Over the summer, the only thing that got me to go to the gym or on a run was Serial. I told myself that, as long as I got lost in the podcast revealing the details of Adnan Syed’s case, I could make it through those miles. But then I finished and forgot about it.
I was sitting in the D.C. office of Capital News Service when I saw the tweet announcing the post-conviction hearings of Syed in early February. I figured it was news pertinent to local audiences, so after a discussion with my bureau chief, I decided to cover the proceedings.
In theory, it’s the best situation to be in: I don’t have to go to class, but it counts as an absence because I’m covering an event. I get to go home early for the weekend, I get a car, and I get to watch a little bit of history as it happens. But it taught me so much more.
Despite being in a family very much entrenched in the world of trials and attorneys, I have only been privy to court proceedings from a journalistic point of view once. A friend and I sat in on a trial for JOUR320, an intensive reporting class here at UMD. It was a little silly: some teenager was representing himself on the charge of loitering at a local McDonald’s. I couldn’t tell you the details of case, save for it proved for a really fun story to write.
If you are at all familiar with Syed’s case, you know it is far more than lingering a bit too long in a fast-food parking lot. In 2000, Syed was sentenced to life plus 30 in prison for murdering his ex-girlfriend in Baltimore City. They were both in high school, and the evidence surrounding the circumstance is still questionable to this day. This case was a big deal. Is a big deal. The judge still hasn’t released his decision on the case, and it’s been close to a month since the last day of testimony.
I ended up missing the first day of testimony, which, from what I was told, was mostly two of Syed’s former lawyers and Asia Chapman, maiden name McClain. But when I came in the second day, I was given the rundown: no phones in the courtroom, or anywhere on the floor except for the press room. No talking or interviews in the courthouse, no food, go through security, you might get locked out of the courtroom. All of these rules were not only overwhelming, but made me feel like my perspective and reporting was in a race against everyone else. Who could get to the press room fast enough, whip out their phones and tweet first? What angle was the most original, could you write the best, did you have the most information on?
Having never really had to cover breaking news, this was all new to me. Trying to fit two hours worth of testimony and information into a 140-character update during a 10-minute break is challenging to say the least. I like to think I elegantly stumbled my way through it.
But the entire time I was sitting in the courtroom, surrounded by media representatives I’ve only dreamed of being around – Baltimore Sun, Washington Post, the Guardian, MSNBC – I felt like the odd one out. “Hello, my name is so-and-so. I’m with such-and-such news:” everyone introduces themselves as such – name and outlet. At first, I was self-conscious: these people are the real deal. But, after introducing myself and explaining “Yeah, I’m with Capital News Service, it works in contingency with the University of Maryland, but we’re student-produced” a couple times, I actually understood. I may have been one of the youngest people there, but everyone kept saying how they wished they had had this opportunity when they were in college.
Those same people took me under their wings, explaining the more complicated aspects of the trial in hushed tones. I follow a bunch of them on Twitter and read on their stories when they tweet them out. It’s not necessarily a camaraderie, but it is a step in the right direction. Networking is key, right?
I couldn’t tell you the outcome of Syed’s case. I don’t have the knowledge of the law or the ability to tell the future. But whatever it may be, I’m glad and honored I got to experience a small part of his journey with him.