Serial Season Three is Set in Cleveland, Will Focus on Cuyahoga County Courts


  • Sandy Honig / Courtesy: Serial
The long-awaited third season of the hit podcast Serial will take place in Cleveland, Ohio, and will focus on a series of cases as they progress through the criminal justice system. After nearly two full years of reporting and editing, the season will debut on Sep. 20. As in past seasons, new episodes will be released weekly.

Sarah Koenig, the show’s host and lead reporter, said that after the hugely popular first season, which became the top-ranked podcast on iTunes before it even debuted in October of 2014, she would get recurring questions from listeners about how the criminal justice system “really worked.”

And she understood that it would be impossible to tell the story of the system through a single case, especially an extraordinary case like Adnan Syed’s, the subject of season one. Rather, she would have to follow many ordinary cases from beginning to end. That was the only way to fully understand and convey the systemic issues at the root of America’s criminal justice crisis.

“The mission,” Koenig told Scene last week, “was to find out how the system works in a day-to-day, ground-floor way. You always hear, ‘It’s broken,’ and ‘It’s so out of whack.’ So we were just like, where can we see it? Where can we see how this works?”

The answer was Cleveland.

There was no particular case, no egregious miscarriage of justice, that drew the Serial team to the shores of Lake Erie. Koenig lives in State College, PA, and among other things, she said Cleveland was an attractive subject because it was manageable to get to. She could make the four-hour commute regularly and without too much hassle on short notice.

The other chief consideration was access. Koenig reported alongside 25-year-old producer Emmanuel Dzotsi, a Toledo native and This American Life alum who moved to Cleveland for eight months to report on the stories that will comprise season three. Their strategy was to observe criminal justice in action — “to just sit there and watch” — and to record as much as possible.

“We were able to wander around the courthouse rolling tape,” Koenig said, aghast. “It was amazing. I’ve been a reporter a long time, I’ve been to a lot of courthouses, but I could not believe it. I was rolling in the elevator, rolling in the bathroom. I was a kid in a candy store because most of my experiences have been the opposite. Not only can you not record; you can’t even have [your equipment] in the building. It’s like, leave it in your car.”

Moreover, the size of Cleveland, and the corresponding size of the docket at the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas, provided some helpful parameters.

“Cleveland is seeing all the same kinds of cases and experiencing the same kinds of problems that you’re seeing all over the country,” Koenig said, “but it’s small enough that you can see it all in that one series of towers. It’s small enough that you get to know people.”

Getting to know people, deeply and over time, is one of the podcast’s defining characteristics. The first two seasons followed single stories for the duration of their respective seasons.

The first was a murder case, the true-crime tale of the death of Baltimore teenager Hae Min Lee in 1999 and the boyfriend, Adnan, who’d been convicted of the crime. The second season, which aired from Dec. 2015 to March 2016, was about Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who famously walked off his base in Afghanistan and was held for five years in Taliban captivity.

Unlike its predecessors, Serial season three will focus on multiple stories: “At least a half dozen in depth,” Koenig estimated, “with a lot of others that got drawn in, in a less intense way.”

“What’s cool about it — what I hope is cool about it — is that some of the cases are tiny,” she said. “The one we start with is really tiny. It’s a bar fight. But to me, it was like, oh, this is how it happens. This is what it looks like for a case to move through the system from beginning to end. These are all the decisions that get made. This is the drama that happens...

“And then some of them are huge cases, you know, aggravated murder cases. And the ones we ended up focusing on, the ones we found the most interesting, occurred at different stages of the process. Some from the moment of arrest. Others, the case had gone cold, or the person was already in prison. So we were able to see them play out in so many different stages. And then when it’s over, when you look at the docket and it says ‘no pending cases,’ it’s not always over.”

Among the more high-profile cases that the season will examine is the death of Avielle Wakefield, the five-month-old who was shot and killed on Cleveland’s east side in October 2015. Wakefield was the third child killed in a spate of local shootings around that time. Just a few weeks earlier, 3-year-old Major Howard had been shot and killed on East 113th Street. A week before that, 5-year-old Ramon Burnett met the same fate off East 55th.

After the Wakefield shooting, in a press conference, Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams tearfully declared that “this shouldn’t be happening in our city.”

Koenig said she looked at all three of those tragic cases, but ultimately focused on Wakefield’s. Her story will take up about an episode-and-a-half of the upcoming season.

“Some of the episodes are connected,” Koenig said, “and sometimes characters appear and re-appear in later episodes. But basically, we followed a bunch of cases over time. I know that doesn’t sound sexy, but to me it was fascinating.”

Emmanuel Dzotsi and Sarah Koenig - SANDY HONIG / COURTESY: SERIAL
  • Sandy Honig / Courtesy: Serial
  • Emmanuel Dzotsi and Sarah Koenig
Emmanuel Dzotsi, who grew up in Toledo and went to college at Ohio State, drove to Cleveland from New York City the day after the Super Bowl in 2017. He moved into an apartment in the Cedar-Fairmount area of Cleveland Heights and was Serial’s man on the ground.

“My job was to be there all the time,” Dzotsi said. “Our access meant that often I was told, ‘Look for something you find interesting and just see where it goes.’ There were so many stories we covered where I just felt that we could cover them in perpetuity. The things that were happening to one person rippled out across the broader community. As Sarah put it, these cases never felt like they were over.”

For example, Dzotsi said, he covered the case of Jesse Nickerson, a man who was arrested by two East Cleveland police officers in July of 2016 and taken to Forest Hills Park, where he was beaten. In the police report, the officers said they’d taken Nickerson directly to the police station.

The incident was only one in a long line of violations by the East Cleveland police, and both officers were fired from the force. A grand jury charged them with conspiracy, felonious assault, kidnapping, obstructing official business, interference with civil rights and dereliction of duty.

“But by the time I started reporting on that case,” Dzotsi said, “it had more or less finished. The big headline was that both of the officers were indicted. One of them went to prison. The story I covered was what happened after that. What happened to Jesse Nickerson and what was his relationship with the city of East Cleveland? A couple of our cases are that way. What we found is that people kept having interactions with the system.”

Reporting on systems is difficult anywhere, but especially in a city like Cleveland, where local public officials are uncooperative with the media, particularly those they regard as hostile outside forces.

When asked if they ran into any trouble, any stiff-arming, from the City of Cleveland, Koenig exhaled.

“Oh my God, yes. I mean, as they say in the south, ‘Bless their hearts.’”

She hesitated to speak too bluntly about that aspect of the reporting experience because she said she’s still hopeful she may get additional material. But as it stands, Serial season three will include no on-record interviews with members of the Mayor’s Office or the police department.

“We tried and tried,” Koenig said. “It was very difficult because they just did not want to talk to us. You end up doing what you do as a reporter — you know, off the record, off the record, off the record — and I feel we got an understanding at least. But yeah, nothing on-record. I really felt for you guys [local reporters]. It would make me insane. Whenever I see information in Cleveland now, I realize how hard reporters had to work to get it. The city is not forthcoming. And not to get too high-falutin’, but it’s a problem for democracy.”

Koenig said that, on the contrary, the officials they communicated with at the county level “were great, really open.” Most of the cases they covered were coming out of the court of common pleas and they ran into few roadblocks accessing information and securing interviews.

“It wasn’t perfect, but I was grateful for the amount of cooperation and transparency,” Koenig said. “Frankly shocked.”

Judges and attorneys, too, Koenig said, were “pretty gracious.”

“There was like one or two judges who’d be like, “Get that microphone out of here!” and were just not having it,” Koenig said. “But there are 34 judges. We just went somewhere else. There was no story that I had to have where I was kicked out.”

When the season begins, the reporting and the editing of the episodes themselves will all be basically complete. In both seasons one and two, the narrative trajectory of the season was repeatedly subject to change as Koenig and the Serial team got more information. This made for dramatic revelations in Season One, as the popularity of the show led to tips and new key sources. Adnan’s story was being actively reported as it aired.

That’s less the case with this season.

“They’re mostly done,” Koenig said. “I hesitate, because it’s ‘never say never,’ right? The Avielle Wakefield case is not done at all and could change at any minute. If we’re still airing, and something happened, we would definitely do an update. We’d have to respond. But we started reporting long enough ago that most of the cases have been resolved — resolved with a lower-case r. So the big plot points are decided.”

Asked if there was a central narrative question other than “How does the criminal justice system work?” Koenig said it was the question that she struggled with the most.

“Here’s what I’ll say,” she said. “I’m not that interested in crime. I am very interested in punishment. And judgement. All the stories I’ve done for Serial, I feel like in my head, that’s what I’m trying to understand every time: How do we mete out judgement and punishment as a society? With this [season], some version of what’s playing out in Cuyahoga County is playing out everywhere. This is our system. It may be a lot worse in other jurisdictions, it may be a lot better, but it’s kind of basically like this.”

Dzotsi is now back in New York City, and Koenig in State College. About a year removed from their extended time in Cleveland, they've come away with different impressions. 

“It’s very adoptable,” Dzotsi said, for his part. “Having grown up in Toledo and going to school in Columbus, I thought I knew Cleveland. But Cleveland is so different. I used to ride the Red Line into the Justice Center every day and I remember thinking that if Chicago hadn’t become Chicago, Cleveland would’ve been Chicago. Cleveland has always been on the cusp of becoming something, and is always billing itself as something new, and I actually admire that about the city. There’s definitely a unique tribalism to Cleveland, but I like it a lot.”

Koenig was less laudatory, but admitted that Dzotsi’s experience was that of someone living there. Hers was that of someone working there.

“Also I’m a tired, older lady worrying about my kids at home,” she said. “But I was more just struck by — the things I’ll say might be depressing — but I found it very segregated. I found the lack of outrage very surprising. Things would happen in the courthouse and I’d be expecting a rally or some sort of response, and it was just like ... nothing. I can’t tell you how many people, mostly black people, told me that their goal was just to leave. They would say they just couldn’t be here anymore. This was so sad. Their whole families and networks were here, but there was just a sense — I had a guy say to me — that this is a bad city for you if you’re black. That’s a big statement, but I heard it echoed so many times. I don’t know that that’s any different than Baltimore, you know? But you see people partying on [East Fourth Street] and then you go to a different neighborhood and you’re just like, man alive.”

Asked then, how she expected the season to be received locally, she said her goals were modest.

“From, like, the boostery perspective, this is not something they’re going to put on their websites,” she said. “But I hope that people will find it accurate. It’s hard, as an outsider, to come in and accurately portray a place that is not your own. So I hope at least people will recognize that we worked really hard to get it right, and to be fair. They may not like it, but I hope they recognize that it’s fair.”

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