David Zurawik discusses how the podcast Serial and social media has affected legal proceedings comparing it to cable TV and the Simpson Trial in 1995. (Emma Patti Harris, Baltimore Sun video)
Not since the O.J. Simpson trial have the media played as crucial a role in a legal proceeding as they are now doing in the case of Adnan Syed.
With Simpson's 1995 murder trial in the killings of his wife, Nicole, and her friend Ronald Goldman, it was cable TV making the former NFL star's guilt or innocence a national, soap opera-like obsession. With Syed, who was convicted of murder in 2000 in the death of former girlfriend Hae Min Lee, podcasts and social media have brought him to the attention of millions and led to a Baltimore judge ordering a new trial.
The twists and turns of the hearings, rulings and now the state's appeal of a June order for a new trial surely are fascinating to law students and legal scholars. But it's the media aspects of Syed's case that are phenomenal. And they just keep multiplying. The latest: a new book, "Adnan's Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After 'Serial,'" by Maryland lawyer Rabia Chaudry.
Volumes have been written about the public radio podcast "Serial" and the way it resurrected the 1999 killing of Lee, a student at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County, from the cold-case file. Host Sarah Koenig and the other producers from "This American Life" deserve all the praise that has been directed their way.
They made some wise choices. The best involved Koenig casting herself as an amateur sleuth, thus creating the media space for millions of listeners to take an interactive role in trying to help solve the crime and come to care about what they judged to be Syed's innocence or guilt.
The 2014 podcast had an estimated 40 million downloads its first season, a staggering figure that put the medium itself on the cultural map in a way it had never come close to being previously in its decade of existence.
That kind of audience reach, particularly in this era of vast media confusion and change, has also helped launch a growing trend in true crime. It includes fiction and nonfiction, ranging from HBO's "The Night Of" and "The Jinx: The Life and Death of Robert Durst" to "Making a Murderer" on Netflix.
Chaudry's book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how media — particularly social media — came to play such a powerful role in this case. She is a Syed family friend, the advocate who brought his story to Koenig's attention and then launched her own podcast, "Undisclosed," which presented the key evidence that Judge Martin P. Welch cited in June in ordering a new trial.
Using LaunchGood.com, she also helped set up #FreeAdnan — The Adnan Syed Trust defense fund, which has raised $208,361 toward a $250,000 goal from 3,993 contributors. She's blogged incessantly about the case at Split the Moon, and tweeted incessantly @rabiasquared. She argued vociferously all over the Internet for Syed's innocence — from a Reddit group with more than 40,000 subscribers devoted to the case to her Rabia Chaudry Facebook page.
She has echo chambers within echo chambers and an army of social media soldiers looking for information to help get Syed out of prison. Law professor Colin Miller and lawyer Susan Simpson, Chaudry's partners at "Undisclosed," have their own blogs, "EvidenceProf" and "The View From LL2," respectively, where they have written forcefully about the case.
Chaudry's passion clearly drives "Adnan's Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After 'Serial.'" But it's the mix of media skills and legal education that makes her book such an illuminating firsthand report from the front lines of social media change.
"What Rabia Chaudry did is simply stunning," says Steve Klepper, editor in chief of the Maryland Appellate Blog and an appellate lawyer at the Baltimore firm Kramon & Graham. "Through sheer tenacity, she has used every mode of modern social media to draw attention to this case and to crowdsource for innocence."
Typical of the constant interplay between social media and the law in "Adnan's Story" is Chaudry's account of her feelings during the February post-conviction relief hearing in Baltimore that led to Welch's ruling for a new trial.
Shortly after the hearing started, she writes, Thiruvendran Vignarajah, the deputy attorney general representing the state, had her removed from the courtroom because he might want to call her as witness. In her take-no-prisoners style, Chaudry calls it a "dirty" trick, payback for her criticism of Vignarajah on her blog.
Whatever the reason, she was out of the courtroom at Baltimore's Courthouse East and not at all happy about it. So, she went across the street to a Dunkin' Donuts to calm down and follow the proceedings on social media.
"By the time I settled in with some coffee and a doughnut, I had hundreds of tweets and messages waiting for me," she writes.
"The media had reported it, so people were confused and many were as angry as I was at this dirty move. But I had gotten over it pretty quickly because I figured not only could I do more damage to the State outside the courtroom where I could use my social media, but my presence wasn't going to make any difference to Adnan's case anyway, and that's what mattered," she adds.
"When I left the courtroom, Judge Welch had instructed me not to talk to any other witnesses. But he hadn't said anything about staying off of social media."
It's hard to imagine Chaudry ever off social media. In the book, when things look darkest for Syed's case, social media is one of the places she goes. The other is her Muslim faith. This book is steeped in Muslim faith and identity, and I think that is one element that makes it especially resonant with American life today.
Full disclosure: Knowing how fierce Chaudry can be online, I wondered how she was going to characterize the early reviews of the "Undisclosed" podcast, including an unfavorable one that I wrote for The Baltimore Sun.
She writes: "His main critique was that we didn't synthesize our findings into an easily digestible narrative for the audience. Instead, we just threw everything at them (little did he know what we actually left out), too many details with little storytelling. Zurawik had some great advice, though. He said 'Undisclosed' needed a producer with a public radio sensibility. He was right."
After several weeks, they found one, and 70 million downloads later, "Undisclosed" is still going strong in a second season with the case of a Georgia man convicted of murder. But more importantly, in terms of media influencing the law, it was evidence discovered and presented on "Undisclosed" that Welch cited in ordering a new trial for Syed.
The evidence Susan Simpson discovered called into question the reliability of cellphone data used to place Syed in the park where Lee's body was found on the night of her killing in 1999.
Syed's trial attorney "rendered ineffective assistance when she failed to cross-examine the state's expert regarding the reliability of cell tower evidence," Welch wrote.
On Monday, the state appealed Welch's ruling in an attempt to keep Syed from getting a new trial. Not surprisingly, media lit up with the response, including two blog posts from Miller and a long piece at rollingstone.com dissecting the legal arguments.
Watching the dance between social media and the courtroom in Syed's case, Klepper says he has come to believe that law schools should include media training for all students, with Syed's story as the perfect case study.
"For the next generation of lawyers, social media is part of their identity," Klepper said. "But the law hasn't caught up with social media. New lawyers need to learn how social media can make or break their case or their professional reputation. ... This one has it all — podcasts, blogs, Twitter, all working together to flesh this case out."
Along with police work, romance and the presidential race, add the law to bedrock institutions and practices being challenged by social media. And count it as one more that has yet to catch up with the vast media change.