Inside the Years-Long Fight to Clear Adnan Syed of Murder – and How It All Began

In a new book, Rabia Chaudry presents what she claims is new evidence to clear Syed

Photo: Eric Ogden

While Adnan Syed has been behind bars the last 17 years, first accused and then convicted of the murder of his ex-girlfriend, friend Rabia Chaudry has been on a mission: To prove they got the wrong man.

It’s a years-long effort she details further in her new book, Adnan’s Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial. And it hinged, in part, on a single moment.

After Syed’s 2000 conviction for murder in the death of Hae Min Lee, Chaudry suspected that Syed’s lawyer, Cristina Gutierrez, had mishandled the case. So Chaudry tracked down Asia McClain, Syed’s high school classmate, and discovered that Gutierrez never contacted McClain about her claims to have been in a library with Syed during the time prosecutors allege he killed Lee – despite Gutierrez knowing about McClain.

“The moment of commitment to me was when Asia told me that nobody had contacted her,” Chaudry tells PEOPLE. “That was when I realized what a terrible injustice was done here.”

RELATED VIDEO: Adnan Syed of Serial Podcast Will Get a New Trial as Murder Conviction Is Vacated

(At Syed’s bail hearing, Chaudry says, the prosecutor used stereotypes about Syed’s Pakistani and Muslim heritage to keep him held without bail: She claimed Syed was a flight risk, Chaudry says with disbelief, that “he [was] from a culture where men kill women and get away with it.”)

After Syed was arrested for the Jan. 13, 1999, death of Hae Min Lee, Chaudry, a law student at the time, had been shocked. But her shock turned into action.

Syed “was the least confrontational, nicest person – the only friend of my brother’s my mother liked,” Chaudry tells PEOPLE in an exclusive interview in this week’s issue. “I was sure he was innocent from the very beginning.”

For more on Chaudry’s mission to free Adnan Syed and to read an excerpt of her new book, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

Since Syed’s conviction, Chaudry has worked to prove it. As he created a life behind bars, as a chef and voracious consumer of information (“You can have a conversation with him about anything,” Chaudry says), she worked with Syed’s attorneys on appeals, all of which failed.

Then in 2013, Chaudry sought a new angle to win Syed’s freedom: the media.

“It was a sense of, ‘What have we not done yet?’ ” she tells PEOPLE. Chaudry googled coverage of Gutierrez’s 2001 disbarment to find a reporter familiar with the case.

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The first name to pop up was Sarah Koenig, who wrote about the case for The Baltimore Sun before joining This American Life as a producer. “I said, ‘I’ll start here,’ ” Chaudry says. “I knew nothing about her.”

Koenig went on to create the wildly popular podcast Serial, whose first season focused on Syed’s case, spotlighting some of the issues with the prosecution that Chaudry helped bring forth.

“I don’t believe in coincidences,” Chaudry says. “I believe it was meant to be.”

Serial brought forward many people willing to re-examine Syed’s case. Chaudry teamed up with two other attorneys to co-produce the podcast Undisclosed, an independent follow-up to the smash hit, to “find something that Sarah hadn’t,” Chaudry says.

Much of her new book contains these findings.

Many also credit Serial with prompting Syed’s second post-conviction hearing this February. And in June, a judge vacated Syed’s sentence and ordered a retrial – based on information uncovered in Undisclosed.

The state is appealing that ruling, and Lee’s family continues to believe Syed killed Lee. “We continue to grieve,” they said in a recent statement. “We continue to believe justice was done when Mr. Syed was convicted of killing Hae.”

Syed, meanwhile, remains behind bars, charged – but not convicted – of murder. Chaudry’s work continues.

“I think the reverse conviction has lifted a great burden off of his soul,” Chaudry says. “The idea he will get another chance, a fair chance, is so important.”

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