We Spoke To Asia McClain About Serial, Adnan Syed And Her New Book
The Debrief: Over two years since the first episode of Serial was released, we got to talk to arguably one of the biggest people in the case.
It's been over two years since the first episode of the podcast Serial aired. The podcast which, as it stands, has had over 180 million downloads and was seemingly the catalyst for the world's obsession with true crime.
Serial was an investigation into the murder of 17 year old high school student Hae Min Lee on 13th January, 1999 in Maryland, Baltimore. Hae’s ex boyfriend, 17 year old Adnan Syed, was tried, found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment plus 30 years but has always maintained his innocence.
The case, it unfolded over the course of the podcast, had a number of inconsistencies: questions were raised about the effectiveness of Adnan's lawyer, the credibility of Jay's testimony (which the prosecutions case heavily rested on), the use of cell phone evidence and many more, raising the question of Adnan's guilt.
From the very first episode, Sarah Koenig introduces Asia McClain (now Asia Chapman) as a key part of the narrative of the case for one very specific reason. The crux of the prosecution's defence was that Adnan had killed Hae by 2.36pm but Asia’s testimony is clear: that she had spoken to Syed in the Woodlawn High School Library at around 2.30pm. It's this detail which throws the prosecutions case into disarray. The thing is, Asia was never called to testify at the original trial.
In February, and in the wake of Serial, there was a post-conviction hearing in which Asia was allowed to testify. The judge is yet to rule on whether there will be a retrial.
Asia, in the meantime has written a book, Confessions of a Serial Alibi, in which she details her whole experience. Before I speak to Asia, I'm a little nervous – it feels strange to be interviewing someone I've heard so much about – but as we chat she's warm and friendly, answering the questions that we've all been waiting to get answers to.
Hi Asia, congratulations on the book! What made you decide to write it?
There’s been a lot of emotions involved in this whole process. Everything from anxiety to fear to anger and being thrown in the spotlight the way that I had been because I wasn’t aware of Serial being presented the way it was.
What do you mean by Serial 'not being presented the way it was'?
I wasn’t aware that it was a podcast and I wasn’t aware that my recording was going to be used in a podcast, I thought it was for notation purposes so when I heard myself on the internet 10 months later, it completely threw me for a loop. As the podcast got more and more popular, like I said, there was just a whole slew of emotions and it caused me to stress. So I started writing in a journal to relieve some tension and as time went on the journal became less and less effective because I became aware that no one was aware of those feelings.
The idea came from talking to various friends so I gave it a shot for probably about a month and a half, transferring journal notes into manuscript form and eventually I got frustrated and quit. And then after the post conviction hearing [in February], a lot of those emotions started to come back but at that time, I was a little bit more relieved in the sense that I’d already testified and so I started working on the project again, and I got in contact with a publisher and we went from there.
What made you reach out to Adnan and write the two letters to him when he was arrested in 1999?
I initially had a conversation with my ex boyfriend who was a friend of Adnan’s and I told him about seeing Adnan in the library and he thought it would be helpful to tell the family. And then I also had questions. There were a lot of rumours floating around school, it was virtually impossible to know what was a fact and what was a rumour and I’ve always been taught that if you want to know the truth about something then you go to the source.
Yeah I can understand that. You were never contacted by Adnan’s defence team at the time, did you think anything of that?
Well honestly I thought that the time spent with Adnan was irrelevant when no one ever contacted me. It was 20 minutes max so when you think of it in terms of time, you don’t generally consider 15-20 minutes to be that important when doing anything, you know? So when it comes to someone being murdered and you have no idea when the murder took place... I never followed the case and from what I understand the state didn’t pin the time of death until later in the trial anyway so the whole time I was oblivious to what time they suspected Hae died so when no one contacted me I just assumed that 15-20 minutes was irrelevant.
The family was concerned because they told me that Adnan was having trouble piecing together his afternoon from 2.15pm to 8pm so I didn’t come forward as an alibi for him, I came forward as a person that has spent 15-20 minutes out of that six hour window with him.
You said you weren’t aware of Serial when Sarah contacted you and in your book you seem a little angry about her not being clear about what it was she was doing. How do you feel about it all now?
Well, it wasn’t that she was being unclear, I just think that at the time I wasn’t familiar with her jargon. I wasn’t familiar with what This American Life was so when she referenced it I just thought it was a news publication, I didn’t realise it was an online radio show. When she said that she was doing a story I just assumed that she meant a written piece so we chalked it up to semantics. She put the information out there, I just didn’t pick it up.
So initially I was very angry because I thought that she had deceived me but when I actually finally approached her with my anger, you know, she did remind me, ‘Hey I said this to you, I said that to you!’ and I went back and I looked at emails and I’m like, ‘Oh well, it says right there’, you know? It just didn’t communicate to me because at the time I had very young children in the house and my mind was just not internet ready so it just didn’t dawn on me. I ended up ceasing communication with her so there were questions that never got answered or even asked in the podcast.
I didn't know that's what happened. Could you give me an example of something that didn’t get answered?
Well, yeah, specifically Sarah never had an opportunity to ask me about the Kevin Urick incident until I reached out to her in anger a week before the final episode. So during the majority of the podcast she had no idea that I protested to the things Kevin Urick testified to [Urick said under oath that Asia had been pressured into the letters and the later affadavit, which Asia completely denies] so in the podcast it makes it seem as if I contributed to Kevin Urick’s testimony in some way, that I was in support of that which I completely was not but she didn’t know that until the very end because I had already cut communication with her. Because of that there were questions like that that she never got to ask me which kind of framed the podcast in a different way.
How does it make you feel that some people think you’re lying about seeing Adnan that day?
It doesn’t bother me because the experience is so simple, you know? How many times a day do you run into someone that you haven’t seen in a long time or someone that you barely know and you speak to them for a few minutes? It’s as simple as that. It’s not like it’s a complicated story so I can’t really get mad at them as I think of them as being silly. If I were going to make up a lie or implicate myself as an alibi in some nefarious way, you’d imagine the story to be a lot more complicated than: I talked to him for 15-20 minutes 17 years ago. [laughs].
Adnan’s struggled to piece his day together since his first police interview, why do you think your memory of that day is so clear?
Well there were just a multitude of things that happened that day. Some were emotional in terms of being stood up and left to wait at the library for hours and being emotionally upset about that to the incidents with the weather the following two days [there were snow storms and people got snowed in]. And just the fact that Adnan, like I said, wasn’t somebody that I normally speak to and the library wasn't a normal place for me to wait for a ride. Just a multitude of things that cause otherwise uneventful events to be memorable.
Yeah I can understand that. How’s the reaction been from the public?
I’d say about 95% of the messages that I get are messages of support and admiration for coming forward, for being strong, for doing the right thing. Then you have about the 5% who are the internet trolls, your young teenagers who think it’s funny to say outlandish things or harass people and just your conspiracy nuts and the people who probably shouldn’t spend as much time looking at case documents as they do.
Has the popularity of the case surprised you? I’ve heard that it’s had around 100 million downloads.
More than that! The last number I heard was 180 million. It definitely surprises me just because to me it seems like a normal case but when you dive deeper into it, obviously it’s not a normal case. And then you think about the fact that it’s 17 years old.
It must be really surreal. Since Serial, true crime has become so popular. Did you watch Making A Murderer?
I did. Me and my husband actually binge watched it when it first came out. We watched the whole thing. I found it very interesting and I still don’t know. I’m pretty much sitting in the same spot with Steven Avery. I don’t have any idea whether he’s guilty or innocent. I don’t know. You always hope the best for humanity.
When you say that you’re ‘sitting in the same spot’ with Steven Avery do you mean that’s how you feel about Adnan as well?
Well yeah, I have no idea whether Adnan is guilty or innocent. I haven’t listened to the other podcasts. I’ve been told that they go into a great deal more information but I’ve refrained from listening to that for now just because I have many instances in this experience where I’ve been emotionally influenced and I just want to be the one person who is honest about not knowing. Everyone's either on the guilty side or the innocent side but at the end of the day, none of us really have any idea.
Definitely. What was it like when you found out about Hae’s murder?
It was a complete shock, it was very surreal, you know, we were in our senior year in high school and we were all looking forward to life and to be smacked in the face by death, just so abruptly was pretty hard to process in the sense that, you know, death is not something on your radar when you’re 17, 18 years old. And we were all under the assumption that she had run away to begin with so in a strange way no one even considered the possibility that she was dead. So when her body turned up it just, I don’t know, me personally, I didn’t even know how to process it because it seemed like it wasn’t real.
It must have been extremely difficult. In the book you mention having an experience with Hae’s spirit or ghost on the anniversary of her death. Is that right?
Well a lot of people interpreted it that way but I’m describing a lucid dream. I never thought it was a ghost, it was definitely something that was ghost-like but I don’t believe in ghosts, not at all. It was just the description of a lucid dream or sleep paralysis but yeah it was definitely something that happened, it wasn’t made up and it never happened again so it’s definitely something that will be with me for the rest of my life.
I can imagine! Are you in touch with Adnan or his family at all?
No I don’t think it’s in the best interest to communicate with anyone on the defence. The prosecution has tried every trick in the book to try to make me out to be a nefarious person and that would just be one more bullet in their arsenal.
How does it feel to be, as Sarah calls you in the first episode of Serial, the ‘technicality’ that could change Adnan’s case? Is that a heavy weight to carry?
Definitely. It’s definitely heavy. Like I said how many times a day do you run into someone you haven’t seen or you barely know and you have a conversation with them? You never think, you know, 17 years later they’re going to be in prison and you’re going to be the one possibly holding responsibility for them getting a retrial, to them getting out of prison. That’s a person’s life, you know? But not only that, to Hae’s family. That’s a heavy burden as well because if this were to result in Adnan getting out of prison, that leaves me with a weight for Hae’s family because they have been under the assumption for 17 years that their loved one’s murderer is rightfully in prison and if Adnan were to get out of prison would definitely open a wound for them.
Thank you, Asia!
Asia McClain Chapman's book 'Confessions of a Serial Alibi' will be released on 7th July but the Kindle version is available now.
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