“In a reporting way, Cleveland is very interesting,” Koenig says. “It’s got big city crime in a small city.”
Debuting with two episodes Sept. 20, Serial’s third season takes listeners on a yearlong journey inside the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas, Cleveland’s criminal court. Where past seasons looked at extraordinary cases with big questions — season one, an unsolved murder; season two, a military deserter — the goal of season three, Koenig says, is to examine the justice system through ordinary cases that typically go unnoticed.
“Each episode focuses on a different case or on a different part of the system,” says the former producer of This American Life. “My hope is by the end you have this mosaic feeling of having a full picture of how the system operates.”
Debuting in 2014, Serial’s first season poked holes in the case against Adnan Syed, who was convicted of the kidnapping and first-degree murder of his ex-girlfriend in 2000. In addition to helping get Syed a retrial, the podcast was a groundbreaking success. Credited with popularizing the format, it was the first podcast to win a Peabody Award and has been downloaded 340 million times.
Its follow-up season, which some called a sophomore slump, followed the story of Bowe Bergdahl, who was held captive by the Taliban for nearly five years after deserting his U.S. Army outpost in Afghanistan in 2009.
Where previous seasons focused on one overarching story, season three weaves together multiple subjects, crimes and stories that are designed to provide insight into how the criminal justice system functions day-to-day. Some stories last one episode, while others stretch over three. The crimes covered by the podcast range from the petty, such as weed possession and disorderly conduct, to the most serious felonies.
“Every case Emmanuel and I followed, there came a point where we thought: ‘No, this can’t be how it works,’” Koenig said in a follow-up press release. “And then we were like, ‘Oh! Oh my god. This is how it works! This is how it happens!’ People who work in the system, or have been through the system, they know this. But millions more people do not. And for the past year I’ve had this urgent feeling of wanting to kind of hold open the courthouse door, and wave people inside. Because things are happening — shocking things, fascinating things — in plain sight.”
Koenig didn’t drop any specific names, but locals are likely to hear from some familiar faces and public figures.
“We’ve got one episode that’s set all in one courtroom with one judge, one that’s set in the prosecutor's office, where we’re spending time with one prosecutor,” she says. “Other [episodes] are all about one particular case.”
A hint came in 2016 when Cleveland.com reported that Keonig was listening to and recording the capital trial of Douglas Shine, the Heartless Felon who was sentenced to life in prison for killing three men in a Warrensville Heights barbershop. To report the story, Koenig visited Cleveland nearly every week for more than a year, staying in a rented apartment. Producer Emmanuel Dzotsi, who was raised near Toledo and attended Ohio State University, co-reported the season and moved to the city full time.
“He’s young and still social, in a way that I am not, so he still knew people in Cleveland,” Koenig says. “Plus he helped me on the sports front. Nobody told me [how important sports were in Cleveland]!”
More than boots on the ground, Koenig says, Ohio’s open-door media policy — which allowed the show’s producers to record audio inside courtrooms, judges’ chambers, back hallways and attorneys’ offices — provided unprecedented access.
“Ohio has very wonderful transparency and media laws for courts, if you’re someone like me,” Keonig says. “We had looked into doing other places, but the fact that they were like, ‘Come on in,’ was incredible.”
Serial season three debuts Sept. 20 with two episodes and subsequent episodes premiering each Thursday. The podcast is available for free on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Pandora and more.
“It’s not just a big, heavy take your medicine thing,” she says. “The stories are really good. It’s entertaining, too.”
Look for our full interview with Sarah Koenig in the November issue of Cleveland Magazine.
in the cle
8:00 AM EST
September 5, 2018