Late last month, the Attorney General’s Office for the State of Maryland filed their motion for leave to appeal Adnan Syed’s recently overturned murder conviction. The motion was fairly standard, in that it challenged Judge Martin Welch’s decision to grant Syed a new trial on the basis that the cell-tower evidence was faulty, arguing that Syed had previously waived his right to raise the issue at his February post-conviction relief (PCR) hearing while also substantively challenging Welch’s assessment of the cell expert testimony.
But there was one thing that was unusual about the State’s motion — though Welch had declined to grant Syed relief on his second issue, the previously unheard alibi witness testimony from Asia McClain Chapman (pictured above with her husband), the State included a preemptive warning for Syed’s defense. If the defense continue to argue that Syed should also be granted relief on the basis of McClain’s testimony – by cross-appealing – the State would request another opportunity to challenge her alibi claim by introducing testimony from two new witnesses into the record. These two witnesses – unidentified sisters who attended Woodlawn High School with McClain, Syed, and Lee – would testify that McClain was lying.
Procedurally, according to a legal expert in post-conviction proceedings and appeals, the State’s conditional request for a remand is “inappropriate.” Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah spent hours cross-examining McClain at the February PCR hearing, and could have called witnesses to theoretically impeach her testimony back then; since there are no allegations that these witnesses were prevented from testifying through some sort of impropriety, the Court of Special Appeals is highly unlikely to grant this brief remand. Having missed their opportunity to testify at the PCR hearing, a re-trial is really the appropriate venue for these two new witnesses to testify. As Syed’s attorney Justin Brown tweeted:
Since a retrial is seemingly what the State of Maryland is trying to avoid, despite maintaining that there is an abundance of evidence proving Syed’s guilt, we’re unlikely to hear these witnesses’ testimony for a long time – if ever. However, the AG’s Office included two statements from these witnesses along with their request for appeal, which were made public and quickly became fodder for the media, threatening to hurt McClain’s credibility in the court of public opinion. Thanks to the success of Serial, which brought international attention to Syed’s case, and the subsequent podcast Undisclosed, the validity of Syed’s conviction has been debated online and on social media for nearly two years. The court of public opinion may not be a court of law, but it is not without influence.
“[McClain]’s story about seeing Adnan in the library the day Hae was killed is a lie,” one of the witnesses wrote in her statement, going on to claim that McClain got into a fight with one of the sisters after she said she would “make up a lie” because she “believed so much in Adnan [sic] innocence.” A Facebook chat message that one of the sisters sent to McClain is also included with the filing. “I think it’s sad [Syed] may actually be set free because of you and this fabricated story,” she wrote.
To recap: a not insignificant portion of the podcast focused on how McClain had written Syed two letters after his arrest, saying she saw him at the library on January 13, 1999, the day Lee disappeared, which she offered to tell his lawyers should it be determined that her recollection be of importance to the case. Syed gave those letters to his trial attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, and urged her to contact McClain. She never did – even after the State’s timeline for the crime alleged that Syed was killing Lee during the timeframe when McClain said she was with him in the library. A year after Syed’s conviction, McClain was contacted by Syed’s family friend, Rabia Chaudry, and agreed to sign an affidavit attesting to seeing him at the library.
Nearly a decade later, Syed’s defense counsel tried to contact McClain about testifying at a post-conviction hearing, but she instead contacted the trial prosecutor, Kevin Urick, to ask him what the status of Syed’s case was, believing that as a agent of the State, he could be trusted to tell her the truth. As she detailed in her January 2015 affidavit, she claims Urick dissuaded her from responding to the defense or testifying, assuring her that they had convicted the right man, and that the defense was grasping at straws; Urick later testified at the hearing himself, and said under oath that McClain told him that she only signed her previous affidavit under pressure from the Syed family, and that she didn’t stand by her alibi claim. After learning about her relevance to the case through Serial – as well as Urick’s characterization of their conversation – McClain got in contact with Syed’s defense attorneys and wrote a new affidavit in January 2015. She also agreed to finally testify to what she has been saying for 17 years now — that she spent approximately 20 minutes talking to Syed at the public library on the Woodlawn HS campus from 2:15-2:35. Her testimony in February 2016 was deemed “extremely credible” by expert witness Dave Irwin, who also said that had she been called to testify at Syed’s trial, it would have been “a gamechanger.”
Yesterday, McClain clapped back at the allegations that she was lying. In a post on her blog, McClain – who wrote a memoir about her experience as an alibi witness a few months after giving her testimony – writes that up until very recently she had nothing but cordial exchanges with the sisters over Facebook. In fact, one of the sisters was among the first to alert her to her name being mentioned on Serial, writing back in 2014, “I had no idea you had been that involved all those years ago.” The very first episode of Serial was focused on McClain, the letters she had sent Syed immediately after his arrest, the affidavit she had signed after his conviction and what Urick had claimed she said in 2010. According to McClain, the sisters gave no indication until recently that they doubted her, let alone recalled an alleged fight about a plan to make up an alibi for Syed.
So what changed? McClain writes that she reached out to both sisters in March, after she had given her much publicized testimony, while she was fact-checking her memoir (which was specifically about being Syed’s alibi witness); she came across a photo featuring one of the sisters and a teacher, but she couldn’t tell which sister – could they? In her blog post, McClain states that her exchange with the sisters about the photo was friendly, but notes that they were not particularly helpful. They not only couldn’t recall which class the picture was taken in, but they also disagreed about which of them was in the photo. They “were unable to determine which one of them was in the photograph. Each sister claimed it to be the other.” Still, “we ended the conversation on positive terms.”
Five months later, just after Syed’s conviction was overturned, that was no longer the case. McClain writes:
I received a message from sister #1, who had previously admitted no recollection of the class or its specifics. This time the message was abrasive and completely out of character from what I had come to expect from her. In the message she accused me of wrong doing in connection with the Adnan Syed investigation and questioned my validity as a potential alibi witness for Mr. Syed. Dumbfounded by her newfound accusations and feeling them to be both bizarre and untrue, I naturally assumed that her Facebook account had been hacked and that I was once again being targeted for cyber-bullying. I tried to respond to the message, but found that I had already been blocked. I immediately sent a message to sister #2 asking if sister #1’s Facebook account had been hacked because of the language and ideals expressed (Not to mention Facebook accounts get hacked all the time). It was at that time that sister #2 proceeded to verbally attack me and she too blocked me, once I denied such allegations.
It has been with great dismay that I read these entirely false allegations from these two sisters and it is with great sadness that I am now forced to question the true purpose and motivations behind these awful and untrue allegations. I have never wavered in my recollection of the events surrounding the murder of Ms. Lee.
McClain has supported her version of the events with screenshots of their Facebook conversations. She also had harsh words for the Attorney General’s Office, writing:
I have, on more than one occasion, offered to meet with the prosecution in this matter, to discuss with them what I know. They have never taken me up on my offer. Instead, they choose to publish these hurtful untruths without giving me a chance to contextualize the allegations and demonstrate their falsity. The prosecution should explain why they have never had time to meet with me, but will gladly take the opportunity to meet with, publish, and lend credence to my detractors. As such I highly encourage the public to continue to scrutinize these types of practices. This is after all, supposed to be a search for the truth.