When the first season of Serial launched podcasts into the mainstream in 2014, it did the same to a bunch of normal people. The viral fame that led Serial to become the most popular podcast ever (with more than 100 million downloads) brought instant recognition to the key players in the 1999 Baltimore murder saga now known around the world. The names, thoughts and most personal life details of the victim, 18-year-old Hae Min Lee, and her ex-boyfriend and convicted killer, Adnan Syed, are now common knowledge.
Another name everyone knows is Asia McClain, the possible alibi witness for Adnan. She was as surprised to learn about the questions and inconsistencies uncovered in Serial as the rest of us. And now, as millions of “fans” debate Adnan’s innocence, they’re questioning her memory as well as her motivations.
To give her side, Asia wrote the book Confessions of a Serial Alibi, which is officially available tomorrow. In the book’s opening, she explains her need to defend herself:
“My lawyer Gary Proctor says it’s better to not add fuel to the fire; however, after over a year of feeling swallowed by the enigma that has been the SERIAL podcast, I feel my sensibilities starting to slip. I operate under the understanding that I must silence my opinions for the sake of my own integrity. However, not defending myself publicly has started to eat away at my strong sense of self-confidence. From the moment I first heard the SERIAL podcast, I started to feel a heavier weight on my shoulders. After listening to the podcast I came to understand that I had made a grave mistake. I had put my trust in the wrong hands and that justice may have taken a back seat to naiveté.”
We talked with Asia ahead of the release to learn more about the book and her experience with Serial.
Why did you decide to write this book?
There were a lot of reasons. I think the most important was because I wanted to set a lot of facts straight—things I saw moving around on the Internet (I guess you can say conspiracy theories) and even from the prosecutor himself during the post-conviction hearing. He had some interesting ideas of my involvement with Adnan and the Syed family, none of which is true. Just going through the experience in general, there were a lot of times when the stress was overwhelming, so as an attempt to relieve some of that stress, I started writing in journal form, and it just took on a life of its own. And it was some time after the post-conviction hearing when I realized I wanted to share those thoughts with the public. Because even in journal form, it didn’t feel like it was doing enough because it was still for my eyes only. I wanted to get that information to the public so they could see all the behind the scenes information that took place.
‘I am at the point where I’m happy with not having an answer. Well, I wouldn’t say ‘happy,’ but I am willing to accept that I will never know.’
What was the process of putting the book together like for you?
It was exhausting. I put a lot of thought into the book. I put a lot of emotion. I basically put my heart on my sleeve, and whenever you write something about an experience that has been so intense, you always put yourself in the position of vulnerability because you never know how the public is going to receive your story and experience. So for me, it was emotionally draining to say the least. And I had to take note to make sure that all of the information was as accurate as possible, just because I didn’t want anything to be incorrect when telling my story to everyone. And there are several years in question: 1999, 2000, 2010 and then you have late 2014 up until now. So that’s a lot of information to go back and recall, so it was just mentally draining.
Which part of the book was the easiest to write? Which part was the most challenging?
The easiest part to write was the part that everyone is already aware of from the Serial podcast—me seeing Adnan in the library. That was easy because it’s basically the same thing I’ve been saying for over 16 years. Nothing has changed in that part. The hardest part for me, I think, was the end of the book. Because the situation is not resolved, I wasn’t quite sure how to wrap it up. And I wanted to do it in a way that was thoughtful and meaningful, not just to me, but to other individuals involved in the case and people that experience this more closely than the general public. For example, people that went to high school with me and friends that I still have from then that will be reading the book.
You say all of this attention was uninvited and has come with challenges, but do you see any positives to the fame Serial has brought you?
Absolutely. Just having the opportunity for me to right a wrong that was born out of my ignorance of the criminal justice system and who I should’ve been taking my lead from back in 2010. Just having the opportunity to fix that mistake is a blessing in itself. So I’m grateful for Sarah Koenig and the Serial team for even producing the podcast and with Sarah for finding me and essentially educating me through. Otherwise, I would’ve never known about the original post-conviction hearing testimony and what was said on my behalf. I never even knew that took place, so I’m happy to have had the opportunity to correct that. Outside of that, in terms of attention, I’m slowly coming to appreciate it because since I’ve been thrust into the spotlight, I’ve had an enormous opportunity to chat with and get to know hundreds if not thousands of people all over the world. And I’ve realized that a lot of people are going through a lot of heavy stuff right now, and taking the time out to be entertained by the Serial podcast has helped people in so many ways that you can’t even imagine. I’ve had people who have had furnace fires in their homes, and if it weren’t for Serial taking their minds off the situation, they may have lost it. People who have haver lost family and children. People are aware I’ve had a couple miscarriages, and just today, a young lady called me because she was afraid of losing her baby and she just wanted someone to talk to that had been through it.
As you know, people are still very interested in Adnan’s case. If Sarah and the team approached you to do more interviews with them, would you?
I don’t know. I don’t really see what else they could do. From what I’ve been told, a lot of additional information has already been covered by other sources. I would never refuse to talk to Sarah. I think she is a great person and I have a lot of respect for her and her journalistic integrity. If there was a retrial? I’m not opposed to it. I think it would matter what the content is and what the scope of the interaction would be. Nowadays, I tend to vet the press a little bit more, just because I realize that I am of interest and not all organizations are working in my best interest. So I would just want to make sure the scope of the project is something I agree with.
Have you talked to Sarah about the book? What does she think of it?
I spoke to Sarah after I finished writing the book, and she congratulated me on that. It wasn’t a very long conversation. She was very supportive.
You’ve mentioned that you assumed the criminal justice system would have done its job and that you thought if Adnan was in jail, it was because he’s guilty. In the book you expanded on this sentiment, saying you were “stunned” to learn one of the prosecutors (Urick) wasn’t the man in the white hat. How has this case and any other recent events changed your outlook on the system?
Oh [laughs], tremendously. To be honest, I don’t trust any lawyer but my own. Because if they’re not retained by you, you are not their primary interest. Whether it be a defense attorney looking out for their client or a prosecutor looking out for the state, me as potential alibi witness, I’m not their concern. My opinion of the criminal justice system is that just because someone is a prosecutor doesn’t mean they’re a good guy and just because they’re a defense attorney and they represent criminals doesn’t mean they’re a horrible person with no morals. A person’s character is their character, and it’s not reflective of what they do for a living, and that’s something that was I greatly educated on during this process. Just from having the opportunity to meet Justin Brown and Thiru Vignarajah and talk to Kevin Urick on the phone, and the experiences I’ve had with those three alone have reshaped my opinion. In terms of justice, I now feel that it’s relative. I’ve always hoped that an innocent person is going to be vindicated, that the truth is inevitable. But in this situation, it’s coming to light that we don’t know. At least I don’t know if Adnan is guilty or innocent, so for me, it makes me question the validity of our criminal justice system process because even before Serial and since it’s come out, we’ve seen multiple convictions overturned of people who have been wrongfully convicted and jailed for longer than Adnan. So it makes me wonder what we can be doing better.
In the book, you spend a lot of time debating Adnan’s innocence. You say you haven’t reached a verdict, but how have your thoughts on this changed over time?
I am at the point where I’m happy with not having an answer. Well, I wouldn’t say ‘happy,’ but I am willing to accept that I will never know. And I’m at the point now where although I care if an innocent person is behind bars, I believe it’s the court’s decision to establish guilt or innocence and that no amount of racking my brain is going to help the situation. I’m going to leave it in their hands, because there’s nothing that I can do about it outside of what I’m already doing, and if that results in Adnan getting a retrial and being found not guilty, then so be it. But the stress of the constant contemplating is something that I don’t think I want to do anymore. I’ve been doing it for over 16 years, and I just want them to figure it out and make sure that it’s rational and make sure that it’s something that everyone can walk away from with some sort of peace in knowing the system has done the right thing.
Is there anything else you want to add?
If you can just remind people that everyone involved in this case is just a normal person. We didn’t ask to be bumped into the spotlight the way that we all have been, and we’re trying to do the best that we can. Nothing that we do is ever going to be perfect. Nothing that anybody does is going to be perfect, so I just ask that people have patience with us and know that I think, with me in particular, I have the best intentions and I’m doing the best that I can.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.