The most famous podcast in the world has returned for its third season, this time inside the city of Cleveland’s sprawling courthouse. The show has explicitly ditched its central mystery structure. Instead, after its semi-maligned second season, the podcast is re-centering its ability to tell a compelling one-hour story.
Episode 6: You in the Red Shirt
Episode six marks a turning point in Serial’s third season. Instead of taking a systemic view of the criminal justice system, this episode and all subsequent installments will follow the stories of people who are shaped by it.
We begin with Jesse Nickerson, who lives in the city of East Cleveland. On paper, the justice system worked for Nickerson. After police beat him, the officers were fired, convicted, and sentenced. Technically, he won. But his day-to-day life hasn’t turned out so great. As we spend time with Nickerson living his day-to-day life, we sense his constant paranoia of the police. Walking down the street, a cop drives by slowly, circles him, and then drives away. Even a walk in his own neighborhood feels like a close call.
In this episode, a feeling of dystopia permeates just about everything. As we listen, we traverse a crumbling landscape: East Cleveland feels like it is collapsing on itself. We see dilapidated buildings, roads with gaping holes in them. And this landscape is matched with an equally crumbling government.
The city has let go of its desire to govern, Arnold Black tells us. Black was stopped and beaten while driving on his way home through East Cleveland. After roughing him up, the cops threw him in a cell with no food or access to a bathroom for four days. After a civil lawsuit, we learn that administrators at all levels in the city government, even the mayor, are actively involved in perpetuating a brutal police force and tampered with evidence. The story serves to illustrate the context behind Nickerson’s story and demonstrates the unparalleled abuse of power and cronyism that runs the town. In East Cleveland, corruption isn’t the exception but the rule.
In the end, we hear that Nickerson was at the courthouse for a hearing and arrested on the spot. It turns out he was put into the same holding cell as Black. The episode ends, but another violent cycle repeats itself.
Episode 5: Pleas Baby Pleas
Season three’s fifth episode wonders what prosecutors do with all the power they’re given in the system. In “Pleas Baby Pleas,” Koenig tags along with Brian Radigan, the prosecutor who has 20 cases on his plate at any given moment, as he deliberates over whether to present a case as murder or voluntary manslaughter to a grand jury, and negotiates a plea deal in a separate murder case. A companion in many ways to the season’s second episode, which questioned how much a judge’s personality can get in the way of court proceedings, “Pleas Baby Pleas” asks what motivates prosecutors in a system that punishes liberally.
Koenig chooses Radigan as the episode’s protagonist because he’s well-respected among his peers, and comes off well on tape. To believe in the evils of mass incarceration naturally leads to skepticism towards prosecutors, the ones who put the harsh sentences in grand jury’s heads and set the tone for a given case. Koenig swiftly explains the decades of criminal law history that has made it so easy for prosecutors to over-charge and thus prompt either longer sentences or plea bargains. Then it’s onto the meat of the episode, and Serial’s answer as to the motives behind most prosecution decisions: speed. The justice system values decisive action and the opening-and-shutting of cases, all bad news for the accused. Even if Radigan sounds circumspect, the pace of his work does not leave him much room for careful consideration. Towards the end of the episode, when Koenig asks whether Radigan thinks about the community or general morality when deliberating over a case, his answer boils down to “who has the time?” The interview makes the often-reiterated but still dramatic point that the best way to participate in a system that levels such pain is to keep oneself distant and to keep busy. Radigan is of course right, the machine would falter, and he wouldn’t succeed at his job, if he thought beyond the immediate, which for him is the drive for vengeance of crime victims.
The episode’s other revealing moment is a plea deal negotiated by Radigan and defense attorney Craig Weintraub. The routine of the exchange is shocking, causing the obvious realization that attorneys must casually debate the number of years a person will spend in prison, jargon and all, on a daily basis. It’s the job-ness of it all that’s striking. Of course lawyers talk with the frankness of their TV procedural imitators, but the access Serial offers to that fact remains special.
Serial’s mini-profiles of the different players inside any courthouse has been illuminating. Though each episode manages to some extent to be self-contained, the same players reappear across episodes, suggesting just how big, and maybe even coherent, this season’s story is.
Episode 4: A Bird in Jail Is Worth Two on the Street
Episode four takes the listener deep inside the psychology of what it means to witness a crime in a community where speaking to police—not revealing anything truthful, but simply speaking—can portend an unglamorous end to your life. This is the world of street justice, which the myriad interviewees in the episode understand, abide, and often even respect. To the Cuyahoga County Justice Center, these folks say: “No way.”
The episode attempts to understand street justice by exploring the death of Aavielle Wakefield, a five-month-old who was shot and killed in 2015. Davon Holmes, a suspect in the crime, was arrested by U.S. Marshalls over Thanksgiving weekend (he was eating leftovers, which is the type of detail that makes Serial what it is, full of life, and more than a presentation of the facts).
Davon, as the show refers to him, refuses to admit to committing the crime because he didn’t do it. Like we’ve heard in previous episodes, plea deals abound, and as Koenig says to Davon, people confess to crimes they didn’t commit “all the time.” Davon, who also goes by Tank, has a past that includes significant incidents: he first went to prison at age ten for “strong arm robbery.” He describes himself as being infatuated with the streets: quick money, girls, cars, and the rush of adrenaline. He was part of the Heartless Felon gang. He says of his past that he doesn’t have any remorse for what he’s done. “I can’t be sorry for something I did…I don’t regret nothing that I did.”
Police held Davon in custody for a year to try and “dry” him out, hoping that an extended term in prison would compel the suspect to reveal what he knows about the shooting. Snitch, though, Davon will not. He describes how he “helped” police: “Helping as unhelpfully as possible,” Koenig summarizes. Even if Davon did witness a murder, hypothetically, he’d tell police someone “got shot.” Where did that person go? Which direction? “They ran.” Why won’t he help police? “I wasn’t raised like that,” Davon says, “it’s against my religion to tell on somebody.” Serial’s forte and much of its potency comes in Koenig’s willingness to listen, in this case to Davon as he says this, treating his life as complexly as it really is—that of someone who’s been to jail, and who admittedly has done things to hurt other people, and yet who lives by an undying code.
This type of dedication to a code—a refusal to snitch, “by principle,” as Koenig suggests—is further illustrated by another, similar case. A three-year-old, Major Howard, was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting. Shortly after the shooting, Robert “RJ” Scott tried to save the boy’s life. His efforts included driving the boy to the hospital. He then conveys some information to police about the incident. Yet on the witness stand, he backtracks. What he knew was hearsay, not his own experience. And the prosecutor, questioning RJ, says he’s just being intimidated, and doesn’t want to break the code and snitch. But just by helping the toddler, RJ replies, he’s broken code.
To close the episode, Koenig speaks to Charles Wakefield, Aavielle’s father. He says he knows who murdered his daughter, and it wasn’t Davon. Everyone on the street has told him. And yet police haven’t “solved” the crime, or brought some form of justice to the grieving father. No one—none of Wakefield’s neighbors, people he sees at the grocery store—will risk their lives to talk to the police.
So, Koenig asks, how can the police operate or even help in a community where witnesses are either too committed or too afraid (or both) to offer testimony. There once was a tactic called community policing, before massive budget cuts in the early 2000s. “Police didn’t materialize only in the aftermath of disaster,” Koenig explains. “They were visibly around. They could develop relationships, which could turn into information. They could make a call and people on the other end of the line could trust you to keep their names out of it.” Wakefield suggests this is police work, the duty of police, and not the work of community. Koenig pushes back: people would still have to snitch, then. How could this work?
For now, police have an idea how things might go for Charles Wakefield. The day Davon was released, Wakefield sat in a detective’s office. Wakefield knew of another suspect, which the police also claimed to know about. “Pretty soon they’re gonna cross paths,” the detective says, “and it’s gonna be between them two.”
 Side note: Cleveland.com notes that “Another man charged alongside Holmes in the case, Lawrence Hilliard, is not mentioned in the story. He is accused of tampering with the bullet casings left after the shooting. Hilliard did not show up for a pretrial in July 2016 and a warrant remains active for his arrest. A third man who was later charged with murder in the case, Charles Caldwell, also saw charges against him dropped.”
Episode 3: Misdemeanor, Meet Mr. Lawsuit
In episode 3, we hear the story of Emirius Spencer, a young black man who was beaten by two police officers while being arrested for possession of a marijuana cigarette, and his civil lawsuit against these officers. In his telling, Spencer first saw the police while waiting outside his friend’s door in his own apartment complex. He showed them his ID and told them he lived upstairs. The two officers asked to pat him down for weapons, and Spencer readily complied. He had no weapons on him, but the officers found a marijuana cigarette and proceeded to arrest Spencer with the use of force, beating him and breaking his cheek bone in the process. Spencer was not aware that Euclid, the Northwest Ohio township where this occurred, is one of just two municipalities in the state where one can be arrested for possessing any amount of marijuana.
Spencer’s primary lawyer in the suit is Paul Cristallo, a civil rights attorney who knows these cases well because he used to defend the cops in them. But after years of representing the state and insurance companies, Cristallo had the feeling that he was “just on the wrong side,” and has since represented a number of clients in civil lawsuits against the police.
Sarah Koenig, while certainly sympathetic to Spencer’s plight, wonders if a lawsuit is the only path toward justice. She asks if reform could instead be possible from inside the police department itself. Seeking an answer, she speaks to Steve Loomis, then Cleveland’s police union president and a spokesperson for the city’s political right. It’s here that Koenig’s personal voice is most active. She prefaces her conversation with Loomis by saying “she appreciates him.” She doesn’t, however, give him much of a platform for his political views, and tells us that she cut an entire part of the conversation because of his hateful statements. She also plays the role of translator: ideas or positions he describes as “political,” she refreshingly calls out as racist. Koenig isn’t concerned with showing both sides. She’s looking for the potential for change from the inside, and the conversation doesn’t inspire much optimism.
We spend more time in the episode following the people in Koenig’s story than observing courtroom machinations. In each section, we get a window into someone’s psychology. Cristallo is remorseful over his previous work, but also misses the money. Spencer, understandably, isn’t ready to engage with what happened. Loomis is self-absorbed, projecting all wrongdoing onto community members rather than partaking in any sort of critical reflection.
The episode ends on somewhat of a cliff hanger. Koenig receives a call that a video of a Cleveland police officer repeatedly and brutally striking a black motorist has gone viral. The officer in the video, Michael Amiott, is the same officer who beat Spencer. — A.D.
Episode 2: You’ve Got Some Gauls
Serial remains strange. What starts as a profile of a particularly harsh judge turns into a deep dive into his pathology. The cases take a backseat in the episode to the quirks of individual judges, and the awful fact that those quirks dictate defendants’ lives.
We start with Daniel Gaul, the judge who occasionally goes light on sentencing but more importantly throws anti-black stereotypes at countless African American defendants. The episode devotes a requisite amount of time to his side of the story and his theory of personal responsibility, but it doesn’t shortchange how ludicrous his methods are. He regularly and unconstitutionally tells defendants that having a child out of wedlock will count as a parole violation. I felt adequately prepared going into this season to be unsurprised by the racism of the entire operation, but Gaul’s population control strategy did manage to shock me.
Koenig and co-host Emmanuel Dzotsi digress midway through the episode to review some of the other judges in the courthouse and how they impose their personalities onto proceedings. The aside is crucial. The problem is not just racist judges like Gaul, but the fact that judges have such freedom to punish people because of their own rigid ideas about how justice must work.
The zig-zag of the episode is thrilling. Koenig and Dzotsi abandon and return to Gaul, and satisfyingly condemn him in the episode’s conclusion. Plenty of shows are tackling the criminal courts in some fashion at this moment. Only Serial would attempt mixing its examination of a judge’s power in the courtroom with a psychological portrait. As Gaul admits, he probably has thousands of people on probation right now. Koenig acknowledged in the series premiere that a single case can’t tell you much about the court system. Thousands certainly can. Season three’s second episode expands the scope of Serial’s reporting considerably. — J.G.
Episode 1: A Bar Fight Walks into the Justice Center
Season three’s premiere introduces us to Anna, a 21-year-old who was involved in a bar fight after a couple of strangers refused to stop harassing her, touching her butt repeatedly. During the fight, a police officer arrived and in the tussle Anna flailed her arm into the cop, leading to her arrest and eventual charge of assault of a peace officer. Sarah Koenig methodically moves from the incident to the pre-trial meeting to the trial itself, pausing to point out the incompetence, cruelty, and rigging along the way. The intentionally simple and answerable question resounding through the episode, and likely the season, is: does the system work?
Serial does so many things effortlessly well that they’re easy to overlook. We get to know defense attorney Russ through the briefest clips of him making small talk in the halls. When you worry in the final minutes that the season premiere might cop out and answer “in this case, yes” to the central question thanks to Anna avoiding prison time, Koenig instead lists the hundreds of dollars of ridiculous fees Anna has accrued just by being in the system. “She’s getting hungry, Sarah,” Anna tells Koenig, revealing for the first time that she’s pregnant and making clear the familiarity Koenig earns in her reporting.
As the show leaves mystery and suspense behind, the question will not be whether Serial is capable of an anthology of one-off pieces of reporting. The team remains incredible at turning journalism into something listenable. The question is where it will zig from something like NPR’s Embedded, which, especially in its pre-Trump episodes, got incredible results from bottled acts of reporting. Is Serial offering you consistently good reporting, or is it offering a grander vision about what undoing the criminal justice system would look like. — J.G.
Jake Greenberg is a culture writer based in Brooklyn. He has written for The Guardian and Mac Weekly. Feel free to email him at email@example.com
Ana Diaz is a writer and gamer based in Saint Paul, MN
Scott Lerner is a writer based in Claremont, CA