Sandy Honig / Courtesy: Serial
Two episodes in, Serial Season Three is already among the most important pieces of Cleveland journalism produced in decades. (WHO SAYS OTHERWISE?) Episode two is a critical and sometimes jaw-dropping examination of the judicial style and sentencing tactics of Judge Daniel Gaul
whom, by episode's end, host Sarah Koenig basically suggests ought to be investigated, and probably sanctioned, by the Ohio Supreme Court.
Before diving into Gaul and his "political incorrectness" on the bench, though, Koenig marvels at the abundance of Irish judges in Cuyahoga County.
"There's Judge Corrigan, another Judge Corrigan, Judge Holly Gallagher, Judge Shannon Gallagher, Judge Kelly Gallagher, Judge Shaughnessy, Judge Sheehan, Judge McClelland, Judge McCormick, Judge McDonald, Judge O'Donnell, and Judge Donnelly. Second to the Irish are the Italians, namely Russo, Russo, Russo and Russo... At the end of the list is Judge Sutula, and her cousin, Judge Sutula."
It's astonishing to hear them listed like this, but even more astonishing to consider that only two of the 34 judges who handle criminal cases in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas are black. The inequity that emerges from that discrepancy is flagrantly exposed. We see, once again, the "us vs. them" dynamic that Koenig alludes to in Episode 1
. Every judge, after all, brings his or her own life experiences and biases to the courtroom, which affect how they interact with, and ultimately sentence, the defendants before them. Given the latitude of sentencing regulations, judges wield enormous power and control over their individual fiefdoms.
"There are 34 different judges," Judge Sandra Collier-Williams tells Koenig, "and it's like 34 different cities." (In Cuyahoga County, most of those judicial cities happen to be in Ireland, or at least bedecked with Irish paraphernalia.)
The audio from Daniel Gaul's courtroom is difficult to listen to. He berates and lectures his defendants about their lifestyle choices and family instability, using what he believes to be language they can understand: He calls black male defendants "brother" and "dude," for example. Gaul tells Koenig that he's sincerely trying to help and rehabilitate the criminals before him, which is why he often opts for probation instead of long prison sentences. But the conditions of his preferred probation are extreme and sometimes unconstitutional, like for example his requirement that those on probation have no more children out of wedlock. (Judge Collier-Williams has unconstitutional conditions as well, Koenig notes, like requiring those on probation to register to vote.)
Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas
Judge Daniel Gaul
Gaul's behavior is influenced by his worldview, a core belief that most of the people who appear before him are morally deficient and must "take responsibility" for their actions before they can even hope to be rehabilitated by prison time. The problem is Gaul wants his defendants to take responsibility even in cases where guilt is not cut and dry, in fact even when they insist on their innocence. What he wants, pretty clearly, is submission.
In one telling example, Gaul drastically reduces the sentence of a 31-year-old man who reads a lengthy and groveling letter, thanking Gaul for his decency and for helping to set him on the right path. Gaul had been angry at the man for not accepting a plea deal, but like any monarch worth his crown, he is moved by the fealty of the peon before him. He tells the man that his letter is the "criminal equivalent of the Gettysburg Address." A 6.5-year sentence is halved, and Gaul tells the defendant to apply for "shock release" in six months.
When the shock release application fails — the man's attitude evidently isn't pleasing to Gaul on the day of the hearing — the defendant tells Koenig that Gaul is "nothing less than a raging slave master."
In the episode's final third, Koenig describes, from court transcripts, a plea deal that Gaul had improvised on the spot — 14 years in prison for an attempted murder charge — and had forced the defendant, a man named Carlton Hurd, to accept immediately on pain of a much longer sentence at trial. Hurd's case was later reassigned when his family challenged Gaul's maneuver, and Hurd was acquitted of all charges.
Keonig wonders why everyone seems to agree that Gaul's actions in that case were wrong — Judge John Russo plainly admits as much — but no one is willing to hold him accountable. Who's the "somebody" who's going to recommend an investigation, she wants to know.
Episode 2 features reporting by Emmanuel Dzotsi and an appearance by Judge Joan Synenberg, whose drug court and its therapeutic methods are contrasted sharply with the racist and paternal tenor of Gaul's courtroom.
A major case with national implications is teased at the end.