The smash hit podcast “Serial” has kicked up a storm since it dissected a 1999 murder case in which a 17-year-old was convicted for strangling his high school ex-girlfriend to death. Now, as the convicted killer’s appeal progresses, an alibi witness has re-emerged, volunteering to give testimony that could help his defense.
Prosecutors said Adnan Syed, now 34, strangled Hae Min Lee after school one day in January 1999 in a Best Buy parking lot in Baltimore — and a jury convicted him. The conviction rested largely on the testimony of an acquaintance of Syed who, among other things, claimed he helped Syed bury Lee’s body. Syed had been serving out a life sentence in prison quietly until last year when reporter Sarah Koenig with “This American Life” reexamined the case for millions of listeners.
In “Serial,” Koenig raised what she deemed reasonable doubts about Syed’s guilt, pointing out several inconsistencies in the testimony from Syed’s acquaintance, who was the state’s key witness, questioning the defense attorney’s strategy and arguing that an untapped alibi provided by a classmate could have taken his case in a completely different direction.
The alibi comes from Syed’s classmate Asia McClain, who said she saw him at a public library at the time prosecutors claimed he was killing Lee. McClain said she wrote to Syed when he was in jail in 1999, telling him what she remembered. Syed passed the information along to his lawyer, but McClain was never called to the witness stand.
In 2000, McClain signed an affidavit, stating she had seen and talked to Syed at the local library on the day of the murder. But when the defense team contacted her to support an appeal in 2010, she said she was wary and turned to the prosecutor, Kevin Urick, for answers about the case.
McClain, now 33, now says Urick discouraged her testimony – a claim he denies.
“I had a telephone conversation with Urick in which I asked him why I was being contacted and what was going on in the case,” McClain wrote in a new affidavit obtained this week by the Blaze. “He told me there was no merit to any claims that Syed did not get a fair trial. Urick discussed the evidence of the case in a manner that seemed designed to get me to think Syed was guilty and that I should not bother participating in the case, by telling what I knew about January 13, 1999. Urick convinced me into believing that I should not participate in any ongoing proceedings. Based on my conversation with Kevin Urick, the comments made by him and what he conveyed to me during that conversation, I determined that I wished to have no further involvement with the Syed defense team, at that time.”
Urick remembers it differently. Based on the conversation with McClain, he believed she had been pressured by the boy’s family into writing the alibi affidavit. “She basically wrote it to please them and get them off her back,” he said during an appeal hearing, which was broadcast during “Serial.” The appeal was based, in part, on the fact that Syed’s original attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, failed to call McClain as a witness.
“I never told Urick that I recanted my story or affidavit about January 13, 1999,” McClain wrote in the new affidavit. In addition, she said she did not write the letters to Syed in jail or the affidavit because she felt pressure from Syed’s family. “I did not write them to please Syed’s family or to get them off my back. What actually happened is that I wrote the affidavit because I wanted to provide the truth about what I remembered. My only goal has always been to provide the truth about what I remembered.”
This week, Urick denied McClain’s claims that he dissuaded her from testifying in court.
“Absolutely false,” he told the Blaze in an interview. “I was not the one that brought up anything about evidence. She asked me, was it a strong case? I said yes. That was about the extent of my response.”
“Serial” bounced listeners back and forth late last year as Koenig took different stances on the case. In the end, she concluded there was too much reasonable doubt to convict Syed. She questioned whether McClain’s unheard testimony would have affected the jury’s decision and why Syed’s attorney never requested a plea deal – even though he asked her twice to do so. (Gutierrez, his attorney during trial, was disbarred for mishandling clients’ money in 2001 and died three years later.)
However, prosecutors still argue the court should uphold Syed’s conviction.
A Baltimore judge denied Syed’s 2010 appeal earlier last year and, earlier this month, the state of Maryland said it concurs with that decision. The judge had ruled that Gutierrez’s decision not to call McClain as a witness was part of her defense strategy rather than an act of incompetence. The judge said the letters McClain sent Syed in jail were weak and possibly damaging evidence for the defense, since they did not state the time she saw him at the library and contradicted Syed’s own account from that day. Syed has since taken it to a higher court and, according to news reports, will likely use McClain’s new affidavit in the new court filing.
McClain said she’s never forgotten that day in the library in 1999 and, if the court asks her to testify about what she remembers, she’ll take the stand.
“I’ve had to remember it so many times,” she told the Blaze. It’s “one of those things that keeps playing back in your head over and over and over again,” she said. “First of all, telling Adnan’s family, writing it down in a letter, telling people throughout my life about that experience. Even my husband — it’s something that [I’ve] spoken about many times over the 16 years.
“I want people to understand as it pertains to my involvement in this case, that it is as simple as it can be. You see something, you say something.”
Correction: This story has been updated to show that the 2010 appeal was denied last year, not last month as it previously stated.