Asia McClain, alibi in 'Serial' case, tells her story

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Asia McClain Chapman, at the Spokane Library

In January 1999, when Asia McClain Chapman was waiting in the library of her high school in Baltimore County, she remembers talking briefly with popular high school senior Adnan Syed. A little over a month later, Syed was arrested for the murder of his ex girlfriend Hae Min Lee, and then handed a life sentence, plus 30 years. Syed, who has always maintained his innocence, has been in prison ever since.

Chapman, who now lives in Spokane, never could have imagined that, 15 years later, this 15 or 20 minute conversation would make her the key figure in a record-smashing podcast, Serial, that cast doubt on the conviction.

As a result of the questions raised by the podcast and his attorneys, Syed has just been granted a new trial by a judge who ruled that he had received inadequate representation by his defense attorney in 2000 when he was convicted. And Chapman is back in the news.

The state may appeal the order for a new hearing. But Syed's current attorney, Justin Brown, said Friday that he is considering a request for bail, which would allow Syed to get out of prison pending the new trial. On ABC News' Good Morning America, Brown credited the podcast for Thursday's overturning of Syed's conviction.

In the original case, the State of Maryland’s lead prosecutor, Kevin Urick, painted a 21-minute timeline of how Syed committed the murder. But if Syed talked with Chapman in the library, he has an alibi: Her account puts him in the library at the very time of Lee's death. As Chapman puts it, “As we all know, a person is not physically capable of being in two places at one time.”

The story made its way to headsets all over the country as the podcast Serial picked up the case beginning in fall 2014. Created by reporter Sarah Koenig as a spinoff of the wildly popular public radio program This American Life, the first season of Serial — entirely devoted to Syed's case — became the first podcast in history to reach 5 million downloads on iTunes.

In Serial’s first episode, titled “The Alibi,” Chapman was introduced as the potential witness who could have changed everything in the case. Chapman wrote two letters to Syed in prison asking him if he remembered talking to her on the day he was supposed to have killed his girlfriend. However, she was never called on to testify by Syed’s original defense attorney, Cristina Gutierrez. In fact, she was never contacted at all, a choice Koenig questioned.

Chapman recently finished a book, Confessions of a Serial Alibi, published June 7. Chapman, who is now a mother and small business owner, said she wanted to present a more detailed picture of her side of the story, and to answer questions and dispel rumors about her involvement in the case.

What follows is a condensed and edited transcript of a conversation with Chapman held before the judge's order for a new trial.

Why did you decide to come out with the book now? Is there anything significant about the timing?

What people have to understand is that the memoir was born out of a lot of stress, and for me that’s something that has been ongoing, especially since the Serial podcast came out. But I would say that there’s always been a certain amount of stress associated with this topic. As a teenager, when someone you have an association with is murdered, and then someone who you are familiar with is convicted of the murder, that carries a certain amount of weight. And then just the stress in general of coming forward and not being called upon, and having a private detective show up at your house 10 years later. The international publicity, international attention was a hard adjustment to make.

The majority of the book was written after the post-conviction hearing. I think somewhere close to over 40,000 words of the book was written after that time, and that’s just because of all the emotions that came out after testifying.

What was it like to testify in the February hearing on whether Syed should get a new trial? You mentioned it raised a lot of emotions for you.

Number one, there was a sense of relief. You do put yourself in a position of vulnerability, because you never know how what you’re going to say is going to be twisted or used against you. Coming out of that and being told that I did well gave me a small sense of relief, which inspired me to start writing again. I had initially given up. The frustration of trying to correct so many things about me that were incorrect, on the internet or being gossiped about, was so overwhelming.

What is it like to suddenly have so many people around the world focused on your life?

Because of the book, because of the attention, sometimes that aspect of my life can bleed over too much into my real life and then I have to take measure to check myself, just remind myself that although the whole Serial thing of being a witness is a part of my life, it is not my life. It is something that happened to me, it is something that I volunteered to do the right thing with. But at the end of the day, it’s not my life -- my  children are my life, my husband is my life, my family are my life.                         

In a sense, you’ve been part of two very high profile situations — the original case, and then later the Serial podcast. Have these things each affected your life in different ways?

In terms of Hae’s murder, of course it affected my life, as it did many of my friends. The idea of being taken away from this world in such a violent manner is not something that most 17-year-olds are contemplating on a daily basis. It makes you grow up that much quicker, because you realize that there are real dangers out in this world.

As far as now, the situation has affected my life in the sense that I’m a lot more guarded. I’m aware of how easily people take things out of context or can misunderstand you even when you’re trying your best to be crystal clear, transparent. It’s definitely affected my perspective on the criminal justice system. Just coming to terms with the idea that there is no good guy and bad guy. There are good people out there who do bad things and there are bad people out there who do good things.

What was going through your mind when you were writing these letters to Adnan Syed? In the letters you describe how you tried to meet with his lawyer, investigated whether the library had a surveillance system — all that seems very tenacious for someone so young.

I was just trying to be helpful. At the time it was very hard to conceive that Adnan was responsible for Hae’s death, but at the same time, anything’s possible. In the event that he was not responsible, and what I had to say was important, I wanted to make sure that his family and the parties involved were informed.

Now, back then I didn’t know the time of death that the state was going to theorize. All I knew is that the last time I’d spoken with him was January 13 and that his family was now saying that he could not account for his time on that day. And so the hope was that — we had a 15 to 20 minute conversation — that would cover that amount of time. How can you gauge, or how can you know that a 15 to 20 minute conversation is that valuable?

So when I wrote the letters it was just more so a classmate reaching out because the family had expressed that there was this large chunk of time that he was unable to recall and I was offering up the 15 to 20 minutes that I spent with him.

It seems like putting yourself in a situation like that — getting involved in a huge criminal case — might be intimidating for a teenager. Did you feel intimidated at the time, or wonder what you were getting into?

Of course, of course, of course. I don’t know what else to say, but if you’d talked to my mom, she raised me right — doing the right thing is not always easy, but that doesn’t take away from it being the right thing to do.

Back then I somehow knew, not necessarily that the information I had was important, but the fact that I came forward with it was important and the right thing to do. Because I could have easily come forward with that information and it could have been totally insignificant. And that’s originally what I thought was going to be the case, so when no one ever reached out to me about it, I just assumed it wasn’t important after all. And here we are 17 years later, and it’s of great consequence.

Why do you think you weren’t called as an alibi witness? The podcast suggests that although defense attorneys might have good reasons not to call such a witness, it’s baffling that you were never even contacted. How do you makes sense of that?

As a young adult, 17, 18 years old, when the situation occurred, it never crossed my mind why no one ever contacted me, outside of the fact that the timing of the conversation must have been irrelevant. I just assumed that if he was convicted, the state had overwhelming evidence. I always assumed that it was just because what I had to say and the timing of my experience was irrelevant.

Now looking back, why do I think now as an adult? I have no idea. I mean how do you perceive to think what someone else thinks. I have no idea why the defense attorney never reached out to me. Is it possible that it was because of her health issues? Of course.

In your letter as a teenager, you wrote that you couldn’t see Adnan Syed being guilty. Now you say you don’t know one way or another. Can you talk about how your thoughts have changed about this over time?

Well I’d say initially when Adnan was first arrested, of course there was the shock that someone within our own community committed the murder, because we were all under the impression as teenagers that Hae had run away.

So when she was found murdered, it was just a huge shock. And then on top of that to have someone accused within our own community that we went to school with for four years — longer for some of my friends — that was a shock. I can say that honestly, we all thought that Adnan’s arrest had to be a mistake.

I’ve always been a realist and so in the back of my mind I’ve never been quite sure. Because I don’t have a close relationship with him, I had nothing to gauge an opinion on either way. So over time, the longer he stayed in jail, the more I thought he was a guilty person. Especially at a young, naive age, you tend to think that the truth is inevitable, and if someone’s innocent you tend to think, well they have nothing to worry about.

I’m just at the point right now where I don’t necessarily need to have an opinion, because it has no effect on what I have to say. I’m just comfortable at this point in my life leaving it up to the court system to establish.

In one of your letters you wrote to Syed, you say maybe things could have been different if the conversation you had had lasted just a little longer. Since then, have you thought about how things could have been different?

Of course. I have friends who tell me not to think about it and I understand their thinking. But yes, I’ve often thought about different scenarios. Say my ride didn’t show up, and Adnan would have offered to give me a ride home, and therefore I would have spent an extra hour with him, or I could have stayed with him for a longer period of time. How could you not wonder?

 What do you think about the popularity of this podcast? It was a worldwide phenomenon, but at the same time it was a real murder case with real people, one of whom was you.

Well, a lot of people do tend to refer to me and the other individuals as characters, and although part of me finds it a little offensive, I do understand the reasoning behind that. Anytime you’re involved with any murder situation, it’s not going to be positive. So regardless of the amount of publicity or fame or celebrity status that you receive, it doesn’t take away from the fact that it sucks and that it’s not a positive experience to be associated with. And so I wanted to express that in the book.

Anything else you want to add?

I would just ask that people remain patient with not just me, but other individuals involved in the case. You know, everybody’s trying to do the best that they can...I just see everyone in this case as trying to do what their heart tells them is the best thing to do and the right thing to do, and so I can’t fault anyone for that. And I would just hope that the public look at the situation with the same grain of salt.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Chetanya Robinson

Chetanya Robinson

Chetanya Robinson is a former intern with Crosscut. He was born and raised in Seattle and graduated from the University of Washington in fall 2016. He enjoys reporting on an eclectic range of topics, especially cultural identity and the environment. His work has also appeared in the Seattle Weekly, KCTS9 Earthfix, The Seattle Globalist, Awoko newspaper in Sierra Leone, and the International Examiner, where he's a regular writer. You can follow him on Twitter at @chetanyarobins.