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‘Serial’ Podcast Exposes Epic Dysfunction in Cleveland’s Criminal Justice System

The first season of “Serial,” the explosively popular podcast from investigative reporters Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder, told the story of Adnan Syed and Hae Min Lee, the 18-year-old high school student murdered and left in the woods of Maryland. Syed, her ex-boyfriend, was found guilty of her murder and sentenced to life plus 30 years. After the series aired, he succeeded in getting a retrial. That’s set to commence in December. In the second season, Koenig and Snyder took on the bizarre case of Bowe Bergdahl, the army private who burst into the national consciousness when the Taliban traded him for Guantanamo prisoners; Bergdahl was eventually tried for desertion and dishonorably discharged from his post.

In the third season of “Serial,” Koenig tells the stories of the very flawed individuals and institutions that make up America’s criminal justice system. Koenig and a few of her researchers and producers planted themselves in a Cleveland, Ohio, county courthouse, and observed justice — or injustice, after injustice after injustice — play out over more than a year.

The result shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone who’s ever seen a statistic about how many people America imprisons and their general race and class makeup (black, brown and/or poor). Still, the stories that come out of the Cleveland courthouse can be shocking, made all the more unbelievable because you’re listening to people act, and then try to justify their actions, to Koenig.

There’s the judge who threatens black defendants with jail time if they have more children and blithely throws around racist tropes about broken black families and drug use. He also tries to coerce a man into a guilty plea by threatening to stack multiple 14-year sentences.

There’s the top brass in the Cleveland police fighting reforms, even after a rookie cop shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice as he played in a park. Koenig has a maddening exchange with Steve Loomis, the former head of the Cleveland police union, who refuses to budge from his position that shooting Rice was the right thing to do.

The series ably illustrates structural problems that bedevil the system, even when the intentions are mostly good. For example, while probation might seem like a more humane alternative to jail, in reality it can entrap defendants in a never-ending power struggle with the court — one they are doomed to lose, often after many onerous terms and pointless court-mandated trips to AA, for example.

The series illustrates that even a couple of days in an American jail can have a profound and traumatizing impact on a person’s life — and most people who get entangled in the criminal justice system fare a lot worse than a few days in jail.

In the 14 hours after Season 3 of “Serial” was released, the first two episodes were downloaded 3 million times, beating Seasons 1 and 2.

Rolling Stone spoke with Koenig about the third season of Serial.

Why the shift from extraordinary cases like Syed’s and Bowe Bergdahl to the ordinary workings of the U.S.criminal justice system?
I’d done criminal justice reporting, court reporting before in my career. Not in a hugely intense way, but I had done it. And then we did Season One, and it was about one case that, when you think about it, is not typical. Yet, people were coming up to us, saying ‘You really explain the criminal justice system!’ And we were like …. did we though? I don’t think so.

Then my partner Julie Snyder had read a book, “Courtroom 302,” by Steve Borgira, where he sits in a Chicago courtroom for a year. He sat there for a year, and five years later the book came out. It’s about the cases that come through and the different ways that cases get handled depending on who’s who and what’s what. We thought, that would be so cool if we could do something like that for audio, where you really are inside of this place and you kind of learn all of the ins and outs and can see where it’s not working.

We’ve all been hearing for so long that the criminal justice system is broken. It’s broken. Our hideous incarceration numbers, any way you slice them, are so horrific and unprecedented. I wanted to see in a day-to-day way how this happened. Let’s assume people aren’t sitting around in a dark room saying, “Hey! Let’s incarcerate as many people as possible!” Assuming that people are doing their jobs … mostly in good faith? Then, what’s going on? Why is this like this?

It’s an experiment. It took a long time to figure out even if it was going to work at all. Because it’s a backwards way of trying to tell a story, right? Usually, you’ve got this narrative. You do this narrative and sort of talk to larger issues as you go along. This was the reverse of that. We know we’ve got a place and we’ve got a subject, but we do not have a story to start with.

When did you start thinking that you had a story?
I started going to Cleveland in October of 2016. And I would say it took four months at least before I thought, “OK, maybe?”
From a storytelling perspective it was harrowing for a long time because it’s one of those things where we had started following two or three times as many stories as we ended up using. But you don’t know where the stories and cases are going. And some of them we even made episodes about and then were like, “Eh, forget it.”

My impression is that people are fascinated by standard True Crime stories, and equally not fascinated with criminal justice policy reform.
People love a murder mystery. When we set out to make Season One, I didn’t know the genre of true crime. I know this makes me sound like an idiot that lives under a rock, but I just was vaguely aware of it as a trope, but it never crossed my mind that that’s what we were doing. I just didn’t get it. I know there was a good story. I thought it was fascinating to take apart a prosecution and a trial to be like “What the hell happened here? Why the hell did it turn out the way it turned out?”

Coming out of that, I have a more sophisticated understanding of the way people take in certain kinds of journalism and certain kinds of stories and the pitfalls of that. I understand there’s going to be a certain segment of an audience that wants to be entertained. And as a reporter, I feel weird about that. So I feel like with this one (Season Three), we went into it with the attitude of “This is what we’re interested in.”

And frankly this is what we’ve been interested in all along. To me it doesn’t seem like a different subject. It’s just going about it in a different way.

Were you concerned that you’d have less of an audience?
We were totally aware of the fact that maybe no one would want to come with us on this journey. That people might not want to invest in it, because it’s harder and it’s not a “whodunnit,” there’s not an obvious question of guilty or innocent that you can attach to in the same, simple way. So we were very aware of all that.

But then our hope was that we were good at telling stories. That’s what we can do well. We can try to make people care about this stuff. I haven’t looked at our numbers lately, but a lot of people are listening.

And it’s so heartening, frankly, because this is stuff I want everyone to know. This is the stuff the citizenry needs to know. I know that sounds so finger-waggy and I don’t mean it that way. But this is the stuff that is important if you do want to understand how the system works.

So you’re challenging your audience. In what ways?
It’s harder to think about this stuff. It’s hard, it’s hard, it’s hard. It’s a thing where you’re like “God, that sucks or that’s so sad or that’s so unfair, or that’s so frustrating.”

And then the B-side is, OK, so what do we do about it? And that’s difficult. It’s difficult for us as reporters and it’s difficult for listeners. I understand if people feel like, “I can’t, I don’t want to …. Just tell me a story.” I get why for some people it’s not going to be their thing.

The way you tell the stories, even if people are familiar with the problems in the system, it’s still pretty shocking. For example, in one episode, a defense attorney observes, ‘It never helps to be black, it never hurts to be white.” Were you surprised by how blatantly racist the system is?
No. We were not surprised. Maybe I should qualify that. I’ve read enough books, I knew. The defense attorney saying that didn’t shock me. What you sometimes heard from the judges, that kind of shocked me, that it was that overt. And that nobody is pushing back on it in the moment, saying, “I’m sorry, what? Excuse me?”

There’s just nobody saying, “Whoa whoa whoa. You can’t talk like that.” Nobody is doing that. So that is the kind of thing that shocked me. But the overall fact is when you walk into the arraignment room, and two-thirds — generously two-thirds, probably more — are black people. It’s like, how is this possible? What? This is not normal.

So you see it right away. It was dispiriting to see it, but I wasn’t shocked. It’s very well documented. Every outcome, at every level, every interaction you have with the system, is worse for you if you’re black or brown.

One of the more shocking segments was that judge threatening to put black defendants in jail if they have children. Yet it seems like he saw himself as helping them, maintaining family and social order. As you observed, there are zero consequences to discourage bad behavior by judges. What can be done about that?
We can vote! People can vote. A lot of these courthouses are hermetic in a way. They’re little worlds where everybody knows each other. And it’s very hard to step out of your world and your set of interests, which sometimes are noble in order to criticize, because the repercussions for you are real. Maybe not even personally for you—like you’re not going to lose your job or whatever—but let’s say you’re a defense attorney and you’ve got a client next week in front of the judge you’ve criticized and so you lose? Or next week you ask for extra money for an investigator because the state only pays only a small amount and the judge says no?

So I get it. I don’t discount that. I hate that that’s how the system works. But that’s real. So you wish this community itself would take steps. And sometimes they do. But we sitting at home are not part of that building. Our interaction, at most, might be a vote. Most judges are in this country are elected.

That’s a thing we can do. Figure out who they are and what the issues are and try to choose well. And that sounds really simple but it’s a tall order. If we’re honest with ourselves how many of us have really ever thought, “I am going to educate myself deeply on who my county and city judges are.” We’re not doing that. So that has to change.

Many voters don’t have encounters with the courthouse, and that building has no business with them.
And that’s a huge issue across the country. These kinds of courthouses are county courthouses. The political power in our country has diffused out from some urban areas into suburban areas that get richer and whiter as you go further out. So the people who are controlling these elections are then further and further removed from the city, where most of the crime is happening. That dynamic is really problematic and not very democratic.

Another running theme in the series is that anyone who tries to get a common sense, fair outcome — they’re crushed by the system. Like the guy who tried to stand up for himself in front of the judge then had to go back to doing this “redemption” performance.
Oh, Reshawn. Yeah. That’s a particular courtroom, I’m hoping not every room is functioning in that way. It’s like there are two versions of reality happening in the courtroom. The defendant will be like, “But but but but but … it wasn’t like that … or what about this other thing!”

Meanwhile, the process itself and the system itself is plodding along according to all of the norms. And those are important. I’m not saying they’re all bullshit. But it does feel like the other half of that is ultimately silenced. And sometimes that’s for a defendant’s own good. There are situations where you think, “You’re just making it worse for yourself, don’t say anything!” But sometimes you feel like there’s really a very legitimate other story here and maybe it’s not fitting into the legal framework, but it’s real. And if feels like often the system is just not listening to that and you so wish that it would.

Is there a particular example you’re thinking of?
I’m working on this episode right now, where the guy has a court date and he’s talking to me and he’s like “The first time I got sentenced I sat there and I didn’t say anything, I didn’t say a word, and this time I’m not gonna do it that way. I’m going to tell her (the judge) this and that and I’m going to write it down and I’m gonna say my thing because I’m a different person now.”

What do you think happened in court? He was silent. And I get why. But it feels like he should have been heard.

On a national level, the president continues to fearmonger about crime. At the same time there seems to be a bit of hope among certain criminal justice reform advocates that he might sign some sort of prison reform bill. Do you have thoughts on that?
I’m a reporter so I’m not supposed to comment or advocate. But I will say that tough-on-crime, law-and-order rhetoric has been active in our politics for many decades now and it’s wrong. And it’s upsetting. And it’s counterproductive. And I won’t say more about that.

Any right-headed reform and considered reform, I’m thrilled we’re talking about it even as a country, because it’s hard for people to grab onto sometimes.

But I’m really encouraged by a lot of reform that’s happening at a more local level, like in prosecutor’s offices. Larry Krassner in Philadelphia. Did you read his memo? I found a copy of the memo that he’d written that wasn’t supposed to be published and it’s jaw-dropping. Where you think, “Oh my God! Look what he’s doing! Look!”

It’s simple, normal things that seem revolutionary. That in itself speaks to where we are. Where stuff that seems normal, in a way tame, seems revolutionary. If you took it out of context, you would think, “Well of course, why wouldn’t we always be doing that?” But given the status quo, it’s fantastic!

That’s encouraging too. That there’s real money behind some of these races and people are looking at them more closely.

Although, I always get a little nervous when I hear people focus on one piece of the criminal justice system because it’s so complicated. There are so many moving parts — and they’re not always speaking to each other. And so you can’t just fix one spot. Like, bail reform! OK, we got it. Or, like, prison reform. Ah! We got it. Or consent decrees with X many police departments. We got it! In reality, it’s so many parts and it’s so big.

You’re still in the process of writing and recording the series. What can listeners look forward to?
These last episodes are in some ways closest to my heart. It has to do with somebody that I’ve been talking to for almost a year and a half, nearly daily. And so these episodes are the most personal, both in the subject matter and also for me. It’s one where there have been many times where I’m like … I’m a reporter, I’m a reporter. You can’t do what you want to do. I’ve felt so much upset and frustration and just having to like watch it unfold has been really difficult.

Like not being able to help?
Yeah. To do what you want to do as a just a human being or a citizen. To start screaming. And you’re like ‘It’s not my job, I can’t.’ So I’m doing the thing that I feel like I can, which is just do a story.

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