Season 3 of Serial is not getting the buzz of the first season, which tracked the case of Adnan Syed, or even the attention of season two, which piggybacked off the popularity of the first season in exploring Bowe Bergdahl’s desertion and subsequent capture by the Taliban. However, season 3 is arguably the most compelling season to date, and inarguably one of the best pieces of journalism of the 21st century.
The reason it may not be getting the same attention as the previous two seasons is that it is not focused on one individual’s case; it puts the entire criminal justice system on trial. What drew us to season one was the conviction of Syed, but what we learned from that season was how flawed the criminal justice system is.
Season three is a more natural extension of that, but rather than viewing the criminal justice system through the prism of one murder case, it explores the entire criminal justice system — from the arrests through the trial (or plea agreement) — using the justice center in Cleveland (where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by a police officer) as a proxy for the entire country. Serial spends an entire year in one Cleveland courthouse, and through four episodes, so far, it has touched upon the role of the judges; the lawyers, the police officers, and even eyewitnesses to crimes. These are not all murder trials, but in so many ways, cases about minor drug possession or armed robbery or even a woman accidentally hitting a police officer in the middle of a bar scuffle reveal so much more about the flaws in our criminal justice system than one murder case can possibly do justice.
“This place is primarily black and white,” Sarah Koenig says in the opening episode. “The majority of the courthouse staff is black. Most of the clerks are black. Most of their managers are white. In the Sheriff’s Department, most of the security guards are black, most of the deputies are white, most of the attorneys are white, all the county judges are white, and their bailiffs are white. Most of the defendants and crime victims are black.” The power imbalance is not just obvious from the positions that people hold within the system, but in the disposition of the cases. “No, this can’t be how it works,” Koenig says of every case she follows in season 3. “Oh, oh my God. [But] this is how it works.”
Sometimes the system does work. Oftentimes it does not. And even when the system does reach the right result, it’s not always fair. For example, in the opening episode, after a great deal of haggling between a defense attorney and a prosecutor, a woman who accidentally hits a police officer in a bar fight pleads guilty to disorderly conduct. While the system may see a guilty plea for disorderly conduct as small potatoes, for the defendant, it is anything but: She spent an hour in the back of a police cruiser; four days in the county jail, being harassed while sleeping on a mat on the floor; she paid $500 to a bondsman; she is drug tested once a week; makes 20 visits to the courthouse over the course of her case; pays a $200 fine, plus court fees amounting to another $500, plus the eventual collection fees she will have to pay because she can’t pay for the initial fine. This one case reveals how egregiously regressive the criminal justice system is, how the “right” result can affect two different people in completely different ways.
The second case takes a closer look at the role of judges, specifically Judge Gaul, who one black defendant compared (fairly) to a “raging slavemaster.” This judge essentially pressures defendants into pleading guilty by using threats of lengthy prison sentences. Though Judge Gaul has been overturned in several instances for coercing plea agreements from those who we’d later find out were innocent men, there are never any consequences. What happens in the courtroom is of little consequence as long as the voters keep voting for the same judges; the voters barely know the difference between the Italian and Irish names they see on the ballots every six years, and because the court system does not affect most voters, they have little incentive to learn the differences. It’s how a guy like Judge Gaul can stay on the bench for over 25 years, even while his law license is suspended for part of it.
The fourth episode, a two-parter, looks outside of the courtroom to discover another major flaw in the criminal justice system: No one wants to snitch, and those that do, get stitches (and by that, I mean, they are murdered). As Koenig discovers while investigating the case of a child who is shot and killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, eyewitnesses flat-out refuse to testify. In fact, the police keep one man — accused of the murder, though everyone seems to know he didn’t do it — in prison for months in the hopes that he will identify the real shooter. He refuses. He won’t snitch. In many parts of Cleveland, the citizenry prefers street justice to legal justice, which not only makes it nearly impossible to get convictions but adds to a growing body count.
The third episode is a tour de force in how to be a journalist today, and why I think Sarah Koenig may be one of the best in the business. Here, she covers the case of a man who is beaten by the police over a tiny, misdemeanor amount of marijuana, and even in a small case like this, the specter of Tamir Rice hangs over it. Koenig explores the case from all perspectives, including that of the courts — which seem to go out of their way to stack the deck against defendants who might bring civil suits against the county for police brutality — and the police. That brings her to a conversation with Detective Steve Loomis, who was until recently the President of the Cleveland Police Union.
Koenig’s conversation with Loomis is striking. “We really don’t care about citizen complaints,” he says. He says that President Obama has blood on his hands for the deaths of Dallas police officers, and that racist and anti-Muslim tweets from police officers are their First Amendment rights. He’s a typical Trump guy. But the way Koenig handles this conversation is brilliant: She gives him a fair shake, and she relays his perspective, but she does so without giving equal weight to “both sides” of an argument where one side is so obviously wrong. Koenig and Loomis begin debating about Tamir Rice, with Loomis saying that — for a 12-year-old — he was a big guy, who looked like an adult. That “he was not the product of a loving home,” as though this were justification for shooting him.
“[It went on and on, and] it got worse,” Koenig said. “His savaging of Tamir Rice, but I’m not going to dignify it by repeating it here. Steve has said unkind things about the Rice family in the past, and he also helpfully suggested they use the money they got from a lawsuit to help educate kids about guns. He wasn’t worried about his tone, or its implications … we disagreed about whether the shooting of Tamir Rice was a mistake at all,” Koenig added, before allowing Loomis to make his final point. “It’s absolutely on Tamir. It’s on any subject who gets shot by the police,” Loomis says, essentially laying the blame on shooting victims for getting shot.
“Actions by suspects cause reactions by police officers,” Koenig says, summing up Loomis’ position.
And that, folks, is how you journalism. She let him present his position, but she put it in context. She noted his bias, but importantly, she didn’t “dignify” his racist statements by airing them.
That’s why Serial is so good, because Koenig demonstrates that you can present both sides, but do so without allowing a racist to advertise — and thereby normalize — his rhetoric. She can tease out the point he is making, put it in the proper context, and square it with reality. That’s especially important in covering the criminal justice system (or Donald Trump, even), because it does not give equal weight to both sides when one side is so obviously colored by racism or other extreme viewpoints.
The NYTimes and the rest of the mainstream media should get their cues from Koenig, both for the way in which she covers her stories, and the very stories she covers. She brings to life one-paragraph stories in the back of a newspaper in the police beat section beneath a Shaw’s coupon, and she explains why they matter, and what we can learn about the criminal justice system from a guy who got tased seven times and punched by the cops because one officer said he could smell a blunt he had in his pocket.
It’s engrossing. Compelling. Transfixing. Illuminating. Infuriating. It gives the criminal justice system a human voice. In its own way, it’s also as entertaining as it is educational. It’s not as addictive as the first season of Serial, but in so very many ways, it is better.
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