Confessions of a Serial Alibi by Asia McClain Chapman

serialI really wish that I could write something that would do justice to this book and encourage others to read it. Preferably they would read it after familiarising themselves with the background of the case in which Asia McClain (now Chapman) features as an alibi witness.

I came to his book after listening to the Serial and Undisclosed podcasts, and after reading Adnan’s Story by Rabia Chaudry.

Clearly most people wouldn’t want to go to such preparatory lengths before reading a 240 page book, so here is the basic background.

On January 13 1999 Hae Min Lee, a student of Woodlawn High School in Maryland was reported as missing. On February 9th her partially buried body was discovered.

Her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was charged with her murder and convicted on the evidence of a witness who claimed he’d helped Syed dispose of the body, backed by cell-phone records that placed him at the burial site a few hours after Hae’s disappearance.

But all was not as it seemed.

The witness’s story changed significantly every time he told it. His most recent version now claims the burial took place several hours after the phone records allegedly placed them at the burial site.
Additionally, the phone data placing Syed’s phone at the site at the previously claimed time of the burial relates to an incoming call, and the phone company’s cover sheet clearly stated that incoming calls could not be used to identify a phone’s location. By some “quirk of fate” the prosecuting attorneys failed to include the cover sheet when providing the defence attorney with the phone records, leaving them in the dark about that disqualifying statement.

There is far more to this story than can be told in detail in a few paragraphs in a blog post, a few more of the issues are mentioned on my other blog here

Asia McClain Chapman’s book looks at another significant problem with the case against Syed. He actually had an alibi for the time the prosecutors claimed he was killing Hae.
Asia McClain was that alibi witness. She saw him in the public library and spoke to him for about 20 minutes at the same time the prosecution claim he was committing the crime. However, for reasons unknown, her offer of that alibi was ignored by Syed’s defence team and she was never called upon to give her evidence at the trial.

McClain had no particular allegiance to Syed. Both he and Hae Min Lee were classmates she didn’t know well, at best they were friends of friends. Her interest was in allowing the truth to be found, and in telling what she knew to help that process. She didn’t get that opportunity at the original trial.  When Adnan was found guilty, she assumed justice had been done and put the situation behind her.

Or so she thought…

Years later she was approached to give evidence at an appeal hearing. Due to concerns about the issue being raised again, and a suspicion that Syed’s defence team could exploit her to free a guilty man, she sought legal advice. Unfortunately she spoke to Kevin Urick, the prosecutor at the original trial and his advice led her to reject the defence team’s requests.

Because of Kevin Urick I saw Adnan as being 100 percent guilty and deserving of a lengthy prison stay I didn’t want to contribute to some sleazy underhanded attempt to get a convicted murderer out of prison.

Unfortunately for Urick, through the Serial podcast, McClain became aware that at the appeal hearing, he misrepresented her and their conversation, giving false information about her original offer to be an alibi witness and why she had declined to give that evidence at the appeal.
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It’s a funny thing to find out through the grapevine that another person has misspoken about your words and intentions. It’s another thing to find out through a podcast simultaneously with millions of other people. From the moment I heard Urick’s post conviction testimony I felt I had been taken advantage of. In my entire life I can’t recall ever feeling so duped and foolish.

 

I know that when Kevin Urick gave that testimony he had no idea that it would be featured in an internationally-known podcast. However, in life such as in court, that’s like saying that a dirt bag who rapes a woman at a public concert has no idea that other people are videotaping it. That my friends is the power of God. Proverbs 12:19 says, “Truthful lips endue forever, but a lying tongue lasts only a moment.”

When I think about Urick I feel so violated and shameful in the sense that my only faults were being naïve and trusting him.

 

It made me sick to my stomach to know a conversation with me had been discussed without my knowledge or consent, that a falsehood had been seen as fact. Not to mention the idea of that falsehood being used as the basis for denying Adnan’s appeal. Hell, anyone’s appeal. We [Asia and her husband] agreed that we needed to make ourselves available to do whatever was needed to set the wrong right.

Above I’ve probably featured too many quotes from the book, but I think those quotes demonstrate a significant aspect of this case – the prosecution’s tactic of falsifying and misrepresenting  evidence to obtain a desired result. Their desire to win at all costs – even the cost of the truth and justice. Getting A result (the only result they’d counted on) was more important to them than getting the RIGHT result.

The above experience with Urick wasn’t the last experience of this type for the author. When she eventually had her day in court to present her testimony to another appeal,  she was again subjected to a similar disregard for the truth by the prosecutor at that court, Thiru Vignarajah (then Deputy Attorney General of Maryland); having her good character attacked and suffering all kinds of accusations about her motives for providing an alibi for Syed.

It might be said in the prosecutor’s defence that it was his job to challenge her and her testimony in court, however, according to McClain Chapman, his personal attacks continued in the media long after his job in court had been done.

…he continues to slander my character and lie about my motivations both in court and via any press conference awarded to him.

Up to the time of publishing the book, Asia McClain Chapman has maintained an uncertainty about the guilt or innocence of Adnan Syed. All along she claims her only desire is to tell the truth and to allow the legal process to make that determination according to the evidence.

However, I’m not so sure that her experience has given her any confidence that the legal process is capable of doing that with justice, and that is perhaps the most important thing about this book. It’s not just about the story of Asia McClain and her part in the story of one particular criminal case, it’s an expose of serious problems in the US justice system.

In our country there is supposed to be equal justice for all under the Constitution. Unfortunately, the system is so broken that many prosecutors only care about winning and not whether a defendant is truly guilty or innocent.

The court case at which Asian McClain Chapman was finally able to present her testimony led to the overturning of the conviction against Adnan Syed and the granting of a retrial. However, until that takes place he remains incarcerated in the same way a suspect denied bail would remain behind bars.

Not unexpectedly there has been appeal against that decision, so the legal processes grind on as slowly as ever.

It’s been two years since Serial subject Adnan Syed was granted a new trial, but his case will remain in limbo – and he’ll remain in prison – for another year.

This week, Maryland’s highest court agreed to hear the State’s appeal, which seeks to reinstate Syed’s conviction in 2000 for the murder of his high school girlfriend, Hae Min Lee.

 
Full story here: https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/adnan-syed-case-stalled-for-at-least-another-year-699265/

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Adnan’s Story: addendum

This is a short interview with Rabia Chaudry about the continuing case of Adnan Syed, the subject of her book Adnan’s Story.

I’ve used the category “true crime” to describe the content of this post, however I believe the crime element relates to the way Syed was convicted of murder. I don’t see any truth in the claim that Syed was guilty of the crime for which he’s been imprisoned for almost 20 years.

The story of Syed’s conviction is told in great detail in the Serial and Undisclosed podcasts. Details of those podcasts can be found here:
https://outshadows.wordpress.com/2018/04/03/true-crime-false-conviction/

Also see:
https://outshadows.wordpress.com/2018/04/08/the-science-of-serial/

https://outshadows.wordpress.com/2018/04/06/adnans-story-rabia-chaudry/

The Griffith Wars by Tom Gilling and Terry Jones

I don’t think anyone who was around in 1970’s Australia would be unaware of the  things covered by this book. Based on the diaries of Terry Jones, a newspaper editor in Griffith NSW who personally knew all of the major players, The Griffith Wars joins a lot of the half-remembered dots lingering in 40 year old memories.

Small business owner and aspiring politician, Donald Mackay disappeared from Griffith, a small inland city almost half way between Sydney and Adelaide. His furniture shop van was found in a pub car park alongside a pool of blood and spent firearm cartridges. His body has never been found.

Leading up to his murder he had been campaigning aggressively against a profitable drug trade centred in Griffith, where families of close-knit Calabrian farmers had been acquiring income far greater than would be expected from the growing of fruit and vegetables. Raids on a number of properties linked to those families had found large acreages of marijuana.

Prior to reports of Mackay’s disappearance, my  first wareness of Griffith related to two school friends were eventually found there after they’d gone missing from home. They’d been trying their hand at fruit picking using false names.

A few years later I met a friend’s sister, a nurse at Griffith base hospital, visiting her family who had recently moved to my home city on the coast. That was two or three years before Mackay’s murder, but those friends made it clear that Griffith’s reputation regarding the drug trade was already well known among locals there.

A closer personal connection to this story came when I met Gloria. She came from a small country town that relied on services available from Griffith. Her family had been customers of Donald Mackay’s furniture shop, and they had links with several places that arise in the account told in The Griffith Wars.  There was no secret about the identity of the people behind the illegalities within Griffith.

The names of those families and their activities have been well-known for decades. Many them passed through the legal system on numerous occasions but with little effect, often receiving minimal sentences (if any) receiving far lighter punishments for growing and distributing marijuana than those caught using it. Some even became recipients of local and national honours, such as “Citizen of the Year” and the “Order of Australia”.

The Griffith Wars is a very readable account of drugs, insurance fraud, murder, corrupt police and dodgy politicians. By one of those interesting coincidences, I finished reading this book one day after the 41st anniversary of Donald Mackay’s murder.

 

Also see: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-11-01/mafia-don-tony-sergi-dies-in-griffith/9106258

 

 

 

 

 

 

A High Mortality of Doves, by Kate Ellis

doves.jpg

With its Derbyshire setting, within a period immediately after the First World War, this book fulfils both the geographical and historical criteria that attracted me to a particular type of crime fiction.

In Wenfield, Derbyshire, the villagers are well aware of the cost of the recent war. Many of its men didn’t return, others returned home damaged in body or mind.

No less damaged are those who were left behind. Family members who turn to mediums for comfort. And family members who, by clinging to vain hope, make themselves vulnerable to a more deadly threat.

A letter draws Myrtle Bligh to an isolated place to meet Stanley, the man she’d loved prior to reports of his death in battle. In the hope that he’d survived, she follows the letter’s instructions, but it isn’t Stanley who meets her.

She becomes the first victim of a killer preying on Wenfield’s women.

The story alternates between the viewpoints of Flora Winsmore, the local doctor’s daughter and Albert Lincoln, a Scotland Yard detective brought in from London when local police recognise they are out of their depth.

Flora’s local knowledge is valuable to Albert the outsider and they develop an increasingly close relationship as they try to find the perpetrator before anyone else is murdered.

The lingering effects of war upon a community, are at the heart of the crimes within this story, where casualties of war are not always victims of the battlefield and those responsible for the damage may not be considered as enemy combatants.

Thanks to Sarah Ward for making me aware of this book through her blog entry here: https://crimepieces.com/2018/05/31/reading-round-up-2/

Dangerous Love by Ray Norman

Ray Norman was national director for World Vision in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania where he worked with his wife Helene.

His book Dangerous Love looks at the challenges and cost of mission work, where Christian witness requires the casting aside of a lot of “western” preconceptions.

As well-educated and comparatively wealthy foreigners, we easily succumb to the notion that we are somehow higher in the pecking order, that our important objectives and busy schedules should take precedence because “we know best”. And too often our image among the poor is tainted, and our actions reflect a sense of entitlement and thinly veiled arrogance (in spite of our good intentions…

… In much of the world outside of Europe and north America, people are less achievement-oriented and place significantly higher value on relationships. On days after an unexpectedly long exchange with farmers, I might glance at my watch and mumble something to the effect that there was still much I had not accomplished that day. I would often hear words such as, ‘Yes, but those things can always get done tomorrow. At least today we have done the important thing and gotten to know each other better.’

During his tenure in Mauritania, an act of extreme violence against Norman and his daughter Hannah challenged the family’s resolve to continue the work they felt called to do. They were also made aware of inadequacies in the way fellow believers reacted to them in the aftermath of that violent incident.

It seemed that even our own pastor in France, a man who, along with his spouse, had been a source of support and encouragement to us over the years, seemed to strufggle with how to respond to us. He had been informed of what had happened, and once we arrived in Calais we expected to hear from him or his wife but never did. I eventually called him on our third or fourth day there. He told me that he’d heard our news, and he listened quietly as I chatted. But it seemed our situation was beyond him…

Eventually, the healing process began when the family chose to return to their work in Mauritania, and the greatest help came from those intended to be the recipients of the Norman’s ministry work. A clear example of this came from the women of Arafat, a nearby poverty stricken township, who invited Helene Norman to their community.

We understand because we too are women. And we want you to know that we are here to walk with you, to support and encourage you in this experience in which you have suffered deeply. So please know, Madame Norman, that we have brought you here among us to let you know you are not alone on this journey. We are here with you.

Ray Norman reflects on this as his wife tells him the full story:

I stood there in stunned silence , and between her sobs, she began to explain in halting words how the women of Arafat had provided for her, in her deepest time of need, what no friend or gathering among her many Christian acquaintances across three continents (Africa, Europe, or America) had been able, or had the insight to provide. How in the most unlikely of places, she had found common ground with those who suffer, and how God had touched her heart and demonstrated his promise of faithfulness in a remote land through ‘the least of these’ (Matt. 25:40)

I haven’t found this book to be an easy read, although there are many interesting parts within it. At times I considered putting it aside and returning to it later after reading something different for a while. However, perseverance paid off.

It starts off “well”, taking the reader up to the life-changing act of violence that frames the subsequent events in the Normans’ lives; and then I felt things got bogged down in uncertainty for a time while the family came to terms with the after effects of their experience and how it could impact the viability of their ministry.
The “payoff” comes in the last few chapters when they decide (Ray reluctantly) to contact the perpetrator of the violence against Ray and their daughter, and in doing so set in motion life changing consequences that only God-inspired compassion and forgiveness can bring about.

Fireball XL5

Another blast from my past, a song by Russell Crowe’s ex father in law, Don Spencer (in his younger days) and number 19 on my personal list of “31 songs”.

This TV show theme song was one of the first records my parents bought for me.

Scared to Live by Stephen Booth

In the seventh of the Cooper and Fry series, DC Ben Cooper is involved in an investigation of the murder of the reclusive Rose Shepherd, who didn’t  legally exist.

Meanwhile, DS Dianne Fry is sent to investigate a fatal house fire that seems to have been deliberately lit, resulting in the deaths of a mother and her two sons.

A hint of international conspiracy also raises its head, but is that possibility a help or a hindrance; and which case does it involve?

Clues are accumulated and investigations hit a few dead ends until eventually the reader is hit by that “wow” or goose bump  moment when disparate pieces of the story start to fit together and the steady build up of information starts to pay off.

The who-dunnit mystery throws up several viable perpetrators, before the final revelations of guilt. The complex and baffling cases are convincingly wrapped up with the questions of who, why and how being answered.

Along the way concerns about mental illness are raised with one suspect displaying erratic behaviour after discontinuing medication, and Cooper’s family has to come to terms with the possibility of there being an hereditary aspect to their mother’s schizophrenia.

It was pleasing to see the difficult relationship Dianne Fry has with Ben Cooper starting to mellow a little. I think the constant friction between them could only go so far without testing my patience if it continued at the same level.

I enjoyed the setting of a lot of this book. A lot of the important events happen a round Matlock Bath. It’s a town I remember visiting at least twice in my childhood and I still have some memories of the town and its topography.

One of the climactic scenes centres on “The Illuminations”, a major light festival in the town featuring a parade of imaginative, light decorated row boats along the river Derwent.

My parents were on holiday in the area when this event was underway around 15 years ago, and as “foreign” tourists were invited to act as judges to determine the best decorated boat.