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New Season of Serial Podcast Calls on AU School of Public Affairs for Judicial Expertise

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When Serial podcast journalist Sarah Koenig needed to consult an expert on criminal justice, she turned to AU School of Public Affairs’ Justice Programs Office (JPO).  

The popular show worked with Zoë Root, senior policy counsel at JPO and an SPA adjunct professor, to review court transcripts for the second episode of Serial’s Season 3. The story follows cases in the courtroom of Common Pleas Court Judge Daniel Gaul in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, a controversial figure called out for using racial stereotypes and questionable judicial methods.

The judge saw one of the defendants, Vivian, highlighted in the recent episode, “You’ve Got Some Gauls,” on several occasions for drug-related charges. Although she had been recommended as a candidate for drug court — a different model of justice that embraces treatment more than punishment for those struggling with addiction — Gaul did not allow Vivian to be evaluated.

“I was pretty horrified by a lot what I read. Judge Gaul’s behavior is totally unethical and crosses a lot of lines,” says Root. “It’s not uncommon for judges to have that power and control streak in them, but the majority of judges are not like that.”

After reviewing the transcripts from the hearings, Root, a former defense attorney in New York City who has represented clients in drug court, spoke with Koenig in May for nearly two hours. “Generally if anyone involved in a case believes that someone could potentially be eligible for drug court, at the very least that client deserved to be screened and assessed to make a determination,” she says. Root says many judges lack the appropriate training to understand the complexities of addiction, and when the right clients are referred to drug court, it can be a life-changing experience.

“What makes Judge Gaul’s determination so horrendous is that he decided without ever consulting with a clinician,” says Root. “I don’t know if drug court was a good fit for her, but it was an injustice that she didn’t even get screened.”

Root was pleased with how the podcast used her input, did a thorough job with research, and described the shortcomings of the criminal justice system in a compelling way. “I feel very honored to have been a part of it,” says Root, who received credit at the end of the podcast. She was a big fan of Serial going into the project and last year had students in her Intro to Systems of Justice course listen to the first Serial series to get a sense of what happens in a case from start to finish.