In 1999, a Baltimore teenager, Hae Min Lee, was founded murdered in a park six weeks after she’d disappeared. Her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison.
Listeners to the first season of the podcast “Serial,” which devoted more than eight hours in 2014 to an examination of the case, first heard the name Asia McClain midway through the first episode when she was mentioned as a possible alibi witness. “Serial” became a sensation, and it launched the Spokane woman on a roller coaster. She’s since testified for the defense in a bid to get Syed a new trial and written a book about her experience, “Confessions of a ‘Serial’ Alibi.”
Now Asia McClain Chapman is a participant in a new documentary, “The Case Against Adnan Syed,” from director Amy Berg. The four-part series debuts at 9 p.m. Sunday on HBO.
Whereas McClain Chapman didn’t know what she was getting into when Sarah Koenig interviewed her for “Serial” in 2014, this time, her eyes were open.
So wide open, in fact, that she initially declined to participate when approached by Berg and her production company. She was leery of the exposure. “I was so stressed out after ‘Serial’ happened, that first year was insane for me,” McClain Chapman said. “I would get cornered at my mom’s group functions. … It was bad for awhile there, especially because I wasn’t used to it.
“It’s been one hell of a ride, and I’ve had to learn to say ‘no’ and to put my foot down.”
Only when she started to hear from friends what kind of questions Berg and her team were asking, did she understand what track the project was taking and agreed to be interviewed.
“They are doing right, and that got back to me,” McClain Chapman said.
McClain Chapman, who moved to Spokane with her husband in 2010, was in the same class as Lee and Syed at Woodlawn High School in the suburbs of Baltimore. She was at the Woodlawn Public Library on Jan. 13, 1999, the day Lee disappeared after school. She recalls having a conversation in the library with Syed during the time police and prosecutors argued the 17-year-old strangled his former girlfriend in a nearby Best Buy parking lot.
But she was never called by Syed’s defense to testify, a decision that has been second-guessed by millions of “Serial” listeners.
Berg, who was nominated for an Oscar for her 2006 documentary “Deliver Us From Evil,” about the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal, takes viewers beyond “Serial.”
In an interview with Vulture, Berg said after listening to “Serial” she was “dissatisfied with the information that was available,” especially the information coming from Jay Wilds, the state’s star witness who told the police that Syed committed the crime and asked Wilds to help bury the body. Wilds’ various stories – and the plea deal that saw him walk away with no prison time – have made him a hotly debated character.
“There was enough doubt for me to want to give this a real close look,” Berg told Vulture, “and I was very clear with the producers that if I found out anything about Adnan being involved with it, I wanted to go down that road as well.”
McClain Chapman has seen the first three episodes of “The Case Against Adnan Syed,” and is impressed with what she’s seen so far.
“I think they did an excellent job. I love how they show how the situation has affected so many people,” McClain Chapman said. “They did an excellent job of expanding the view.”
Lee’s family had maintained a belief that Syed is guilty, a view that is reflected in the documentary. But the filmmakers also made sure to give Lee a voice in the film, through animated readings from her diary.
“I didn’t make it two minutes in before I was bawling,” McClain Chapman said. “I’ve grown to be pretty strong, but when it comes to Hae, I lose it.”
They were not close friends, McClain Chapman said, but “I remember her face. I remember her being alive.”
Lee and Syed were in the magnet program at Woodlawn High School. Chapman was not, although most of her best friends were. But the class as a whole was pretty close knit, she said, and there were a lot of social circles that overlapped.
“We would be at the same parties sometimes. We all knew each other,” Chapman said. “There’s a reason why Adnan came into the library, and he spoke to me and I spoke to him. I had been there for hours and hadn’t seen anyone I knew and someone I knew walked in.”
McClain Chapman testified at a post-conviction relief hearing in February 2016 on Syed’s behalf. At that hearing, the defense team also argued that police misinterpreted cell tower data, and that Syed’s original attorney was negligent in failing to cross-examine the state’s witness regarding the cell-tower locations. A judge agreed in June 2016, vacating Syed’s conviction and ordering a new trial. That decision is currently before Maryland’s highest court, and justices are expected to rule by the end of summer.
Syed remains in jail.
The case has brought McClain Chapman a lot of attention, not all of it pleasant. She’s been accused of lying by those who believe Syed is guilty, and she battles trolls on Twitter. Through it all, she stands by her story and is hopeful the documentary will have an impact.
“I can only do what I can do, and I can only say what I know, and if that changes the situation, then that’s not up to me. It’s up to God,” she said.
She later added, “I hope the state watches it an realizes they have no case. If there was either a hope of them having a case for retrial, I can guarantee you that the documentary completely kills it. Based on the evidence they have and the lack of evidence they have, and with my situation and other things that are brought forward in the documentary, I don’t see it happening.”
As the mother of three boys, McClain Chapman said she’s really upset that the criminal justice system did not work in this case. To her, the prosecutors failed in their search for the truth, and Syed’s first attorney proved to be incompetent.
“It’s so heartbreaking. I look at someone like Adnan. He was a kid. And for all intents and purposes, he was a good kid. Honor roll,” McClain Chapman said. “Think about it. He was swooped up first thing in the morning at his house, and he never came home again. To think that his case could be investigated so poorly …. It’s so sad. I don’t even know what I would do if something like this happened to one of my boys.”
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