Professor Jonathan Witmer-Rich has developed a first-of-its-kind Cleveland-Marshall College of Law course based on the current season of the popular Serial podcast. This season of Serial spent a year in the Cleveland courts and is reporting the inner workings of the criminal justice system with a spotlight on these local cases.
Professor Witmer-Rich recognized that the podcast could serve as an excellent teaching tool, helping students to examine how the criminal justice system actually functions based on real-life cases. The course—titled “Understanding and Reforming the Criminal Justice Process”—will take place during the Spring semester and use the podcast episodes to explore issues such as the power of prosecutors, the costs and fees of the criminal justice process, the distrust between police and some urban communities, accountability for police misconduct and the voice of victims in the criminal justice system.
“As I was listening to the podcast, I realized that it was bringing to life so many of the criminal justice issues our society is grappling with–community-police relations, bail reform, the power of the prosecutor, the problems faced by poor people in the criminal justice system, and accountability for police misconduct,” said Witmer-Rich. “We study these issues by reading statutes and cases, but the Serial podcast is showing the real lives impacted by the day-to-day operation of the system. I thought the podcast would really capture the students' imagination and passion for justice and fairness.”
Each week students will listen to one episode of the podcast and read additional materials such as the 2014 Department of Justice Report on the Cleveland Division of Police. The course will feature regular guest speakers—including some of the lawyers and judges featured on the podcast. Witmer-Rich anticipates that using these real-life cases highlighted in Serial to teach criminal justice law will help to bridge students’ understanding of "black letter law"—the rules and doctrines of the criminal system—with how situations actually play out in jails and courthouses.
For the main project in the course, each student will complete a Criminal Justice Reform project that analyzes one of the problems highlighted on the show and proposes a solution. Witmer-Rich hopes some of the student proposals can be used as a basis for real-world reforms.
Witmer-Rich believes the recent spotlight on the criminal justice system in popular culture—including Serial and the hit Netflix documentary Making a Murderer—may drive students’ interest in studying the law and specifically criminal justice.
“I do think the podcast will help inspire students to focus on criminal justice,” said Witmer-Rich. “Recent years have seen a lot of excellent work on important criminal justice issues in popular culture--through TV shows, movies, and documentaries. All of these shows are helping to bring to life the high stakes that play out every day in our criminal justice system—high stakes for victims seeking justice, and for defendants facing years or decades in prison. It is a truly vital part of our legal system, and the more public attention it receives, hopefully the better the system can become.”
Already, this unique, Serial-based course has caught the attention of state and national media outlets. It was recently featured on Law.com’s “Ahead of the Curve” series, which focuses on notable innovations in legal education. The course has also been highlighted on public radio programs and newspapers around the state, as well as Cleveland’s News Channel 5.