Serial Podcast Examines the Criminal Justice System

Like millions of others, I got hooked on the Serial podcasts.  The first season told the story of a real-life whodunit, examining the trial of a young man convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend.  The second season focused on Bowe Bergdahl, a soldier who left his base in Afghanistan and was held captive by the Taliban for five years.  Both seasons had more than ten episodes exploring the stories from just about every possible angle.  They provided rich portraits of the world surrounding the particular stories.

Serial is hosted by Sarah Koenig, a producer of the fabulous This American Life podcast.  She is an empathetic, savvy, dogged, and fairminded reporter.

I just heard a promo for the third season of Serial, which sounds fantastic.  Ms. Koenig spent a year in the criminal courts in Cleveland, Ohio, focusing on the daily operation of the criminal justice system.  She chose Cleveland because they let her record in the courtrooms, hallways, prosecutors’ offices, and even judges’ chambers.  And she followed up on what happened outside of court.

This sounds like a fascinating study of a deeply flawed dispute system.  Perhaps it’s the appeal of the story of a train wreck described by a great storyteller, but I can’t wait for the series to start.  You can listen to the promo now, and the first episode drops on September 20.

Coincidental Timing

During the time that Serial is presenting its documentary series on ordinary operation of the criminal justice system, we will witness the unfolding of the extraordinary criminal investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team.  The investigation already has resulted in indictments of individuals and entities, identification of unindicted co-conspirators, guilty pleas, and trial convictions.

Paul Manafort is scheduled to go on trial on September 24, though reports suggest that there may be a plea bargain instead of a trial.  Personally, I would much prefer a trial for the public education function I described in this post.  Although a plea bargain by one of President Trump’s campaign managers would be a significant development, a detailed legal document released on one day does not have anywhere near as much educational potential of an extended trial with witnesses, evidence, and arguments.

Based on news reporting and speculation, there is a good chance that even more serious charges will be filed against major public figures this year or next.

So there should be an interesting contrast between everyday criminal justice and the process in the special counsel investigation.  Cynthia wrote this useful piece correcting mischaracterizations of Michael Cohen’s plea arrangement, contrasting it with the common practice of “flipping” low-level criminals to testify against higher-level criminals.  I wrote this comment on her post, linking to a Washington Post article summarizing differences between the ordinary and extraordinary process in Mr. Cohen’s case.

In any case, the combination of the podcast and unfolding real-life events should make for some fascinating education this fall.

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