Serial Podcast Shows How Much You Can Learn From a Single Case

The first episode of the Serial podcast’s new season is a dramatic illustration of how much you can learn from a single case.  The case involves a young white woman who was prosecuted for her participation in a bar fight.  The Serial team are incredible storytellers, so this podcast is not “just” educational, but it is completely engrossing, making you want to know every detail, especially how it turns out.

As tempting as it would be to analyze the details of the case, I don’t want to spoil it for you as I hope that you – and your students and colleagues – will want to listen to it asap.

I will, however, generally describe the kinds of things you learn in this episode.

To understand this case properly, you need to understand the context, which the program provides.  Among other things, it describes the physical and social layout of the Justice Center in Cleveland, racial patterns among the various types of actors in the scene, characteristics of defendants in the criminal justice system, relationships between defense lawyers and different categories of clients, relationships between prosecutors and defense attorneys, factors in prosecutors’ and judges’ decisions, and the immense pressure on everyone to resolve cases through plea bargains.

Of course, the main focus of this episode is the case itself and you hear a lot of evidence from just about every possible source.  There was a surveillance video of the incident, which the podcast describes.  It also includes excerpts of audio from police bodycams, as well as interviews of the arresting officer and witnesses of the fight.  The journalists also interviewed the defendant and especially her lawyer, a 41-year veteran defense attorney, and the prosecutor.

Most folks in our field focus on civil cases, not criminal cases, and many of us are justifiably concerned about excessive pressure in dispute resolution processes.  In criminal cases, the system is full of coercion and injustice.  This insight is illustrated by a quote from the defense attorney.  He said, “We’re trying to get rid of cases.  If somebody is offered a plea to a misdemeanor, you take it.  Be done.  OK.  That’s a win in defense parlance.  The feeling will be, well, she has a prior record anyway, so a plea to a misdemeanor is of no consequence here.  I remember one judge told me—and this is—one judge told me, in this county, innocence is a misdemeanor. … What that means is, if they don’t have the evidence against you, they’ll let you plead out to a misdemeanor.  If they can’t prove you’re guilty, they’ll give you a misdemeanor.”

One of the most useful lessons in this episode comes from the detailed description of the tangible and intangible costs of being a defendant in the criminal justice system.

Learning From Real-Life Cases

Lawyers, law professors, and law students also learn from real-life cases – generally appellate cases that are radically de-contextualized.  This is especially true in traditional law school casebooks focused on legal doctrine, where facts are omitted unless necessary to illustrate a legal point.  Even full appellate reports are limited to legally-relevant facts, and the selection and portrayal of facts obviously is biased to be consistent with the courts’ decisions.

While using appellate case decisions may (or may not) be the best way to develop and disseminate legal doctrine, it’s an absolutely lousy way to learn what really happened in those cases and how the legal system actually works.

There are much better ways to learn about what really happens in legal cases.  Empirical researchers and documentary journalists like the Serial team provide a much richer and more balanced understanding.

There are a lot of similarities between empirical researchers who rely on qualitative data and documentary journalists.  Both groups follow certain (though different) procedures for collecting and analyzing information to compose the most accurate possible portrayal of reality.  A major difference is the way they present their findings, as researchers tend to write dry reports for other researchers whereas journalists produce stories for the general public that are designed to be as compelling as possible.

The Serial team is an outstanding collection of journalists.  Here’s a photo of host and executive producer Sarah Koenig and Emmanuel Dzotsi, who did a lot of the reporting.

And here’s a shot of Sarah Koenig, This American Life guru Ira Glass, and senior producer Julie Snyder.



The Serial team spent a year studying the criminal courts in Cleveland and are strategically planning to provide as accurate and compelling analysis as they can.  This first episode zoomed in on a single case and the second episode zoomed out to provide an survey of the approaches of different judges in the court.  I have no idea what they plan to do with the rest of the season.  But I will wait with bated breath (whatever that is).

Several years ago, I conducted a study in which I interviewed 32 lawyers about the cases they settled most recently.  Six of the cases were criminal cases, an area I haven’t studied very much.  Of course, I didn’t learn as much about criminal justice as the Serial team did.  But I learned a lot that I wouldn’t have known – and what I learned was very consistent with what Serial described.

One of the purposes in developing the Stone Soup Project was to encourage faculty to conduct their own qualitative research.  As part of a mini-course to encourage YOU to do some interviews, I described projects that I have done and suggested that other colleagues could do things like this too.

So consider conducting interviews about real cases for your next publications.  It’s fun, you will learn some amazing things, and you can truly create new knowledge.

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