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Years after murder, hope dims and stigma remains

Adnan Syed's family speaks about murder conviction that "destroyed the whole family."

Shamim Rahman kneaded her hands as her youngest son pulled six cardboard boxes from a basement closet of the family's Baltimore County home. "Be careful," she said.

Folders, pictures and pages of transcripts and records filled each box — evidence in the murder case against her middle son. Nearly 15 years ago, a jury convicted Adnan Syed in the strangling of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. They were classmates at Woodlawn High School, both children of immigrants, and teachers considered them exceptionally smart and promising. After a breakup, Adnan felt jealous and ashamed that Hae was dating someone else and killed her, according to prosecutors.

The boxes of evidence cost Adnan's family $10,000 to acquire and copy. But to Shamim Rahman they were worth so much more. Maybe, she thought, they held a hidden fact. Maybe a new set of eyes would uncover something to free her son. Maybe she might also be freed from the stares and whispers she feels as the mother of a convicted murderer.

Maryland's second-highest court is considering whether to allow Adnan's second appeal to go forward. He argues in court papers that his trial attorney was ineffective, and the Court of Special Appeals has asked the state to weigh in, giving the Rahman family faint hope that the long-closeted documents will gain new importance.

The killing that shattered two families took place Jan. 13, 1999. Prosecutors said Adnan, then 18, lured Hae Min Lee to the Best Buy parking lot off of Security Boulevard after school. There he strangled her and, with the help of an acquaintance, dumped her body in a shallow grave in Leakin Park. Prosecutors focused on the acquaintance's testimony and cellphone records to get the conviction.

Hae Lee's mother, Youn Wha Kim, spoke at the sentencing through an interpreter. She said she had moved to America so her children could have a "decent education and a decent future."

"I would like to forgive Adnan Syed, but as of now, I just don't know how I could," Kim told those in the courtroom in 2000. "When I die, my daughter will die with me. As long as I live, my daughter is buried in my heart."

Despite extensive efforts, Kim and other family members could not be found to comment for this article.

The Rahmans acknowledge that no loss is greater than that felt by the family of Hae Min Lee.

Shame makes their suffering different. Shamim Rahman avoids social events because she feels like a pariah. Other parents in her small Islamic community boast of children who are doctors and engineers; she and her husband have a convicted murderer.

Such feelings — guilt, shame, grief — are common among the families of people who have been convicted of crimes, said psychologist Alyssa A. Rheingold, associate professor at the National Crime Victim's Research and Treatment Center at the Medical University of South Carolina. But society often discounts those feelings when compared to the emotional impact on relatives of those who have been killed.

"Their loved ones are gone," Rheingold said, while the family of a convicted killer can still make visits in prison.

For Shamim and Syed Rahman, Adnan was their golden child — honor student, football player and prom king — the living fulfillment of their move from Pakistan for better opportunities in America. His conviction severely affected their two other sons. The eldest, Tanveer, became estranged from the family; the youngest, Yusuf, grew withdrawn. Their father, meanwhile, quietly shuffled around their two-story, Windsor Mill house in flowing white thobes interacting little with others.

The conviction, Shamim Rahman said, "destroyed the whole family."

Dread fills her every time she drives by Woodlawn High School, where prosecutors say the murder plot began. She would like to avoid the school, but the Pakistani restaurants and grocery stores that the family frequents are across the street.

In the Syeds' home, time seems suspended. An extensive, green-trimmed set of china hasn't budged in years, because they no longer entertain. Adnan's clothes have been packed into a suitcase.

Her 78-year-old husband does not stray far from the house. An engineer in the public and private sectors for more than 30 years, he retired after Adnan's conviction. He spent the first few years traveling between the local mosque and the second floor of the family home, where he'd sit in Adnan's room for hours. Once Shamim Rahman found a baby picture of Adnan in a closet; he threw it on the floor in grief.

Nearly 20 years younger than her husband, Shamim Rahman continues to work but doesn't want the name of her business to be published because she fears losing customers from the stigma of her son's conviction. She works to keep her mind from thoughts of guilt: Would things be different had she spent more time with her children?

Her last vacation came more than 10 years ago, when her husband sent her to Pakistan to be near her family because she was depressed. It did not help; she refused to tell her six sisters and two brothers about Adnan's conviction. She cringes every time they ask why Adnan, now 33, has not started a family.

"I've never cried," said Shamim Rahman, whose rosy cheeks peek out from her hijab. "I have too much. I have to take care of my husband. And I have Yusuf. I have to mentally support everyone, tell them, 'Everything will be all right, everything will be all right.' "

Still, she hides from greetings and slips away from small talk. "It's like everybody is looking at me," she said.

When people ask how many children she has, she braces for the next question: "What are they up to?"

Her husband does not ask people about their families. "If I ask them, they will ask me," Syed Rahman said.

Yusuf was just 9 when his brother was convicted. For years, he wore a hoodie and refused to go to the mosque. One day, he sat in a car during an entire wedding.

His parents enrolled him in a private school to escape scrutiny, but he continued to be withdrawn. When he was 14, they sent him for four years to a madrassa in Karachi, where he studied the Quran.

"You're going through your teen years and you're all alone," he said, describing the period. He watched as older brothers visited schoolmates, and it reminded him: "I don't have brothers anymore."

Now 24, Yusuf commutes to Towson University, where he studies molecular biology. He once felt pressure to be perfect,but regular talks with a family doctor helped alleviate that.

Still, he recalls the sting of questions he faced from classmates after the conviction: "Did your brother do it or not?" And he seethes at memories of kids judging him.

"I'm 6-foot, 180-something pounds," he said. "Let me hear you say something now."

Yusuf's parents shielded him from the aftermath of the killing as much as possible. He did not attend any courtroom sessions until Adnan's last appellate hearing a few years ago. Seeing handcuffs and leg irons on his brother for the first time, he ran to the bathroom and cried.

Every month or so, he and his mother drive to Cumberland to visit Adnan, often without his father because the emotional toll is too heavy. Shamim Rahman wishes she could bring her son a favorite Pakistani spinach-beef dish or homemade pakoras, but visitors are not allowed to give prisoners anything.

Housed in a maximum-security prison, Adnan maintains his innocence. Asked in an interview who might have committed the murder, he said, "Honestly I have no idea." He pointed out that no physical evidence tied him to the crime and said an alibi witness should have been used in his defense.

Shamim Rahman wants to believe that she will someday get her son back.

Her husband prays for a miracle, but he has come to accept the life sentence. All things are controlled by the "creator," he said, adding that Allah has reasons — even if he cannot understand them.

"If a person is to die, you'll forget it. But this is a daily basis," Syed Rahman said at the family's home. "It's worse than death."

Yusuf, nearby, listened closely to his words.

On the front steps, out of his father's earshot, Yusuf said, "I've never heard my dad talk like that in 14 or 15 years. It was good to hear."

Even among family, suffering is done in silence.

jgeorge@baltsun.com

twitter.com/justingeorge

Copyright © 2016, The Baltimore Sun

To hear more

The nationally syndicated radio program "This American Life" is revisiting Adnan Syed's case as part of a new podcast series called "Serial." Sarah Koenig, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, spent more than a year examining the case, with periodic contributions from Justin George of The Sun. The series is available at serialpodcast.org or iTunes.

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