After unearthing revelations in the inner workings of Cleveland’s criminal-court system during Season 3 of “Serial,” co-hosts Sarah Koenig and Emmanuel Dzotsi are returning to Cleveland to discuss their findings Dec. 15 during “Behind the Scenes of Serial Season 3” at Playhouse Square.
The latest season of “Serial,” an investigative journalism podcast, tells the stories of flawed individuals and institutions that make up America’s criminal justice system by following cases in Cuyahoga County’s justice system.
Since finishing the season, Koenig has been curious to hear how Clevelanders have received the latest season and its hosts.
“We haven’t done a story before that’s about a place versus a case or about a particular person, so this will be the first time we’re coming to the location of the reporting in a very specific way, so that’s going to be very interesting,” she said from State College, Pa., during a telephone interview with the Cleveland Jewish News.
Those listening to the latest season may hear comments alluding to Koenig’s Jewish background. While she didn’t grow up with a Jewish education, she said the ideas she values that inform her work have also been described as Jewish values.
“I think that a lot of the things I value just sort of in life are fairness and justice and inquiry and stuff like that,” she said. “I’ve also heard those described in some context as Jewish values as well. In that sense, maybe that’s sifted through but I don’t come from a family that really talked about Jewishness or engaged in Judaism in any formal way.”
Before the project started, Koenig had heard the justice system is broken repeatedly, so she wanted to see if that statement was true and what “broken” looked like. One of those broken pieces of the system appeared as a judge, who is white, telling a defendant, who is black, that if the defendant has a child out of wedlock, the judge will consider it as a violation of his probation.
By the time reporting started and the team knew the project could be completed, Koenig said her new goal was to get other people to care about the people and the stories she was telling.
“That became my goal, to do right by these stories, do right by these people and you hope that listeners come along with you and they care too. And then maybe they care enough to do something about it,” she said. “In terms of the feedback we’re getting, it’s been really heartening to see how many people have said, ‘I haven’t really paid attention to the criminal justice system before and boy, I’ve really come around.’”
The mission of the season was telling the extraordinary stories of ordinary cases, Koenig explained, and there were “a ton” of cases to choose from. There were so many cases that piqued Koenig or Dzotsi’s interest that if someone involved didn’t want to participate, they had others to choose from. She added the pair covered many cases that didn’t make it into the season.
As they got to know people in certain stories, they’d go back to them and get “good tape,” which dictated what the stories became, she said. The team ordered the stories in a way that the first half of the season shows how the system functions through specific cases and the second half shows the greater effect in the community.
“For us we were getting emotionally involved with particular people, particular defendants and feel from their view how it is to be on the other side of this system,” she said. “To us, it felt like we went through a shift as we got to know characters better — like the system doesn’t just affect the people in this building in the moment, it really is living out in the communities. It’s alive all over the city.”
The idea to sit in Cleveland’s courthouse for a year came from the podcast’s executive producer and co-creator Julie Snyder, said Koenig. Snyder had read a book, “Courtroom 302,” by Steve Bogira, where he sat in a Chicago courtroom for a year and wrote about all the cases that went through the courtroom. Both Snyder and Koenig, who is also a co-creator, wanted to do the same but for audio.
“I just wanted to see it,” Koenig said. “I wanted to see it day to day without any particular case in mind and just go in and be like, ‘How does this place actually function? How does the organism of the courthouse kind of function in a day-to-day way?’ That’s what we were interested in trying to understand.”
The “Serial” team decided to focus on Cleveland for its ability to record inside courtrooms, judges’ chambers, hallways and attorneys’ offices. Koenig also liked the area as it was about a four-hour drive from her home, so if she needed to be there quickly, she could.
The event will be moderated by The City Club of Cleveland CEO Dan Moulthrop and will include discussions on the recent season followed by a question and answer session.