Adnan Syed’s Post-Conviction Hearing, Day 2 (Part 1): Asia McClain Finishes Testifying

I’m down in Baltimore for Adnan Syed’s post-conviction trial hearing and am posting daily recaps of proceedings. You can also follow me on Twitter at @xoamelia for short updates from the courthouse.

OMG where to begin, my head is spinning. For starters, here is my recap of Day 1, which finished with Asia McClain’s direct testimony. Day 2 was LONG, and this recap is going to be so long that I’m breaking it into two parts. Part 1 will recap Maryland Deputy Attorney General Thiruvendran Vignarajah’s cross examination of McClain, which technically started at the very end of the day yesterday. (Part 2 of Day 2, coming up next, will recap the testimony of the defense’s cell site expert.)

Day 2, Witness #1: Asia McClaina former classmate of Syed’s at Woodlawn High School

Testimony: See Day 1

Cross-Examination: Vignarajah’s approach to cross examining Asia McClain seemed to have two goals, neither of which were particularly successful, in regards to her testimony about seeing Adnan for 15-20 minutes in the public library on January 13, 1999: “Asia McClain’s memory of seeing Syed in the library cannot be trusted” and “Asia McClain is only saying she saw Syed in the library because she was pressured/told to.” But throughout his cross of Asia, he jumped back and forth between these two tactics. He also did not stick with any sort of chronology, in that he would ask her about events in 1999, then jump ahead to 2010, then back to 1999, then 2000, then back to 1999, then all the way to 2015, etc. As a result, it’s really difficult to recap cross-examination in any way that makes clear sense. This probably was part of his strategy to confuse McClain.

In an attempt to illustrate that McClain might be wrong about seeing Syed at the library on January 13, Vignarajah asked her to remember lots of small details about that time period — What time of day was it when she heard Syed had been arrested? Did she tell her ex-boyfriend Justin that she saw Syed at the library on the phone or in person? What time? What Spanish first or second period? Etc. — in order to get her to say “I don’t remember” as many times as possible. At one point, I think during direct testimony, McClain had testified that she was kind of known amongst her friends for being the one who had a good memory, so the State was obviously trying to poke holes in that assertion.

Vignarajah diverted to spend a little time questioning McClain about her conversation with Urick, like how she finally got his phone number and who brought up Gutierrez (McClain wasn’t sure). McClain said she introduced herself and explained to Urick that she had been contacted by a member of Syed’s defense counsel, and “I don’t know if that has to do with me seeing Adnan at the library on January 13.”

“I can’t speculate to what he already knew [about me],” McClain said in response to Vignarajah. “I don’t know if he knew about the letters [written to Syed on 3/1/99 and 3/2/99]. But Gutierrez did, and doesn’t the defense have to disclose?”

Vignarajah jumped around a lot for the next hour or so. I’m just going to bullet point some of his areas of questioning because they were all over the place. Vignarajah asked McClain about:

  • The difficulty she had getting her cellphone records from Sprint [to prove that her call that Urick was 34 minutes, not five]: McClain recalled that she got frustrated with one of the customer service reps, who then called her a “female dog,” and she found it funny so she made a YouTube video out of the recording.
  • When she first spoke to her ex-BF Justin about seeing Syed at the library: McClain wasn’t sure if it was the same day as Syed’s arrest, but she was sure that the two of them went to the Syed family’s home to tell them what she knew the following day on March 1.
  • Whether she ever tried calling the police to tell them what she knew: McClain said she picked up the phone to call, but hung up because she “got scared.”
  • Whether one of her best friends, Stacy Allen, was known in high school as “White Girl Stacy”: McClain said that she has five best friends she’s known since elementary and/or middle/high school, including a girl named Stacy Allen. However, Stacy Allen is not “White Girl Stacy,” McClain giggled, “She’s Black Girl Stacy.” (We’ll get to White Girl Stacy in a second.)
  • Why she didn’t ever directly contact Syed’s attorneys: McClain said that she didn’t think it was her place, and that she had conveyed what she remembered about January 13 to Syed’s family on March 1, and to Syed directly in her two letters, and assumed they would contact her if they thought what she remembered was important.
  • Whether she heard from classmates after Serial launched: Yes, she had, and that everyone was being supportive of her coming forward.

Vignarajah’s then took another detour and focused on McClain’s first affidavit from March 25, 2000. On direct examination, McClain had testified that Rabia Chaudry showed up at her house unannounced, McClain agreed to write an affidavit and to having it notarized. Vignarajah then asked if she would be surprised to learn that Chaudry testified at the last post-conviction proceeding in 2012 that she and McClain had talked on the phone in 2000, agreed to meet in the parking lot near the public library, and that McClain was “very earnest and sincere” and “wanted to help.” McClain said she would be surprised to learn that Chaudry said they met at the library, because that not how she remembers it.

“Would it surprise you to learn that Ms. Chaudry testified that you had been trying to tell your story to the police, to the attorneys, to the family?” Vignarajah asked.

“Well, I think she probably is referring to my letters,” McClain said, referencing the fact that her letters make it clear Syed could have his representatives contact her.

I think Vignarajah was trying to make it seem like either McClain or Chaudry has to be lying about what exactly happened the day McClain wrote her affidavit. To be clear, I think it is possible that neither is lying, and both just have different recollections of an encounter from a long time ago; Chaudry was testifying in 2012, and McClain is testifying in 2016, about what occurred in March 2000. At the very worst, I personally believe that if this hurt anyone, it was Chaudry (who has a ‘stake’ in this as Syed’s friend/supporter), not McClain.

Vignarajah traveled back to January 13, 1999, after exhausting the Chaudry conversation, and asked McClain to recall her conversation with Syed about Lee.

“He told me, ‘Oh, she’s dating some white guy,’ and that he ‘just wanted her to be happy,’ and that there were no hard feelings,” McClain said. She said she wasn’t really surprised that Syed was being so cool about it, because he was friends with her ex, Justin, and that when she and Justin broke up, they stayed friends, so it didn’t seem weird that he and Hae would stay friends too.

Vignarajah asked whether she knew that Hae had written in her diary that Syed was protective, to the objections of the defense. The judge sustained and McClain said she did not know that.

Vignarajah then returned to questioning McClain’s memory, asking about her associating seeing Syed at the library with the bad weather that night and telling Sarah Koenig on Serial that it was the first snow. Vignarajah asked if she would be surprised to learn that the first snow was actually the week before, and could she have seen Syed then, not on January 13? McClain said that she remembers using the bad weather as an excuse when talking to her mother about staying later at her BF’s house and missing curfew; but that she specially remembers that January 13 was the day she saw Adnan at the library because the following two days they had off from school.

At this point, McClain stayed to cry. She explained that she has recently lost someone close to her (I believe she said a family member), and that “whenever someone passes, you try to remember when you last saw or spoke to that person.” She went on, “I couldn’t remember when I last saw Hae, but I did remember talking to Adnan about her on January 13 in the library.” She also said that after Syed was arrested for Lee’s murder, she thought back to their conversation and “couldn’t reconcile his calm behavior” with the allegations that he had killed her.

Then Vignarajah’s questions started to hone in on specific details in McClain’s March 2 letter to Syed, and it started to become very clear that he was calling into question WHEN that letter was actually written and WHAT she was offering Syed when she said she could help account for his whereabouts the afternoon of January 13. Vignarajah literally started to parse the implication of McClain’s phrasing in that letter, essentially asking her if she could see how someone might read her March 2 letter and think she was offering to cover for Syed.

“I can’t be held responsible for someone misinterpreting my words,” McClain said.

Vignarajah continued to press her, and McClain reiterated, “If a person is going to misread what I wrote, they can make sense of it any way they want, but that is not what I meant.” She said that she was 17, and that’s the way she phrased things when she was 17, and that when she was writing the letter, she did not have any clue that it would ever be read by anyone else.

Vignarajah continued to badger away at her letter’s reference to Syed having a hard time remembering what he did between the end of school at 2:15 and 8 p.m.when he was at the mosque. McClain testified that all she was indicating to Syed was that she could account for a portion of that afternoon, i.e. the 20 minutes or so between 2:15 and 2:40. Maybe if others also saw him during that window of time, McClain testified, he could piece together most of his afternoon.

Vignarajah then started to hammer away at how Syed usually used the Woodlawn High School library, not the public library, both of which are on the school campus, and doesn’t McClain think it’s strange that Syed would have changed up his daily routine on the day of the murder.

“Why would he used the public library versus the school library?” Vignarajah asked.

“His own prerogative?” McClain replied. She said people make random changes to their routine all the time; that she thought this was coincidence.

Vignarajah seemed suspicious about McClain’s testimony that she had originally handwritten the March 2 letter in class that morning, and then typed it up that evening. He also questioned= her use of specific terms like “central booking,” and the fact that White Stacy said the police found “fibers” on Lee’s body, and that Lee was buried in a “shallow” grave. He asked her about a portion of the letter where she said Syed was the most popular guy in school and might end up being voted prom king, and that his “associates” had already lost interest. McClain said that she was joking about him being prom king, and that what she meant was that a lot of people believed he was innocent, it was only a matter of time before he got out of jail, and now everyone knew his name and was talking about him. She said “associates” was a reference to the kids who were in the magnet program with Syed and didn’t know him well.

Vignarajah questioned McClain about how these students could have moved on from discussing Syed’s arrest for murder after only two days. “Is it possible you wrote the [March 2] letter a few weeks later?” he asked, implying she dated it incorrectly (and on purpose)

“No,” was McClain’s firm reply.

Vignarajah asked McClain to read and explain a portion of the letter where she asked Syed how the police thought he was able to kill Lee and bury her body in Leakin Park, all while managing two vehicles — his own and Lee’s. McClain said that she was trying to put two and two together herself, that she didn’t understand how it was possible. Vignarajah asked McClain whether she knew that the police got a search warrant for Syed’s house and car on March 20, and whether she had seen it, the implication being that the letter was written after March 20, and that she got these “details” about the “timeline” of the crime from seeing the search warrant or hearing about what was in it. She said no, and that a lot of what she referenced in the letter was what she heard through the high school rumor mill, and that kids were gossiping and speculating like crazy.

“Is it possible White Girl Stacy saw the March 20 search warrant and that’s where she heard about there being fibers on Hae’s body?” Vignarajah asked.

“No,” McClain replied again. “Because my letter was written on March 2 not March 20.” McClain was very emotional, likely because she knew she was indirectly being called a liar.

And then came Vignarajah’s big “gotcha!” moment. He asked her if she knew a guy named Ju’uan had told police on April 9, 1999, that Syed had sent “a girl a letter to type up” and that girl was Asia. (Vignarajah was basically accusing McClain of typing up a letter written for her by Adnan and pretending that she wrote it herself on March 2.) McClain said she had no idea what Ju’uan was talking about.

At that point, Vignarajah ended his cross examination.

Redirect: C. Justin Brown showed McClain a couple of news articles from the Baltimore Sun (I think), one that was published after Lee’s body was found, and another that was published after Syed was arrested for the murder — both contained certain details that she mentioned in her letters. He asked if it was possible that any of her classmates who were talking about the case at school prior to her writing the March 1 and March 2 letters had read those articles and that’s how she might have come to hear terms like “central booking” and “shallow grave” etc. McClain answered yes, that definitely could have been the case.

Brown’s point was that there was a 19-day span between Lee’s body being found on February 9 and Syed’s arrest on February 28, plenty of time for many of these details to be gossiped about at school. He also asked if the typed March 2 letter had anything additional in it that she didn’t put in the handwritten letter from that morning, and she said yes, the handwritten letter was a draft, but she doesn’t remember what details in the typed letter were added later in the day when she typed it up. Anyway, since Syed was arrested early in the morning on February 28, and her second letter was typed up on March 2 in the evening, there were two full days for her to learn additional details about his arrest. Not to mention the fact that Woodlawn students were being pulled out of class by the police for weeks; what they were being questioned about was ALSO being gossiped about. In short, that McClain had so much to speculate about in her letter on March 2 is not as bizarre as Vignarajah was trying to make it appear.

In closing, Brown asked McClain one last time if she was “put up to this” i.e. writing her letters and affidavits and giving her testimony in court.

“No, I was not,” McClain said clearly and firmly.

“Were you ever contacted by anyone on Syed’s defense team?” Brown asked.

“Unfortunately, no,” McClain said. He asked if she was contacted by the prosecution and she said no, and then added that her lawyer had reached out to Vignarajah to tell him that she would be happy to speak with him in advance of her testimony in court, and that Vignarajah never responded.

State Redirect: Vignarajah got up one last time and asked McClain — I’m paraphrasing – “Isn’t it true that the last time you were contacted by a prosecutor in this case, you went on to call him a liar in an affidavit?”

She said she did not call him a liar in her affidavit, that she only wrote what she knew to be true about their conversation.

Assessment: Okay, look. I think Asia was absolutely incredible. She held her own. She listened very carefully to every question and she answered carefully and specifically when she had an answer and was honest when she did not. She did not fall into any of  Vignarajah’s traps. The only thing  Vignarajah could do here to hurt Asia’s testimony, in my opinion, is call this Ju’uan character and I don’t believe he is on the witness list (at least not yet). But even then, we’d likely be talking about a case of he said, she said, and absolutely nothing about Asia’s testimony came across as anything but completely genuine and truthful and, most importantly, CONSISTENT. She has been saying the exact same thing for 17 years and I can’t imagine a single person in that courtroom, including Vignarajah despite his posturing, thought she was being anything less than truthful. She should be commended by everyone involved in this case, because it is clear her only goal was to have her testimony heard in court so justice could rendered fairly.