Asia McClain Chapman didn’t know what a podcast was when friends began calling and texting her at her Spokane-area home in November 2014.
“Eventually, someone said, ‘You’re on the radio,’ and I’m thinking, I haven’t called in to try to win radio tickets in years,” McClain Chapman said. “What do you mean I’m on the radio?”
The stay-at-home mother of two boys soon found out interviews she’d given to a Chicago-based radio producer, Sarah Koenig, earlier that year had become the basis for “Serial,” a true-crime podcast that captured the attention of millions of would-be sleuths and garnered a prestigious Peabody Award. Koenig wanted to know about a piece of paper McClain Chapman had signed 15 years prior, while she was a high school student in Baltimore.
That affidavit wasn’t used by the defense in the trial of Adnan Syed for the 1999 strangulation of Hae Min Lee – two of McClain Chapman’s classmates at Woodlawn High School. Lee, a former love interest of Syed, was found partially buried in a nearby park. Investigators used cellphone records to pin the crime on Syed, who they said left the suburban high school and killed Lee in a fit of rage.
But McClain Chapman had seen Syed at a nearby library during the time prosecutors say Syed killed Lee. She signed an affidavit saying that at the request of a member of Syed’s family, and then went about her own life: moving to Portland, falling in love with her husband and relocating to Spokane when the couple expected children in October 2010.
Syed’s defense attorney at the time did not question McClain Chapman, or call her as a witness in his trial, a decision explored at length on “Serial.” He was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Lee.
When McClain Chapman began listening to Koenig’s reporting on the internet in 2014, she was incensed. She hadn’t realized the popularity of Koenig’s association with NPR, or that the producer’s reporting would focus on her as the “linchpin” in the case.
After “an initial freak-out,” she called her husband, who told her the whole thing would probably blow over.
“He’s cool as a cucumber, but he’s not always right,” McClain Chapman said.
Listeners, convinced of Syed’s innocence, began blaming her for not coming forward to defend him against the accusations.
“A lot of people gave me grief – ‘why didn’t you go directly to the lawyer or the police,’ ” McClain Chapman said. “I grew up in Baltimore city. You’re taught to have an irrational fear of the police at a young age.”
McClain Chapman said she tried to call the police, “but chickened out.” She also wrote Syed two letters while he was imprisoned, but never received word back.
The first time she would see her high school classmate again was inside a Baltimore courtroom in February. As a result of the reporting on “Serial,” and another affidavit McClain Chapman signed last year, Syed’s attorneys argued for a new trial, a request a Baltimore County judge has not ruled on yet.
“It was odd in a normal sense, but there was another layer of odd, because here he is shackled in four-point restraints and not allowed to speak to me,” she said of the hearing. “It was really strange to think such a small moment in time could entangle two people who are virtually strangers.”
McClain Chapman had already been extensively journaling as a result of being featured on the wildly popular podcast, the second season of which tackled the story of Hailey, Idaho, resident and accused U.S. Army deserter Bowe Bergdahl.
Appearing in court, and the need to provide an even more detailed account of that day in the Woodlawn library and everything that followed, prompted more writing, McClain Chapman said. The result is the book “Confessions of a ‘Serial’ Alibi,” copies of which McClain Chapman will sign at the downtown Auntie’s Bookstore on Saturday afternoon.
“I’m not a public figure. At least I wasn’t,” she said. “I wasn’t accustomed to that kind of criticism, and it hurt. It bothered me.”
The book is an attempt to tell McClain Chapman’s full story, without the constraints of a podcast or a courtroom. Some edits had to be made, but McClain Chapman – who at one point was assured of Syed’s guilt based on the information provided by the prosecution – wrote the book and testified for the same reasons Koenig gave when making that first phone call two years ago.
“I believe we all want to know, as best as we can, what truly happened to Hae Min Lee,” she said. “And whether that results in Adnan being guilty, or innocent, I can’t speak to that. I don’t know. I do know that I have information that can contribute to helping the truth be resolved.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter