, Hae Min Lee.
The 1999 case, which gained some media attention after it happened and during the 2000 trials of Syed; but nowhere near the amount of attention it garnered almost fifteen years later after a little old 12-episode podcast by the name of Serial, produced by This American Life, became the fastest podcast in history to reach 5-million downloads on the Apple iTunes store within weeks of its debut. Hosted by Sarah Koenig, the gritty true crime investigatory series that looked into almost every aspect of Adnan’s case, became an instant classic, and his since received more than 500-million downloads and become the most listened to podcast in history.
The podcast series led to a post-conviction victory for the Syed legal team, having a Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge, Honorable Martin Welch, grant Adnan a new trial fifteen years after his initial conviction. This decision led to a series of legal battles for Adnan’s defense team, which was led by the renowned attorney, C. Justin Brown, who was recognized as an “Influential Marylander” by the Daily Record and a Super Lawyer over the past five years. Ultimately, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled against Syed being granted a new trial, in a razor thin 4-3 decision, leaving the now 37-year old Syed stuck in jail with a life sentence, plus thirty years.
And while the defense, along with Syed’s army of supporters, await a Supreme Court decision on whether or not the nine justices will take up the petition filed by Brown and his legal partners; the #FreeAdnan team continues to raise awareness of the case, which include the legal inconsistencies and lack of evidence pointing to Syed’s guilt that remain despite his conviction.
And Saturday was a forum that highlighted that legal aspect of the case, as well as showcasing the power of the media, and what it has done to shine a spotlight on a case. The forum had multiple sessions with panelists including Brown, professors Colbert and Flohr, as well as Undisclosed podcast hosts and producers, Sarah Simpson and Rabia Chaudry – the most outspoken and well-known Adnan supporter and family friend. Chaudry is responsible for bringing the case to the attention of Serial producers, as well as furthering the cause of Adnan through her own record-breaking podcast series known as The State v Adnan Syed – which was the season premiere of the law and justice podcast, Undisclosed, which investigates cases of wrongful convictions and raises new concerns and evidence not before heard by the courts.
The podcast series, which has covered almost twenty different cases including two local stories of injustice, the Killing of Freddie Gray and the State v. Keith Davis Jr., has become one of the most listened to criminal justice related podcasts in the world. Chaudry has also authored a N.Y. Times Best-Selling book, Adnan’s Story: The Search for Truth and Justice, which helped spurn the HBO four-part series looking into Adnan’s case entitled, ‘The Case Against Adnan Syed’. And despite all the powerful media platforms, numerous instances of inconsistencies and an alibi witness who was never called to the stand during his trial (Asia McLain); Adnan languishes in a prison cell in Western Maryland, waiting for justice to finally prevail.
And the highlight of Saturday’s forum was the live phone conference attendees were blessed to have with Adnan, who was calling collect from a prison phone in the Cumberland maximum security facilities that house him. Despite all that has happened, and the devastating blow dealt to him in March of this year when the state’s high court denied him a new trial; the ever-faithful Syed was in great spirits, laughing and joking consistently throughout the call.
“Since Justin isn’t there yet, when he does show up, tell him that I spoke about all the details of the case and where we stand today with the appeal, and watch his facial expression.” – Adnan jokes on phone call
Unable to speak about the details of the case, for fear of his attorney killing him for doing so, he did speak about things such as his typical day in prison, what he looked forward to the most once released and the debates he and other inmates had about dining options. “It’s funny, me and a few other brothers who all came into the system when we were young, were discussing where we should go to eat first once released,” Syed stated, reminiscing about this funny conversation.
“One of them said it would have to be a nice establishment, so he suggested Applebee’s, while another said that I would have to step it up and go to a really nice restaurant like Ruby Tuesdays or Olive Garden. It was at that point I realized we weren’t upgrading but rather going sideways,” he said to a burst of laughter by the attendees. He later stated that he would rather stay at home and cook a nice dinner for his mother and family.
Adnan later spoke about the fact that six out of eleven judges who have heard his appeals agreed at the very least he should receive a new trial, frustrated by the fact that he’s in a position to have to prove that he didn’t do something that he know he didn’t do, which nobody has yet to prove he did in the first place. “It’s crazy that the standard to overturn this decision by the courts in order just to receive a new trial is so much higher than the extremely low standard the state had to prove to put me here in the first place,” Syed stated while going through his thoughts on the process.
When asked about his daily routine, he was speaking about his work in the jail’s kitchen, which he began each day at 6:30 a.m. and when his brother Saad stated to those who asked where he worked, that Adnan worked in the cafeteria, his brother quickly intervened to set the record straight. “No, schools have cafeterias, prisons have dining halls.” This quick quip was reflective of Adnan on Saturday, both his high spirits and attitude during a rather lengthy conversation.
He was amazed to find that many of those in attendance came in from all around the country, including Florida, Atlanta, Chicago and New Jersey, just to name a few; and was extremely thankful to all those who have taken up his fight for freedom, justice and equality, as he sought to be exonerated for a crime that he has always claimed his innocence. In fact, during a previous appeals process, the state offered Syed an opportunity to return home in the next four years if he pled guilty to the crime, an offer he quickly rejected.
If the Supreme Court takes up his case, they could reject the MD high court ruling and send it back to the courts, enabling Adnan to have a new trial, two decades after the crime, which would likely force the state to vacate the conviction and set him free given the difficulty of putting together a credible case after two decades with no real or new evidence. But if the courts decide not to hear the case, which is highly likely given that they receive thousands of petitions a year and only decide to hear a select few; than it will be back to the drawing board for Adnan and his legal defense team.
Regardless of the legal outcome, Adnan appears to be surrounded by a legion of family, friends and loyalists who wholeheartedly believe in his innocence and will walk through fire to show that if anyone deserves a second chance at life, it is this young brother.
Watch the DMVDailyNews live-stream feed of the Media and Legal sessions below: