Issue 1 meets a ‘Serial’ force

Over the next 30 days leading to the November elections, the best battle might not involve names such as DeWine, Cordray, Brown, Rulli, Ungaro and more.

The battle to watch is Issue 1, which seeks to reduce the state’s penalties for obtaining, possessing and using illegal drugs. It takes control away from judges in some sentencings, and also reduces prison terms for some crimes when rehabilitation is actively demonstrated.

That the initiative asks to be permanently in the state constitution only begins to list the reasons that just about the whole Ohio legal establishment is fighting hard against this.

In our newsroom two weeks ago, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Maureen O’Connor and Judge John Durkin debated vigorously with Issue 1 proponents in a special forum on You can watch that on the video page of

And so will roll more standoffs and differences around Ohio for the next several weeks.

Issue 1 even divides the two gubernatorial candidates we will see on the ballot – yes for Richard Cordray; no for Mike DeWine.

Voting for or against Issue 1 will come down to whether you believe our judicial system – which some would also label a judicial business – is justly handling criminal cases for your community and your taxes.

Oddly, Issue 1’s biggest boost might not come from any candidate or organization in Ohio. But, instead, it might come from the podcasting juggernaut “Serial,” a journalism program that traces its roots to public radio journalism and the hit radio program “This American Life.” To know either program, you have to be in the sphere of public radio journalism, then be in the sub-sphere of podcast journalism.

When I ask people about “Serial,” I get an astonished look of either “What the hell are you saying?” or “Oh, my! Did you hear last week’s episode?” Age and technology tend to be an audience dividing line. Professional, over age 50 and only toe-deep into your smartphone but knee-deep into your printed paper? Unlikely “Serial” listener. Professional under 50 or millennial, know every milibite of your phone and touch a newspaper only online? Likely “Serial” listener.

Simply said – if you enjoy the crime-drama storytelling of “Dateline” and Keith Morrison or any of that kind, then you’d gobble up “Serial” and its 15-week-or-so unfolding of a single event.

Now in its third season on my phone, its first two seasons tackled a Baltimore murder case and the kidnapping of a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan and his subsequent court-martial. Those first two seasons have a combined audience of 350 million people.

So why is “Serial” a possible Issue 1 boost?

Season 3 of “Serial” just debuted two weeks ago, and its topic this time is the Cleveland legal system – cops, robbers, lawyers, prosecutors, judges and more.

The “Serial” team, led by host/producer Sarah Koenig, spent more than a year in Cleveland. They picked Cleveland because, of all freak reasons, it was the only court system that let the team record audio everywhere. Other cities they asked around the U.S. had declined. The episodes so far are:

“A bar fight walks into the justice center.” It’s about a woman who was slapped on the rear end several times at a bar. She stood up to the man, which then got her attacked by other women. She then hit a cop in the ensuing melee. She was the only one charged with a crime despite security footage.

“You’ve got some gauls.” This one focuses on high-profile Judge Dan Gaul. He’s a dynamic presence – calling defendants “dude” and “brother.” He issued a character defense notice after the episode aired.

“Misdemeanor, meet Mr. Lawsuit.” This outlines how an attorney and a client strategize for a civil lawsuit against police for a heavy-handed arrest.

“A bird in the jail is worth two in the street.” This outlines the street justice at play after the baby of a known Cleveland tough-guy is killed in a mistaken-identity case.

“Serial” does aim to tell the whole story of the justice system, but it lands most on what is broken.

Seven thousand planes land properly, and no one cares; but wreck one, and it’s critical. Same thing for the legal system. Many people enter and leave, and have justice delivered in a satisfactory way. But not every case is handled well – shifting and shaping based on street-wise criminals, lawyers on both sides, police and judges and more. This is “Serial” in Cleveland after four episodes, and it has been fascinating listening.

Its first episodes two weeks back drew 1.46 million and 1.43 million listeners, respectively – surpassing the first downloads of Season 2 about the U.S. soldier. It has at least one citizen response blog in action. The Plain Dealer is giving show-by-show breakdowns, and as noted, Judge Gaul opted to issue a public statement on his character.

To make clear – “Serial” is not about Issue 1. That Issue 1 is before us now at the same time as “Serial” is just sheer coincidence.

But if the show catches on as it usually does, the light it casts on the Cleveland legal system could be weight for the foes of Issue 1 that they do not need or want.

Issue 1 says the justice system is broken and it incurs excessive time, taxes and human cost. It forces the hand of the system that does not want to be forced.

“Serial” glances at these same themes as it looks inside the Cleveland court system and will leave listeners, well, certainly wanting for the next episode. But listeners might want more besides a podcast. Issue 1 could be in the way.

Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.

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