Pseudoscience in “Adnan’s Story”

Like millions of others, I have been interested in the story of the conviction of Adnan Syed for the murder of Hae Min Lee since the blockbuster hit podcast Serial came out in 2014. I have continued to follow the story through Undisclosed, a podcast by several people working on Syed’s legal defense. That group includes Rabia Chaudry, the woman who first brought Syed’s case to Sarah Koenig of This American Life, who then went on to create Serial. While I have not delved as deeply into this case as some people, I have followed it as the case changed from one seeming fairly hopeless, through Syed’s recent PCR hearing in which his conviction was vacated. He now awaits a new trial.

Rabia Chaudry recently published a new book on the case, Adnan’s Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial. She believes completely in Syed’s innocence, and leaves no room in her book for doubt of that. It contains her own experiences and views on the case, as well as giving Syed a chance to tell parts of the story in his own words. The tone of the book is very personal, including details of both of their personal lives over the course of the 17 years Syed has been imprisoned. I listened to it on audio with Chaudry as the narrator, giving the experience an even more personal feel. It also gives Chaudry an opportunity to float her theory of the case independently, without the limitations of working with a journalist or other lawyers.

One of the ways in which the book feels intimate is the ways in which both Chaudry and Syed include their faith in their writing. Both are Muslim, and it seems likely that anti-Muslim and racist bias contributed to police suspicion of, and the jury’s conviction of Syed. Chaudry recognizes that her audience is diverse and may not have much knowledge of Islam, so she does spend time explaining those parts of it that are important for telling her story. Most of the time this serves as helpful background information that clarifies parts of the story, such as why people would remember that Syed did go his mosque the night that Lee disappeared. Other times it leads her to putting credibility into ideas that do not warrant it from any rational perspective.

Chaudry discusses dreams multiple times during the book. Some of those times are entirely understandable. While she explains that she really does believe dreams can foretell the future if they are told to others, the dreams about Syed’s freedom make complete sense from any perspective even though I don’t put much stock in them.

Other times this belief in the reality of dreams and psychic messages has real consequences. Chaudry believes that Don, Lee’s boyfriend at the time of her death, is likely responsible for the murder. There is good evidence that Don’s alibi was manufactured, so at the very least this is a possibility that should be considered. However, Chaudry’s main evidence for Don’s guilt is from an otherwise unrelated woman, who believes that she received a psychic vision of Lee’s death in her dreams. This woman’s story is not evidence in any legal, scientific, or even narrative sense. Chaudry also tells a story about praying for guidance and later hearing a strong voice in her mind telling her to look further at Don. The problems with Don’s alibi are reason enough to investigate him further. These psychic messages do not support the hypothesis that Don did it, and only serve to undermine Chaudry’s credibility.

Chaudry also brings up polygraph tests on multiple occasions. Polygraph tests are not admissible evidence in court in Maryland, neither back when the case occurred, or today. There is good reason for this – they aren’t reliable. Who has and who has not passed a polygraph test holds as much weight with me as it does with the court – none at all. Making judgement based on polygraph results has a good chance of sending investigators off in the wrong direction, a risk Chaudry and Syed’s legal team should be avoiding.

It is crucial that our legal system be guided by good reality based evidence. Major failings in Syed’s case were the system basing their prosecution of him in part on unfounded beliefs about Islam and a police tendency to narrow their focus onto one suspect much too quickly. Overall it has seemed that the reporting about this case, from Serial through Undisclosed and the Truth and Justice Podcast, has been much more careful with the evidence. While Chaudry’s book is a strong summary of the case and emotionally compelling, I wish she had included only the reality based information. There is plenty of it to support Syed’s innocence without treating pseudoscience and faith as evidence.

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Pseudoscience in “Adnan’s Story”
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