Serial in Cleveland, Ep. 1 Recap: A Bar Fight Walks into the Justice Center

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SANDY HONIG / COURTESY: SERIAL
  • Sandy Honig / Courtesy: Serial
Serial is America's most popular podcast for readily identifiable reasons, and with Season Three's first two episodes out today after a long hiatus, employers across the region can expect a dip in productivity as their employees dive back in.

From the start of Episode 1, we're reminded — we're delighted! — that we're in the hands of gifted storytellers. It's a three-and-a-half minute physical description of the Cuyahoga County Justice Center that grounds us in a specific place and teases out what will be, no doubt, a prominent theme throughout the season: that American justice is a story of US vs. THEM, that those with the "stink" of the system on them become second-class citizens for whom perpetual entanglements with the law, which tend to result in minor misdemeanors, shouldn't be seen as that big of a deal, at least not for the lawyers and the judges and their bailiffs (even the activists and crusaders among them), whom Koenig notes are overwhelmingly white.



As crisp new instrumentals set a beat, Koenig outlines the origin and the premise of the season using the same sort of language she used when describing her reporting to Scene: Only by spending a sustained period of time in one courthouse could the Serial team attempt to explain how the criminal justice system works. A single extraordinary case, like that of Adnan Syed from Season 1, just doesn't tell us a whole lot about how punishment is meted out in our society. Koenig reiterates that being able to record freely at the courthouse was a central reason for choosing Cleveland as the site of Season 3. She says she has no desire to "bash the Mistake by the Lake."

The season will follow at least six cases in depth, "from weed possession to aggravated murder," and some will play out over multiple episodes. But Episode 1 is contained, as elegantly constructed and ribbon-tied as an episode of Law & Order. It focuses on a single case and illustrates powerfully how even when the justice system "works," when a punishment is agreed by all parties to be more or less commensurate with the crime, it actually doesn't.



The crime in question is felony assault on a police officer. A 21-year-old woman, whom the episode refers to as Anna (not her real name), goes to a bar on Cleveland's west side and is continually assaulted by two men there. One "slaps her ass" seven times before Anna loses it and gets in his face. Another woman at the bar, a regular, gets between Anna and the man and all hell breaks loose. It's a bar fight on steroids, evidently: arms and legs flailing, at least one thunderous stomp delivered, etc. As it happens, a police officer had been using the bathroom in the bar just before the confrontation escalated and he attempts to intervene. In the fracas, Anna's fist makes contact with the officer's face. Ergo: felony assault on a peace officer. 

Koenig watches surveillance video of the brawl itself, and of the provocations, with defense attorney Russ Bensing, and immediately sides with Anna. In Koenig's estimation, the blow on the officer was accidental. Her ass had been slapped repeatedly, right? Of all the bad behavior on display, how could Anna be the only person charged with a crime? And a felony, to boot? 

The central action of the episode focuses on attorney Bensing's efforts to get the charges dismissed, and the ways in which plea deals are the bread and butter of justice in America. Fully 96 percent of cases at the Cuyahoga County Justice Center, Koenig reports, result in plea deals. Will Anna's felony charge be reduced to a first degree misdemeanor? A fourth degree misdemeanor? Dismissed entirely?

Koenig masterfully weaves in interviews with the prosecution and the defense, explicating the power dynamics at the courthouse, all while piecing together the events of the bar fight, to create narrative suspense in what would seem, at first blush, like a totally minor and qoutidian case.

Which is Koenig's point, in the first episode and in the season generally: For those with the "stink" of the system on them — that's Koenig's term — people like Anna, who had a few misdemeanors in her past, there should be no fuss over another misdemeanor. It's just a misdemeanor! This is just the daily grind of justice when it's working. The lawyers on both sides can pat themselves on the back and pretend that justice was served, but Koenig persuasively demonstrates that the charges themselves were a miscarriage of justice. The episode's most memorable quote is probably Bensing's, who cites an unnamed judge saying that in Cuyahoga County, "innocence is a misdemeanor." 
 
And that's a grave systemic problem. One of the more powerful lines for me came near the end, when Koenig was tallying the costs, both material and spiritual, that Anna had endured during her ordeal (which costs included twenty trips to the justice center, mostly for weekly drug tests, and more than $500 in bogus court costs on top of a $200 fine, plus a $500 to a bail bondsman.) Anna told Koenig that "it had been a tough year."

A tough year. God. It's impossible not to see, in this episode, that while the Justice Center churns through hundreds of plea deals per day, disregarded denizens of the underclass are having their lives complicated, put on hold, while they navigate a system that seems designed to perpetuate their role as commodities in a system. It doesn't sound anything like justice.

The episode ends with a tantalizing bread crumb about nepotism. If Anna had been a niece or relative of a recently retired judge — if she had connections — the case would have almost certainly been dismissed.

Welcome back, Serial. 

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