Asia McClain says there’s a very simple reason Adnan Syed couldn’t have killed his former high school girlfriend, Hae Lee, 20 years ago: “I know it’s physically impossible for people to be in two places at one time.”
Syed, the subject of Sarah Koenig’s hit podcast “Serial” and Amy Berg’s HBO docuseries “The Case Against Adnan Syed,” was convicted of killing Lee, his ex-girlfriend, in 1999. But McClain, who was never called to testify during the first trial, said she had a 20-minute conversation with Syed in their high school’s library at the same time prosecutors say Lee was murdered.
They said Syed had killed Lee because she had begun dating someone else, and he was angry and jealous.
“We discussed his breakup with Hae,” McClain told TheWrap. “There was nothing strange about his demeanor — nothing notable, nothing that showed any signs that I should be concerned about. I didn’t walk away thinking that he was murderous or suicidal. In fact, I walked away from the conversation impressed by the level of maturity that he showed.”
She added: “He told me that he knew Hae was dating someone else, and that he was happy for her, and just wanted her to be happy. He didn’t seem to be heartbroken, he didn’t seem to be jealous, he didn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary… The idea that just because their relationship was over that he was incapable of letting her date other people was just ludicrous to me.”
Syed’s defense attorney two decades ago, Cristina Gutierrez, never interviewed McClain. But McClain later signed an affidavit about talking with Syed in the library.
Syed’s new attorney, Justin Brown, has appealed the case on the basis that Gutierrez made many mistakes during Syed’s defense in 2015. The Maryland Court of Special Appeals decided that Syed would be allowed to appeal his conviction on grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel. But last week, Maryland’s Court of Appeals reinstated Syed’s conviction and decided he would not get a new trial.
McClain said she hasn’t spoken to Syed since their conversation in the library. She said she feels like prosecutors consider her “an enemy.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever been seen as a good person to them,” she said. “I feel like I’ve been treated as the enemy. I’ve always been a thorn in their side, and anything they can do to discredit me, they will do, and that includes having any communication with Adnan.”
Even with 20 years to think about the case, McClain said she has no idea what happened to Lee. But she does remember how her death affected everyone at their school.
“When she went missing, everyone thought she ran away,” McClain said. “Not only was she found dead, it was the nature in which she was found dead that was equally disturbing. Her body was not far away, buried shallow, it was just a stark awakening. I never had close contact with death before, so Hae was the first person I knew to pass away and to be murdered? We were in shock… When Hae died, it caused a humongous gray cloud over all of us.”
We talked with McClain about her “Serial” regrets, that day in the library, and why she’s apprehensive about being recorded.
TheWrap: First of all, do you mind if I record our conversation?
Asia McClain: Sure, but may I ask what for? When I first spoke to Sarah [Koenig], she didn’t tell me what she was doing so I like to ask. I don’t recall her ever using the word “podcast” with me — back then, podcasts weren’t that big. I had no idea she would be doing an audio publication, I had no idea when her story was being completed. Podcasts weren’t that big. I assume she wanted to record me for notation purposes, so I was very surprised nine months later when “Serial” just popped out.
I imagine your life hasn’t really been the same since.
As you know, “Serial” went quite viral, and the podcast itself put me as the linchpin of the whole case. Ever since, I’ve been in between the two families. It’s been a crazy rollercoaster ride, especially emotionally.
How did you become involved with Amy Berg’s docuseries?
After I testified with the PCR (Post-Conviction Relief) in 2016, Amy’s team began trying to reach out to me and, for a few years, I turned them down several times because of the nature of the media and the case. I like to put more forethought into who I speak to. I’ve had many situations where my words have been taken out of context and misquoted. I’m just very cautious of who I talk to in the media. For a couple years, I would say “no, no thank you,” but after two years, word started getting out about the types of questions they were asking people I went to high school with, and they started reaching out to me asking if I had done an interview with Amy. When they found out I had not, they shared their experience with me and I felt, at the time, they were asking important questions and they were addressing things that I felt needed to be addressed. Then I started speaking with Amy and her team. We coordinated to get together.
What do you mean when you say that Amy’s team started asking questions that needed to be addressed?
Just more in terms of additional case evidence. I liked that they were touching on the different perspectives of the case, other individuals that were involved, shedding light on who Hae was as a person and diving into Adnan’s relations with his family. Basically highlighting a lot of good experiences in terms of our shared memories and just speaking to old friends and really expanding the view of the people involved in the case. I liked that it wasn’t just about me and my alibi. It encompassed more.
Do you have any regret from the past 20 years in terms of this case?
Of course. Going back to the beginning, it’s all hindsight, but knowing what I know now, I would’ve fought a little bit harder to have been heard. Going directly to the police, I don’t know what that would’ve encompassed. In 2010, reaching out to [prosecutor] Kevin Urick — obviously that was tragically bad — I would not have done that again. There are a lot of regrets that I have over the last 20 years — I feel responsible for the loss of the last nine years, we could’ve been doing this nine years ago. There are times where I don’t regret it because I do believe in God and I do think everything happens for a reason — perhaps there is a reason that I can’t explain about the way the situation played out the way it had. I could’ve been manipulated as a 17-year-old by the police or I could have been discredited.
Let’s talk about your story. Talk me through as much detail as you remember from that day seeing Adnan in the library.
The interesting thing is that there is not much to tell. It was a pretty uneventful day in terms of going to school, logging out early for my… education program I was in, going to the library, waiting for a ride that wasn’t showing up. While waiting, I just happened to run into someone that I knew after sitting there and I remember having a brief conversation. There was really nothing much more to it than that, which is why when no one reached out to me, I figured it was unimportant. You don’t ever think a conversation so brief could be of extreme value. With me not following the case, not being a close friend, period, I had no idea of the state’s timeline. The first recollection I have of him still being in prison was when Rabia [Chaudry, Syed’s public advocate and friend] showed up in 2000 to have me sign the affidavit. At the time, they were trying to think about what he was doing that day, and trying to place that 20-minute conversation in the grand scheme of his entire day.
What did you and Adnan talk about during those 20 minutes?
We discussed his breakup with Hae. Other than that, it was just a general conversation between two people who had shared relationships with other people. There was nothing strange about his demeanor — nothing notable, nothing that showed any signs that I should be concerned about. I didn’t walk away thinking that he was murderous or suicidal. In fact, I walked away from the conversation impressed by the level of maturity that he showed. He told me that he knew Hae was dating someone else, and that he was happy for her, and just wanted her to be happy. He didn’t seem to be heartbroken, he didn’t seem to be jealous, he didn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary… The idea that just because their relationship was over that he was incapable of letting her date other people was just ludicrous to me.
What about the state’s theory that Adnan killed Hae because he was jealous of her new boyfriend?
I think it’s silly! I think it’s a typical murder mystery assumption that you see in a movie. I don’t think every case of this nature is a murder mystery in that way. I know people make snap decisions, but based on relationships I had in our social circle, it’s not something I saw him being capable of.
What do you think happened?
It’s not whether he’s guilty or innocent. I don’t know if we will ever have the answer without a shadow of a doubt. Basically, I can only count for my experience that day. I know it’s physically impossible for people to be in two places at one time. My issue is with the state: If they want to prosecute Adnan for murder, then they need to show when and how that took place. And I feel like a retrial would be the best way to make sure that all of the evidence is presented and a verdict can be rendered. If the jury decides he’s still guilty, then that’s what should happen, that’s what we should expect from our legal team. What has happened so far in his case… that’s definitely not what we expect from our legal team.
What was your response when you were accused of making up your story to help Adnan?
The rumors probably started in 2015 — personally, I think it’s ridiculous. I’m not the type of person to involve myself in that kind of behavior, not even for a friend, let alone for a friend of a friend… I have to pick my battles. This situation has become so real and it’s full of so much heartache and so much tragedy that I feel like there are times where I have to find a good thing in the bad, or I have to find the humor where there should not be any. If you don’t, the sadness will just take over you.
What did you think of the recent news regarding Adnan’s case that he was denied a new trial?
I think it’s bad, honestly. I don’t understand what’s going on with the state of Maryland, why they are fighting so hard not to have a retrial. I understand wanting them to get ahead of the documentary — they don’t want to be seen as being influenced, considering that the documentary is presenting new information. But I think it was a cowardly move, and I think it’s a move they are going to regret.
Personally, I feel like they want to bury him in appeals and paperwork. After 20 years, a blow like this can disenfranchise people. I don’t think Rabia is going to quit, though. I think it was intentionally done to bury the case in the appeals case. The last thing they want is to get attention.
Do you speak to Adnan?
No, I haven’t spoken to Adnan — as far as I know — since that day in the library. I don’t know if you’ve read my book, but that’s something that does interest me because this has been so insane, I often think what other people involved in this case are going through. I would love to pick his brain about that. But with the case being ongoing, that’s absolutely out of the question, especially with how the state of Maryland has treated me and my efforts to come forward with information. …
There is a built-in conflict of interest, but at the end of the day, I’m just a normal citizen, and doing what I did is what we should encourage people to do, and not penalize them and not have news conferences where you publicly desecrate someone’s character, and that was done to me. That is totally unacceptable. Arguing your case in court, presenting alternative theories, that’s what we have lawyers for, but publicly shaming and trying to your best in public to discredit someone in the media, that’s making it personal.
Do you remember where you were the day you found out Hae was killed?
She had been missing, and I’m close friends with her classmates. I tried out for field hockey, I played lacrosse, Hae was on those teams, and a lot of our friends intermingled, even my best friends to this day were friends with Hae and Adnan. When she went missing, everyone thought she ran away. We thought she took off with her new boyfriend, we heard a rumor about her dad or one of her relatives living in California… I can sympathize wanting to live with your dad — any kid going through divorce wanted to live with the other parent at some point. I assumed she just took off. When she was found dead, I think it was a double shocker. Not only was she found dead, it was the nature in which she was found dead that was equally disturbing. Her body was not far away, buried shallow, it was just a stark awakening. I never had close contact with death before, so Hae was the first person I knew to pass away. And to be murdered? We were in shock. With it being our senior year, we were gearing up for the end of our high school days, prom, finals, and getting ready for college. … Going into graduation, Adnan wasn’t allowed to graduate with us, and Hae wasn’t there, and it was just really crappy. I remember trying to fight through it because of all the activities we did. It was almost like we tried to put it out of our minds because it was so awful that we were trying to move on. It was an experience we never expected to have and we didn’t know how to deal with it. I had a lot of friends that didn’t follow the case.
How do you feel about the possibility that Hae’s actual killer is still out there?
The possibility of that scares me to death. I’ve had nightmares, there is anxiety that goes with that — just last week I was coming home at 8:30 p.m. with my kids and a strange car pulled up, and I couldn’t get my key into the door fast enough.
The four-part docuseries “The Case Against Adnan Syed” airs on HBO on Sunday nights at 9/8 ET/PT.