Drake’s verse in the song “No Frauds” blares from a black woman’s speakers. The disapproving white occupants look at each other uncomfortably. The almighty host swoops in to diffuse the awkwardness, but Koenig’s jokes do not land.
The scene illustrates the racial schism that permeates not just the justice system but also everyday interactions in Cleveland, a city that remains largely segregated.
When Serial announced its third season would examine Cuyahoga County’s criminal justice system, local fans of the hit podcast’s groundbreaking first and second seasons reacted with excitement. They tagged friends on Twitter and expressed impatience.
But after listening to the season premiere and hearing moments like this, I think anxiousness is probably more appropriate than eagerness.
Serial’s first episode examines the fallout of a fight in a West Side dive bar. The defendant, whose name has been changed to Anna for her protection, is charged with assaulting a police officer, a fourth-degree felony.
After initially ignoring an intoxicated male who slaps her butt several times, Anna eventually is seen in surveillance footage confronting him. But when the man’s female friends get involved, the altercation escalates into a scrum. Anna is on and off the ground, being kicked and hair pulled from all directions. When an officer on-scene breaks up the fight, Anna’s elbow strikes his face.
Following defense attorney Russ Bensing as he attempts to get Anna’s case demoted to a misdemeanor or dropped, the ensuing story depicts petty squabbles between defense attorney and prosecutor. The police work is suspect, especially when the cop promises Anna she won’t be charged and reports that he didn’t know about the provocation prior to the altercation.
Meanwhile, all of this is underscored by Cuyahoga County’s process of public defenders relying on case assignments from judges, which creates a tension between caseload and justice.
True crime podcasts like the first season of Serial or Crimetown, which paints a picture of corruption in mob-run Providence, Rhode Island, are fun when you are removed as a listener. That stuff is happening over there, you tell your self. Listening to Serial’s first episode as a lifelong Clevelander didn’t feel fun. This stuff is happening right here.
After the bar fight, the arresting officer asks the remaining patrons, about six males, if anyone witnessed the man sexually assault Anna. Everyone vouched for him. “No, he wouldn’t do something like that,” his cocktail comrades tell the cop. “That’s not him.”
Security footage says otherwise.
This scene stood out because I’ve been in that type of establishment. My favorite East Side hangout in downtown Willoughby is the type of place where the bartenders know regulars’ names. Former neighbors and high school classmates belly up next to me. Would we sell out one of our own in the name justice? I’m not so sure.
To be clear, Koenig isn’t out to disparage Cleveland — even if she does drop the cringe-y “Mistake on the Lake” nickname 10 minutes into the episode. And no, we’re not bitter that the “uninteresting magazine about what to eat in Cleveland” that Anna was given in jail might be a reference to Cleveland Magazine. (Well, not that bitter.)
Anna's eventual outcome is favorable in the grand scheme of the criminal justice system. Still, before the case is said and done, the 21-year-old meets the inside the “disgusting” Cleveland city jail being called a “junkie” by fellow inmates while she awaits bail. She pays more than $1,000 in fines, loses her job and must make more than 20 trips downtown for drug tests and trial meetings.
And to think, as Koenig states early in the episode, this case is an example of the system working!
“In this county, innocence is a misdemeanor,” Bensing says, “meaning if they don’t have the evidence against you, they’ll have you plead out to a misdemeanor.”
The podcast isn’t even trying to point out problems that are specific to Cleveland.
Cleveland is merely a case study to examine America’s criminal justice system as a whole.
But even with its reverential, educational approach, the podcast’s illumination of problems in our own backyard is sobering. As the season progresses and the crimes get more serious, the sentences more unjust and the system more broken, the listening experience is likely to grow more unsettling. And partially, that’s the point, Koenig says.
“I did see a lot of the shruggy, ‘Yeah, it’s messed up. What’re you going to do?’” she says of her time reporting in Cleveland when we spoke earlier this month. “I understand it’s very complicated but I wanted more outrage. Everyone needs to be madder.”
Will the podcast incite protests outside the Justice Center? Probably not. But be warned Cleveland, the juicy new pod popping up in your app this morning might be a little more reckoning and a little less entertainment than you bargained for.