'Serial' podcast announces third season that explores crime and punishment in Cleveland

Reporter Emmanuel Dzotsi and "Serial" host Sarah Koenig are behind Season 3 of the "Serial" podcast, which will be released on Sept. 20. (Sandy Honig)

“Serial,” the wildly popular investigative journalism podcast hosted by Sarah Koenig, will return for a third season on Sept. 20, producers announced Wednesday morning. The first two episodes will drop on various podcast apps, including Apple and Google, and additional episodes will be released weekly on Thursdays.

This season’s subject matter is much broader than in previous seasons, as Koenig and reporter Emmanuel Dzotsi delve into the Cleveland criminal court system, telling multiples stories at once, instead of just one.

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“Serial” has been downloaded more than 340 million times across two previous seasons — an ongoing record. Season 1, released in 2014, unleashed a fan frenzy when it scrupulously told the tale of the 1999 murder of Baltimore high school student Hae Min Lee and the subsequent murder trial of her onetime classmate and boyfriend, Adnan Syed.

Syed was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison, but Koenig’s reporting — and the “Serial” podcast — resulted in a public outcry that justice had not been served and that the real killer had not been found.

The show went on to become the first podcast to win a Peabody Award. It also won a National Edward R. Murrow Award.

Season 2 was released in 2015 and focused on the court-martial of Sgt. Bowe Bergdhal, who was held captive by the Taliban for five years and was later charged with desertion.

From its inception, “Serial” has explored themes of justice: What it is, who gets to decide it, and how it looks when it is fair or miscarried.

For Season 3, the show’s creators are taking those notions one step further by examining the many ordinary cases that flow through a typical criminal court on a regular basis — from minor criminal proceedings like drug possession and disorderly conduct to serious felonies like murder and armed robbery.

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Koenig, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, and Dzotsi, a former fellow at “This American Life,” were given extraordinary access to record inside courtrooms, judges chambers and attorneys’ offices. The result, they say in a news release, is a show that examines an often troubled system where large gaps can often be found between the crimes people commit and what they ended up being punished for.

“Every case Emmanuel and I followed, there came a point where we thought: No, this can’t be how it works,” Koenig said in a statement. “And then we were like, Oh! Oh my god. This is how it works! This is how it happens! People who work in the system, or have been through the system, they know this. But millions more people do not. And for the past year I’ve had this urgent feeling of wanting to kind of hold open the courthouse door, and wave people inside. Because things are happening — shocking things, fascinating things — in plain sight.”

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