The third season of the hit podcast "Serial" has proven just as popular as its two predecessors, thanks in large part to an Ohio State University graduate and former WOSU intern.
In season 3, Emmaneul Dzotsi joins host Sarah Koenig to guide listeners through many of the cases passing through the Justice Center Complex in Cleveland.
Previous seasons of "Serial" took a true-crime approach to single high-profile cases, like the murder conviction of Baltimore native Adnan Syed. But this time producers decided to back up and take a wider look at an entire county’s justice system.
Dzotsi says they chose Cuyahoga County and Cleveland partly because they’re representative of many large U.S. metro areas. Another factor, Dzotsi says, was the ease of recording court proceedings.
“Ohio is great because it has pretty great Sunshine Laws,” he says. “Most county courts in Ohio, sometimes as long as you get permission, you can basically walk into a courtroom and start recording.”
Dzotsi lived in Chicago and worked as a “stringer” for the public radio show This American Life when producers of Serial, which is also produced by WBEZ, were looking for someone to move to Cleveland to embed themselves in the court system.
It was easy assignment for Dzotsi, who went to middle and high school in Toledo after moving to the U.S. from England with his family at the age of 12. Dzotsi graduated from Ohio State in 2015 after majoring in political science and strategic communications. During his time at Ohio State, Dzotsi was also a student producer on WOSU's All Sides with Ann Fisher.
Dzotsi is first introduced to "Serial" listeners in episode 2. "You've Got Some Gauls" focuses on controversial Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Daniel Gaul, who Dzotsi says often uses negative stereotypes on African-Americans. Dzotsi, who’s black himself, says he often cringed when Gaul called black men in his courtroom “brother,” or threatened to throw some defendants in jail if they had more children out of wedlock.
Other episodes feature Dzotsi spending time with Jesse Nickerson, an East Cleveland resident who ran into a series of legal problems after an altercation with two officers led to their firing and subsequent prosecution.
But when asked which story sticks with him the most, Dzotsi says it’s a simple instance of a woman caught driving without insurance. It was a routine case, Dzotsi says, but the woman struggled to navigate her way through the legal system. She had to work multiple jobs to pay fees and court costs, all while dealing with the death of her daughter in an unrelated accident.
He says it opened his eyes to how simple cases get people deeply entangled with the legal system.
“You’re covering, most of the time, one of the worst days in someone’s life," Dzotsi says. "And they keep on having these (interactions) with the system. It doesn’t just stop.”
Dzotsi says he leaves season 3 with a better understanding of just how deeply the criminal justice affects people’s lives. But also how it often lacks humanity.
“Sometimes people are irrelevant,” Dzotsi says. “This is what we wanted. This is what we’ve created. We’ve created a system which is a system that operates a certain way, regardless of people.”
Season 3 of Serial continues this week with the planned release of episode 8 on Thursday, which Dzotsi says will focus on Cuyahoga County’s juvenile court system.