"Serial's" sixth episode in its newest Cleveland-based season focuses on East Cleveland and its police corruption, exposing shocking truths about how the law operates in the Ohio city.
“This powerful episode exposes how law enforcement in Cleveland systemically committed acts of false arrest and torture, and how such behavior has been normalized and covered up within the corridors of power,” Joseph Tully, a Martinez, Calif.-based criminal lawyer told Oxygen.com.
The episode focuses largely on the story of Jesse Nickerson, a man who was beaten by police officers. In 2016, East Cleveland Police Officers Denayne Dixon and Gerald Spencer stopped Nickerson and a few other people to question them in connection with a robbery. Police found a gun in the car and arrested Nickerson, but they didn’t take him to the police station. Instead, Dixon ordered Nickerson out of the car and told Spencer to take off his handcuffs. Once he was uncuffed, Nickerson ran off, and as he told "Serial" co-host Emmanuel Dzotsi, the cops threw him down a hill. He was then beaten and choked by the officers until he blacked out, he told Dzotsi. Both officers denied that, and claimed he was injured by falling down.
"It felt like East Cleveland had given up on basic governance," Dzotsi said early on in the episode before revealing the astonisingly corrupt allegations. "It felt like something out of 'I Am Legend.'"
Nickerson exposed the cops and even had both officers indicted by a grand jury. But that didn't mean he wasn't harrassed and intimidated.
“The prosecutor and them, they telling me to stay out of East Cleveland,” Nickerson told Dzotki. Dixon himself also tried to intimidate Nickerson out of testifying against him.
According to Nickerson’s account, one officer approached Nickerson and told him not to go to court against Dixon.
“I didn’t know what to say, I was scared,” Nickerson said.
That cop asked for Nickerson’s number and called him that very same day, revealing Dixon was on the phone with him.
“They will make sure that I'm cool if I don’t go to court on him,” Nickerson recalled, adding that Dixon called him every few weeks. “He was telling me to skip out of town, he was telling me all sorts of stuff.”
The prosecution began recording some of those calls and it was used against Dixon in court. Obstruction of justice was added to Dixon’s charges, and he was sentenced to two years in prison.
Justice, right? Not exactly.
Nickerson became known as the guy who put a police officer in jail, and he told Dzotki that he experiences paranoia as a result, among other severe repercussions. He believes he was beaten up again for it by police.
Nickerson was out one night after bringing the officers to court when police came to break up the party. Body cam footage from three officers actually shows the fight, “Serial” explained. "You in the red shirt, get the [expletive] out of EC,” one officer yells at him when they see him. Nickerson talks back and the officers rush him. One police report claims that Dixon spit on an officer, but that’s not visible on body cam.
There is a crowd of people shown in the footage, but “Jesse seems to be the one they want” according to Dzotki.
A crowd of people scream at the officers to stop as they appear to drag Nickerson to his car.
”My arm, my arm,” he screams, according to body cam audio played on the episode.
“Get up, Jesse,” one officer can be heard saying to Nickerson. ”You did it to yourself. We watched you fall on your own.”
Dzotki says it appears that the cops are aware of their body cams.
After that incident, Dzotki spoke to Nickerson on the phone and he noted that he sounded more vulnerable than usual.
“I thought it was over with... but as you see it’s not,” Nickerson told him. “It’s not over with. It’s my fault because I shouldn’t have gone through with the situation. I shouldn’t have gone to court.”
"Serial" host Sarah Koenig then walked us through another case of police corruption: the police treatment of Arnold Black.
"It's crazy," she said, "and it just gets crazier."
Black was driving in East Cleveland in 2012 when he was stopped by two officers. They allegedly searched his vehicle for drugs, but when they realized he wasn't the man they were looking for, they beat him badly. Not only that, but after the alleged beating, they threw him in a room at the police station, which Koenig described as a pseudo-locker room with no toilet or running water. Black claimed he only had one carton of milk during three of the five days he was kept in that room, and that he was forced to urinate in a locker. Nickerson told Dzotki that he was put in the very same room.
Police allegedly didn’t let Black’s family know where he was. Instead, they allegedly lied to his fiance and told her he was in a different jail, giving her the runaround. When he was finally released after five days, he was taken to the county jail and held there for a couple more days until his fiance paid his bond. She claimed his head was so swollen it looked like he was wearing a helmet. He had to get his skull drained of excess fluids, Koenig reported, and he suffered brain damage and personality changes from the event, his relatives say.
Black hired a civil rights lawyer and sued East Cleveland and its police, asking for 35 million dollars. The city said that there’s only so much it can afford and offered him $50,000, but Black didn’t accept.
There was dashcam footage of the arrest, which "Serial" explained was edited by police so as to not show the beating. Shockingly, the police chief and the mayor knew about it — and this kind of treatment happens all the time, according to one officer, Det. Randy Hicks. Koenig noted that Hicks claimed that this was the norm for decades and he was only doing what he was trained to do. Eventually, the mayor said he knew there was a gap in the tape but denied the rest, insisting he didn’t know about the bizarre holding cell at the station.
Black was awarded 22 million in damages in 2016, but he hasn’t gotten the sum yet. Because the city’s lawyer filed a notice of appeal with the Supreme Court, it stopped the clock on a trial against police and now the verdict has been overturned.
“If these allegations are true, then the municipality of East Cleveland appears to allegedly be running a de facto criminal operation of allegedly kidnapping and assaulting citizens and then subjecting them to unconstitutional, cruel, and unusual punishment,” Boston-based attorney Peter Elikann told Oxygen.com. “Yet they have allegedly arrogantly informed anyone who questions them about their alleged criminal activity that they are essentially punishment-proof and impervious to consequences such as a lawsuit for police brutality or violation of civil rights since they don’t have any money. It is as if they are saying, ‘We can keep breaking the law and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it, and we will keep doing it because our loophole is that we might be the only municipality that has declared itself judgment-proof if you waste your time suing us.’
He went on to say that if the podcast is accurate, then the police have “set up a bizarrely unique system where they can ceaselessly break the law and thumb their noses at the Constitution and then declare that they have absolute impunity to do so.”
Elikann called the allegations of abuse by police cruel and unusual punishment against defendants and said law enforcement officials outside the local area, such as the Ohio Attorney General’s office or the federal Justice Department, should start to investigate possible criminal charges against a variety of East Cleveland police and other officials.
[Photo: Getty Images]
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