Transcript

Episode 07: The Snowball Effect

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Jesse Nickerson

Listen, listen, listen, listen. When I was in the jail, they put me in a holding cell, right? It ain't nothing but lockers.

Ira Glass

Previously on Serial—

David Duncan

Stand up, Jesse. Stand up, Jesse.

Brian Radigan

Deterrence and how to fix communities and all that type of stuff, like, I try not to think of it that way.

Russ Bensing

If they can't prove you're guilty, they'll give you a misdemeanor.

Scott Ramsey

You may get a big judgment. But it's just going to go into this stack over here that aren't getting paid.

Spiros Gonakis

[INAUDIBLE] You say you patted him down. Did you hear anything about a bulge?

I swear, he did not say that he felt a bulge.

Sarah Koenig

From This American Life and WBEZ Chicago, it's Serial, one courthouse told week-by-week. I'm Sarah Koenig.

After the police surprise arrested Jesse Nickerson at the East Cleveland Courthouse, held him in jail for a few days, he set up a call with his lawyer, Scott Ramsey.

Jesse Nickerson

Hello.

Scott Ramsey

Yeah. What's up, Jess?

Jesse Nickerson

Hey, Mr. Ramsey.

Scott Ramsey

How you been, man?

Jesse Nickerson

I'm doing all right. I'm doing serious.

Scott Ramsey

Good. Good. I got—

Sarah Koenig

They talked through the new misdemeanor charges Jesse picked up and also about whether Jesse's feuding with the East Cleveland police might lead to a lawsuit. Scott Ramsey paced around his cluttered office while Jesse filled him in, explaining the arrest at the block party on the Fourth of July, how he felt like the police harassed him unfairly.

Jesse Nickerson

He pulled up and he was like, yeah, you in the red shirt, get the fuck out of my city—

Sarah Koenig

How his shoulder got injured, how they left him at the hospital with five tickets, how when he showed up in court to deal with those tickets, the police arrested him again and, he says, threw him in a locker room with no bathroom for two days.

Jesse Nickerson

I was kicking on the door, banging on the door, asking them, when can I use the bathroom? Can I use the bathroom? Can I use the bathroom?

Sarah Koenig

When Emmanuel and I heard Jesse had been locked in that same room where the East Cleveland police had put Arnold Black with his $22 million verdict, we thought, well, there's Jesse's lawsuit right there, no? How could that not be a giant settlement waiting to happen?

But Scott Ramsey wasn't that interested in the holding cell story. Didn't seem outraged by it. He thought it might be hard to prove. Instead, he wanted to hear more about the other thing on the Fourth of July. From Jesse's description, it did sound like maybe the police had targeted him. Maybe that could lead to a civil action.

Scott Ramsey

OK. Let me ask a couple of questions. The incident on the Fourth, what proof do we have that it happened?

Jesse Nickerson

I have several videos. I have several videos.

Scott Ramsey

OK.

Jesse Nickerson

And they have video.

Scott Ramsey

And then also, you have video from people's cameras and probably some body cams. Is that what you're talking about?

Jesse Nickerson

Yeah. We definitely—we've got camera—

Sarah Koenig

Scott Ramsey tells Jesse to gather video evidence, find witnesses. Seven to ten people would be good, he says, preferably people without criminal records. And then he'll assess the potential for a lawsuit.

Scott Ramsey

We'll get that in a second. Now, on your phone, you have the videos of who?

Sarah Koenig

As time passed, it became obvious Scott Ramsey wasn't going to file a new lawsuit. Jesse didn't produce the evidence Scott Ramsey had asked for. But also, Jesse, as a client, was proving a slippery bet. His legal troubles seem to blossom anew every couple of months, not just in East Cleveland, but in other municipalities.

Jesse told Emmanuel about a case he was especially worried about in Euclid. Said the cops there had pulled him over for no reason. He asked Emmanuel to come to court with him so he could see for himself what Jesse was up against. Emmanuel did. He went with Jesse to a court date in Euclid. Here's Emmanuel.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

I went to Euclid on the day Jesse was supposed to go to trial on eight charges, all for one traffic stop. It had happened a few months back. Jesse's then girlfriend Ashley had just given birth to their second son, and the baby was premature. So they were both spending a lot of time at the hospital for tests and treatment.

One day, Jesse borrowed Ashley's brother's car so he could drive home and get cleaned up. And the Euclid police pulled him over. The stop was about nothing, really—tinted windows, on its own, a misdemeanor ticket. But Jesse didn't have his seat belt on, and he was driving without a license.

On top of that, Ashley's brother's car was like a party crime scene with small amounts of weed, a scale, and two open bottles of Smirnoff Ice. Hence, the eight misdemeanor charges and a case in front of Judge Deborah LeBarron, the same judge, you might remember, from Erimius Spencer's case in episode three. We're going to talk more about Erimius later on this episode. But right now, I want to tell you what happened between Jesse and Judge LeBarron.

Judge Deborah Lebarron

Good morning.

Scott Ramsey

Good morning, your honor.

Judge Deborah Lebarron

Since I'm starting twenty-five minutes late this morning—

Scott Ramsey

Jesse Nickerson.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

The day was a mess from the beginning. Like, for one, Jesse showed up late. By the time he rushed into the courtroom, he was flustered and Judge LeBarron was mad.

Scott Ramsey

Your honor, as you're well aware, this matter was set for a bench trial this morning—

Judge Deborah Lebarron

At nine o'clock. It's 9:25 because the defendant and his attorney weren't even here at nine o'clock. But go ahead.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

To be fair to Judge LeBarron, her irritation had been gathering for months. Jesse had already missed a couple of court dates. To be fair to Jesse though, he'd been dealing with the case against the East Cleveland cops who had taken him to the park.

So this Euclid case had dragged on in large part, because Jesse initially agreed to take a plea, and then, at the last second, insisted on a trial, which delayed things more. That trial was supposed to happen today. And yet, word was, Jesse had changed his mind again. A couple of days ago, a lawyer he hired, a woman named Heather McCollough, had notified the court that, never mind, Jesse does want to take a plea.

Judge Deborah Lebarron

That doesn't happen very often.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

So we're there in court. Judge LeBarron scolds Jesse for being late. And then she turns to Heather McCollough. I hear Mr. Nickerson wants to plead now.

Judge Deborah Lebarron

Is that correct, Ms. McCollough?

Heather Mccollough

Yes, your honor. Sorry about the delay. No excuses.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

And then she turns to Jesse.

Judge Deborah Lebarron

Is that correct, Mr. Nickerson?

Jesse Nickerson

No, ma'am.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

No, ma'am. As in surprise, Jesse doesn't want to take the plea. And then it just spins out of control.

Judge Deborah Lebarron

What do you mean, no ma'am?

Emmanuel Dzotsi

"What do you mean, no ma'am," Judge LeBarron says. "I'm unhappy with my representation," Jesse replies. Then Jesse accuses Heather McCollough of trying to pressure him to take a plea against his wishes. McCollough, who's standing right next to Jesse, is like, hang on a minute. McCollough tells Judge LeBarron, this is the first time she's hearing this. And then McCollough and Jesse start arguing.

Heather Mccollough

I'm unaware. We spoke this morning—

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

Judge Deborah Lebarron

Excuse me. One person talks at a time. It's your lawyer's turn.

Jesse Nickerson

I'm sorry.

Judge Deborah Lebarron

Go ahead, Ms. McCollough.

Heather Mccollough

We spoke on two occasions, yesterday and this morning before we came in here today. He made no indication that he was not comfortable taking this plea. So if he wants to continue on with the trial, he can do so. If he's unhappy with my representation, I will excuse myself. Because I am done. [CHUCKLES] I have done all I can for Mr. Nickerson. And if he wants to keep going on with this and playing games, I can't do it.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Judge LeBarron sides with Heather. She's presided over Jesse's case for seven months and doesn't seem to have a question about whose fault this is. But Judge LeBarron's forced to, once again, set another court date for Jesse. Afterwards, Jesse tells me he'd flip-flopped, because he was afraid that if he took the plea, Judge LeBarron was going to throw him in jail. He tells me now he's got a new plan. Hire Scott Ramsey and win at trial.

About a week later, Jesse's next court date in Euclid, I got to the courtroom a little early to watch some of Judge LeBarron's other cases.

Judge Deborah Lebarron

Good morning.

Man

Good morning.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

I heard from Sarah that Judge LeBarron was tough on weed smokers. I saw what she meant. Three of the cases that morning involved someone who had the same misdemeanor drug charge Jesse did. And Judge LeBarron was hard on all of them.

When a nurse who had fallen asleep in a drive-thru came before her, Judge LeBarron grumbled that someone should contact the state licensing board. She told a high school kid that if she saw him again on a weed charge, she was going to throw him in adult jail—adult jail for pot.

In comes Jesse, looking like he had just rolled out of bed. He couldn't stop yawning. And he kept running his tongue over his teeth like he was trying to get rid of last night's meal. He also reeked of weed. I mean, reeked. Jesse and I took a couple of seats in the courtroom gallery, whispering as we waited for court to start.

Jesse Nickerson

I got to get this shit—I got to get it over with, though. I got other stuff going on. I got to get this shit over with.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Jesse told me his plan for today was to plead guilty. That's right. After pissing off Judge LeBarron by not showing up to court, then agreeing to a plea, then insisting on a trial, then agreeing to a plea again, then insisting on a trial again, Jesse's plan today was to reverse course one more time and accept a plea deal.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

So what's your strategy here? What are you going to say to her?

Jesse Nickerson

I'm just going to tell her the truth. She asked me why I was driving, I'm going to tell her the truth.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Could you pass a drug test today?

Jesse Nickerson

No. I don't—why would I have to?

Emmanuel Dzotsi

I'm just saying there's a scenario right in which she asks how often you take drugs.

Jesse Nickerson

I'm going to tell her.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

You're going to be honest?

Jesse Nickerson

Yeah. I'm going to tell her and I'm going to tell her why.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

I've heard judges ask people this quite a bit, a sort of honesty test for defendants. Could you pass a drug test today? Oh, you could pass? Well, let's do one right now. Oh, no? You couldn't pass? I'm sorry, speak up.

Still, Jesse, who smells like his shadow would fail a drug test, tells me, no, he's going to play it straight, appeal for mercy. He thinks Judge LeBarron will respect that. Flash forward an hour or so—

Judge Deborah Lebarron

And if I drug test you today, you're going to be positive, right?

Jesse Nickerson

No, ma'am.

Judge Deborah Lebarron

Oh, you're not? When's the last time you smoked weed?

Jesse Nickerson

About a month ago, about—

Judge Deborah Lebarron

Excuse me?

Jesse Nickerson

About—I'd say two weeks. Two weeks, three weeks.

Judge Deborah Lebarron

Oh, and you think it's clear from your system?

Jesse Nickerson

I know it's not cleared from my system. At least a couple days.

Judge Deborah Lebarron

Uh-huh.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

I can't pass a drug test, Jesse eventually admits. Not a good look. I need to get back on the right track, he says meekly. Where is Scott Ramsey, Judge LeBarron asks. You told me on Friday you'd have him here. Yeah, he wasn't able to make it, Jesse mumbles.

Judge LeBarron asks Jesse if he has anything to say for himself. Jesse, half apologizing, half pleading, tells Judge LeBarron about that day he was pulled over, about his son being born prematurely, how he was just driving home to change his clothes. Judge LeBarron is not moved.

Judge Deborah Lebarron

So you're driving home with a open container of Smirnoff Ice in the center console?

Jesse Nickerson

Ma'am, I didn't know that was there.

Judge Deborah Lebarron

How did you miss it? You're driving the car.

Jesse Nickerson

I'm saying I thought it was, like, a fruity drink. I didn't exactly know what it is, but I don't drink that. But I did have some marijuana in the car, but I—

Judge Deborah Lebarron

Yeah. And this is how you're going to go see your child?

Jesse Nickerson

I'm saying I was under stress at the time. Because at the time, they were saying that my child—

Judge Deborah Lebarron

Mr. Nickerson, we're all under stress.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Then Judge LeBarron starts talking about Jesse's driver's license suspension.

Judge Deborah Lebarron

And how many open suspensions did you have on that day?

Jesse Nickerson

On that day? Uh—

Judge Deborah Lebarron

I'll help you. Nine.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Nine. A lot of suspensions, I know. Although, people walking around with multiple driver's license suspensions is not at all uncommon in Ohio, which I want to talk about for one quick second here because it's a real trap built into the Ohio criminal court system, one that judges seem to hate and that snags lots of people, especially poor people who live in urban areas.

Here's how it works. I grew up in Ohio. Love Ohio. But it is a terrible place to try to function without being able to drive. Perhaps in part for that very reason, the state has learned that revoking someone's driver's license is a great way to get their attention for any number of things. Lapsed car insurance, open warrants, being late on child support, unexcused absences from school—there are more than forty different ways you can get your license suspended in Ohio.

According to the BMV, the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles, 1.1 million people in Ohio got their license suspended last year. That's a tenth of the state. And on average, the BMV says, people with suspensions don't just have one suspension, they have three on average. Because people keep driving. It can be hard not to. And every time you're caught driving on a suspended license, you get another suspension.

There's an escalating series of penalties, mandatory BMV fees and fines that only a payday loan company would be proud of. Trying to get out from under these suspensions once you've been caught in the trap is a terrible business.

Jesse, he didn't even know how much he owed. I called around to various municipal courts, added up the potential BMV costs. And I'd say Jesse could owe as much as $10,000. He told me he's tried from time to time to tender the fees. Paid one fine here, got on a payment plan there. But at the rate he's going, he'll probably never be able to settle his bill or get a valid driver's license.

OK. Back to court in Euclid. Jesse, stinking of weed, is offering to plead guilty to two out of eight charges. Judge LeBarron accepts Jesse's plea. Then she wonders out loud whether Jesse would be a good candidate for probation instead of a jail sentence. The conclusion Judge LeBarron comes to is no, no, he would not.

Judge Deborah Lebarron

All you're going to do is argue with a probation officer over anything that I may order in this case, kind of like you did with the officers when they placed you under arrest and your conduct at the jail with the corrections officers.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

My conduct at the jail with the corrections officers? Jesse asks. Judge LeBarron refreshes his memory. She takes out a police report from Jesse's arrest, one that I hadn't seen.

Judge Deborah Lebarron

Well, while they were transporting you to the jail, do you remember your lovely comments to the officers?

Jesse Nickerson

What did I say to them, your honor?

Judge Deborah Lebarron

You're racist, you and your partner. That's why they call you pigs. Fuck you, nigga.

Jesse Nickerson

No.

Judge Deborah Lebarron

Fuck you, over and over in the car.

Jesse Nickerson

No. No.

Judge Deborah Lebarron

Then at the jail, you're asking the officers in front of the corrections officers, "what do you want to see them, strip search me, you fucking faggot? Want to see my dick?"

Emmanuel Dzotsi

It's really quite bracing to hear a Midwestern white lady drop the n-word and more in open court, like listening to your fourth grade teacher read a Quentin Tarantino script. But Judge LeBarron is not shy. And Jesse, from what I can tell, is embarrassed.

He looks resigned and small as Judge LeBarron sentences him. A hundred dollars in fines, forty hours of community service. And those nine suspensions? Well, congratulations, Judge LeBarron says. You've just bought suspension number ten from the State of Ohio. She sentences Jesse to five days in jail. Jesse tilts his head back, closes his eyes as a bailiff places him in handcuffs and leads him away.

Sarah Koenig

I want to tell you what ended up happening with Erimius Spencer, the guy with the blunt who got arrested in the hallway of his own apartment building and put in the hospital by two police officers. Because Erimius and Jesse, obviously, their experiences with the police, at the hands of police, are very different, and they're very different people. But in certain ways, their cases echo each other, the aftershocks especially.

If you remember, Erimius was trying to get rid of his criminal charges so that he could file a civil lawsuit. The resisting arrest was the sticking point. He wasn't going to plead to it. The city wasn't going to drop it. They were at a standoff.

A trial date was set. And then that video came out, the one that Erimius's lawyer called a miracle, manna from heaven, only legally speaking, of course. In every other way, the video was horrible.

It showed a white Euclid police officer, Michael Amiott, the same one from Erimius's case, beating the crap out of a young black guy during a traffic stop, seemingly without provocation. The guy in the video—actually videos, there are several—was named Richard Hubbard III. You could see Hubbard splayed out on the asphalt, Officer Amiott on top of him, punching him in the face with both arms. Right, left, right, left.

You see Hubbard's girlfriend on her hands and knees, slapping the ground just a few feet away from them, screaming for it to stop. Pretty soon the story was in The Washington Post, the New York Post, the LA Times, CNN.

Erimius Spencer

They did the same thing to me. I mean, it seems like they're going from one to another.

Sarah Koenig

When Erimius watched it, he recognized with bitterness the beating in that video, the series of moves the officers make, the way Officer Amiott straightaway tries to kick Richard Hubbard in the crotch.

Erimius Spencer

I don't know. Maybe that's a new procedure in Euclid. Maybe they get to throw you to the ground and knee you and kick you in the face and tase you. I don't know. Maybe that's the new procedure in Euclid. I don't know.

Sarah Koenig

Erimius's civil attorney, Paul Cristallo, figured the Hubbard video would persuade the city of Euclid to drop the resisting. Maybe drop everything. Because how are you going to put an officer on the stand who's been suspended for excessive force, who, it turned out, had had to resign from his previous job at the Mentor Police Department for lying about a traffic stop? Even wearing a crisp uniform, Officer Amiott probably would look like a bad egg if he testified.

A few weeks went by. Euclid did not drop the whole thing. September 7, 2017, Erimius had his final pretrial date in Euclid. It was a Thursday. The trial was scheduled for Monday, four days from now. Spiros Gonakis, Erimius's criminal attorney, was running around the courthouse, haggling over the most recent plea offer.

Erimius arrived with his mother, Callie. They were a little tense, understandably. They weren't sure what was about to happen. They'd been fighting these charges for a long time—nine months. And that was all very real, the prospect that if they couldn't work something out today, and Erimius ended up at trial and was convicted at trial, he could get jail time. Spiros walks over, motions that he wants to speak to Erimius and Callie.

Sarah Koenig

Can I come for now?

Spiros Gonakis

No, not yet.

Sarah Koenig

OK.

They step outside the building. I can see them through the plate glass windows, Spiros gesticulating, Erimius and Callie listening, nodding. More gesticulating, more nodding. They come back in.

Spiros Gonakis

Is the judge ready to go?

Man

Yes.

Spiros Gonakis

OK. Gotcha.

Sarah Koenig

We all go into the courtroom.

Spiros Gonakis

Good afternoon, your honor.

Good afternoon, your honor.

Sarah Koenig

At the prosecutor's table was a guest prosecutor, a woman named Sara Fagnilli from a fancy Cleveland law firm. After the scandal with Officer Amiott, Euclid had hired her to deal with Erimius's case. You already know the judge—Deborah LeBarron.

Judge Deborah Lebarron

OK. My understanding is a plea agreement has been reached. Is that correct?

That is correct, your honor.

Judge Deborah Lebarron

And the plea is?

Your honor, Sara Fagnilli on behalf of the city of Euclid. At this time, it's my understanding that Mr. Spencer will withdraw his previous entered pleas of not guilty and provide a plea of guilty to the drug abuse charge for the balances of the charges to be merged and dismissed at his cost.

Sarah Koenig

After all the struggle over these four charges and the civil rights secrets they contained, we'd landed here. No resisting, not even a last ditch disorderly conduct. Just the weed.

Judge Deborah Lebarron

So you're dismissing counts B, C, and D, the theft, the resisting arrest, and the criminal damaging? Is that correct?

That is correct.

Sarah Koenig

Judge LeBarron checks with Erimius. Is that correct? Yes, your honor. She asks him if he's using marijuana. He says no, that he stopped after the incident. He tells her he's trying to get a job. Erimius's mother, Callie, is moving around in her seat in the gallery.

Judge Deborah Lebarron

Ma'am, you seem like you want to say something to me. Do you?

Callie

I do.

Sarah Koenig

Just a few minutes ago out in the lobby before court started, Callie and I had been talking. She's got four grown sons. They're a close family. She's been right there with Erimius every step of this case. She told me, the police don't realize. One day, this could happen to one of their children. Someway, somehow, she said the excessive force, it has to stop.

Callie

That's it. I could care less about anything else. That's my main goal, just to stop it. I'm not trying to throw no race card, this and that and the other. I just want it to be fixed. Because—I'm not saying police are bad. But if the system don't fix the ones that's bad, then that means the whole system is corrupt. But you want us as a society to fix what's going on in our home, but you don't want to fix what's going on in your home. OK. Well, I mean, enough is enough.

Sarah Koenig

She talked about the beating her son took, what it was like for her to see him in a hospital bed, his face disfigured, how she felt blessed she hadn't been called to come view her son's body that day. Now, Callie was about to address the judge for the first time. And I thought, here it comes.

Callie

Even though it was a bad incident that happened, I'm glad because I've been trying to get my son off of marijuana for years. He's been clean ever since December. I couldn't ask for—a better payment for me is to see my son back like he was before. So seeing him off of marijuana and everything else is a blessing. So for that, I'm thankful.

Judge Deborah Lebarron

And I appreciate your comments, ma'am. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes something bad to happen for something good to come out of it.

Callie

I'm a mother.

Judge Deborah Lebarron

I'm one, too.

Callie

So you know what we're talking about.

Judge Deborah Lebarron

I know what you're talking about. Well, I see, Mr. Spencer, you have great support in your mother. And you're very lucky to have that.

Erimius Spencer

Yes.

Judge Deborah Lebarron

On the drug abuse charge, I found you guilty. It'll be $150 in costs.

Sarah Koenig

Spiros had said it, too. This incident, he told the judge, has helped Erimius. He's been clean, off marijuana, straightened out. He's just happy to put this matter behind him. The elephant in the room—the kicking, the tasing, the two hospitals, the broken orbital bone, all of it had suddenly shrunk to the size of a bulge—a blood-sized bulge, as if this whole ugly endeavor was only about getting Erimius off of weed.

Erimius knew the truth of it, of course. Later, outside the courthouse, he'd give me a wry smile and say, I'll take what I can get. But in this moment, Callie was flooded with maternal relief. She walked over to Sara Fagnilli, the visiting prosecutor, and gave her a hug.

Good for him.

Callie

He's changed his life, and I'm glad.

Good. That's a good thing.

Callie

Thank you.

Sarah Koenig

That hug, not the end of the story. More after the break.

When Paul had first taken me to meet Erimius back at the end of 2016, as we were driving home, he'd impressed on me how enduring the consequences of a beating can be. Paul's talked to a lot of people who have been hurt by police officers or corrections officers. And he said, it's not something that's over, even when it's over.

Paul Cristallo

When you are seriously injured by the police, when you're sent to the hospital, and it isn't just soft tissue, some bullshit, it really does affect them. This will mess with him. If you stick with this story and we follow him, you'll see.

Sarah Koenig

I understood the broad strokes of what Paul was saying, that there'd be some kind of fallout over time—psychological fallout. But I wasn't sure what that was going to look like.

A few weeks after Erimius's criminal case ended, Paul told me about a confusing conversation he'd had with Erimius, during which Erimius was repeating certain things about what had happened in his hallway as if it were looping in his head. I called Callie to ask whether she'd noticed the same thing.

Callie

Over and over and over and over.

Sarah Koenig

Wow.

Callie

Yep. As if it happened yesterday.

Sarah Koenig

And are you—how worried are you about him—

Callie

Very.

Sarah Koenig

Oh, really?

Callie

Very. As a mother, yes.

Sarah Koenig

Oh.

Callie

It's not easy watching your child go through this and you really have no way to help him. I don't know. For me, it's like his trust level is not there no more.

Sarah Koenig

Anytime something comes up in the news, she said, or maybe they're watching a movie together, which used to be a joy for her. But now, if something comes up related to police violence or government corruption, she's worried about Erimius's reaction.

Callie

First thing he'll say is, see, I told you. You can't trust nobody. And it's like he gets automatically angry. And he gets to talking. His voice gets loud. You can feel a sense of rage in his tone now. His body language is totally different.

Sarah Koenig

What's your fear for him if he's got that rage and anger?

Callie

He's gotten to the point now where he's not really afraid of the streets. And I am.

Sarah Koenig

Erimius is hurting, she said. And the shape of that hurt seems to be a need to prove to everyone around him that he's not a punk, that he's tough. So Callie's biggest fear now is that he'll take that hurt and that need out into the streets and deploy them where they don't belong.

Callie says none of her sons had been in the streets growing up, so this is new for her—for them. She never thought this kind of thing would happen to her family. But she said, suddenly, you are that family that it's happening to.

Officer Michael Amiott, the cop in Erimius's case, was fired from the Euclid Police Department. More use of force incidents had come to light, including a dreadful thing in the Euclid Public Library. Body cam video showed him taking a 16-year-old girl wearing a backpack to the ground face first while she was in handcuffs, kept her down with his knee. A small child was watching, shrieking.

Amiott stayed fired for about a year, but he'd appealed his termination. And just recently, an arbitrator sided with him. Officer Amiott should be back on the Euclid police force any day.

Paul Cristallo did end up filing a lawsuit on behalf of Erimius against the city of Euclid, the police officers, and Erimius's apartment building. Sara Fagnilli, the guest prosecutor whom Callie hugged, defended the city of Euclid. This past summer, they settled. Neither the city nor the officers admitted liability. Erimius got $50,000. It wasn't as much as Paul had hoped, but he felt like it was the best they were going to do.

Things with Erimius had become rocky. He'd picked up a few new charges—marijuana, but also domestic violence. They were all misdemeanors, but still.

I don't want to make excuses for whatever Erimius might have done. And to be clear, neither did Paul. But I did ask Paul whether he thought there was a connection between then and now. Was this what he was talking about back in December of 2016 when he told me this will mess with him, if you stick with this story and we follow him, you'll see? Paul said, I don't know. I really don't know.

In a civil trial, assuming you win, the jury has to figure out damages. That's the final stage of reckoning. A cause leads to an effect, leads to compensation for the damage done you. Financially, physically, it's a fairly rational calculus. But how do you quantify the intangible damage a cop does to your sense of the world, to your sense of yourself when he kicks your ass? And then what if it's not one cause that's led to the damage? What if there are many causes, many effects?

I tried to call and message Erimius. Finally, I got word through Paul. Erimius didn't plan on calling me back. He said he didn't have any interest in that right now.

Jesse Nickerson, though, different story. Jesse had a lot to say to Emmanuel about causes and effects. I'm going to hand you back to Emmanuel now.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

For months, Jesse continued to rack up all kinds of tickets and charges, including a charge for menacing an East Cleveland police officer at a gas station. When I first heard about this thing, honestly, I thought, oh, it's just more of the same. The police have a hair trigger for Jesse. They were probably harassing him, and he gave it back. Small thing took on a life of its own, which is how Jesse initially described it.

He said, yeah, he confronted a cop, but it was nothing really, pretty tame. So when I got the video of what had happened, it really threw me. It was not tame. The video is from a body cam that David Duncan, an East Cleveland police officer, was wearing. In it, you can see that Duncan's standing inside a gas station convenience store right by the entrance.

Then Jesse enters the frame, coming from the back of the shop, carrying a drink. Jesse skips everyone in line at the register, puts some money down on the counter. And as he walks past Duncan towards the door, starts cussing him out.

Jesse Nickerson

[INAUDIBLE] nigga. Faggot-ass bitch. You a fag, nigga.

David Duncan

I'm sorry. You got it. Whatever you want.

Jesse Nickerson

[INAUDIBLE]

David Duncan

I ain't did nothing to you, brother. You can have it, brother.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Jesse leaves the store, but then comes back in. He walks towards Duncan and then backs up, opening the door as if to leave again and again, as Duncan tells Jesse he never did anything to him. Jesse's trying to start something with Duncan. Duncan's really not going for it, but Jesse's relentless. You only do stuff to people in cuffs, Jesse says. You're a coward.

Jesse Nickerson

[INAUDIBLE]

David Duncan

I never did nothing to you. Did nothing to you.

Jesse Nickerson

You's a coward, bitch.

David Duncan

Did nothing to you.

Jesse Nickerson

You's a coward-ass bitch.

David Duncan

Did nothing to you.

Jesse Nickerson

Bitch-ass nigga.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Jesse motions toward the parking lot.

Jesse Nickerson

Take off that shit and let's step outside this building. Let's catch that [INAUDIBLE].

David Duncan

I never did nothing to you.

Jesse Nickerson

You a faggot, man. You don't want to do that because I will embarrass—

David Duncan

I never did nothing to you.

Jesse Nickerson

You's a bitch, nigga.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

I found this video shocking. Jesse's so aggressive. I didn't understand it, didn't understand what Jesse thought he was doing, or what in the world he could possibly get from going after a cop this way—other than more trouble. A few hours after I got the video, I met up with Jesse to talk about it.

[JESSE COUGHING]

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Picture of health over here. You all right?

Jesse Nickerson

Yeah. I—

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Jesse had been smoking weed in this car in the parking lot at a train and bus station called Windemere, right in the middle of East Cleveland. A lot of people seem to come and hang out here.

David Duncan

I never did nothing to you. Did nothing to you. Nothing to you.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Jesse and I sat in his car and watched the video. We got to the part where Jesse seems to be challenging Duncan to fight. I paused it.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

So what are you asking him to do there?

Jesse Nickerson

I'm telling him to address the issue. I'm saying I'm fed up basically. I'm fed up with you people putting your hands on me. That's all I'm saying. Be a man then. Come on. I'm not saying I'm going to beat your ass right now. I'm just saying—

Emmanuel Dzotsi

You are saying, like, step outside—

Jesse Nickerson

I'll repeat it. I'm telling him to take off his shit and—

Emmanuel Dzotsi

What do you mean take off his shit?

Jesse Nickerson

Take off his armor, his badge, and all of that, and be a man.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

What does that mean, be a man?

Jesse Nickerson

I'm saying because obviously, every time they done ran into me, they done beat me up while I had handcuffs on.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

I guess it's confusing to me because on the one hand, you've said, I don't want any business with these police. I'm going about my business. I'm not doing anything illegal, and they're harassing me.

Jesse Nickerson

It happened—

Emmanuel Dzotsi

But it seems like you're harassing this officer right now. Like, you're starting this.

Jesse Nickerson

Yes, I did.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Jesse reminded me that David Duncan wasn't some random East Cleveland police officer. Duncan was the officer who darted free of a crowd of people on the Fourth of July, left everyone else alone, and grabbed Jesse. It was Duncan who dragged Jesse to the car. It was Duncan on the body cam from that night, who stood over Jesse, insisting that Jesse had hurt himself as Jesse lay there, shouting in pain.

David Duncan

You did it to yourself, Jesse. You fell. We watched you fall on your own. We watched you fall on your own, Jesse. We watched you.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Jesse also told me he knew Duncan even before that. Remember Officer Nevels, the cop who gave Jesse's phone number to Denayne Dixon, the one who circled me and Jesse in the park? Jesse had gone to the police department to complain about Nevels. And when he did, it was Officer Duncan, Jesse said, he had talked to. Jesse said Duncan asked him who he wanted to complain about. And when Jesse told him Nevels, Jesse said Duncan told him, man, get the fuck out of here.

I tried to talk to Duncan to ask about his various interactions with Jesse, but the police department refused to make him available.

Jesse told me as a rule, he's never backed down from a fight, except with the police. Sure, he shot his mouth off at them, but he never fought back physically, not in the park with Denayne Dixon, not on the Fourth of July, not when he says they threw him in the holding cell. Jesse felt like the police were bullying him and he was just taking it. And that had been bothering him more and more.

Another time we were hanging out at Windemere, Jesse told me he had been having dreams about being back in the park with Denayne and the other cop, reliving the moment Denayne had challenged him to a fight. It sounded like these dreams were one part flashback, one part fantasy about how things might have gone differently.

Jesse Nickerson

The situation probably would have worked out for the best or the worst if I would have defended myself. I tried to run from the situation. Then they chased me and beat me down. So I'm thinking if I would have handled my business right then and there—because I'm a man and I know—

Emmanuel Dzotsi

You think that if you defended yourself, it would've gone better for you?

Jesse Nickerson

If I would have defended myself, it would have been better. Because I know for me, my physical well-being, I can handle him. Like, I could have handled both of them officers.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

I doubted that. Denayne was a six foot four ex-arena football linebacker.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

I don't know. I just feel like two against one in that situation—I'm not trying to—that would not have turned out well for you.

Jesse Nickerson

No, I'm not saying I would have—I'm saying, listen—I hate that I couldn't defend myself. You hear me, yo? I hate that I couldn't defend myself. When I just ran, that mean I damn near surrendered to them. I damn near surrendered to them.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

I knew Jesse felt ashamed about that night in the park. I'd always thought that was because it's inherently humiliating to be physically overpowered. But talking with Jesse, I realized I didn't have that quite right. Really, the thing Jesse feels ashamed about is that he ran away.

Jesse Nickerson

—punch you in your face.

David Duncan

Jesse Nickerson?

Jesse Nickerson

Yeah.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

The more I watched the video in the gas station, the more Jesse's confrontation with Officer Duncan looked different. Jesse was asking Duncan to fight him like a man now that Jesse wasn't in cuffs. What you're going to hear is, fight me like you're a man, but also for Duncan to fight Jesse like Jesse's a man, too.

Jesse Nickerson

Hey, listen. [INAUDIBLE] like the rest of the little niggas.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

In the video, after what feels like an eternity of yelling at Duncan, Jesse finally gives up, leaves. The other people in the store start talking. A lot of, my, oh, mys. One guy in the store daps Duncan up, congratulates Duncan on keeping his cool. At one point, a woman says to Duncan about Jesse, that is so sad.

Once I saw the video of Jesse yelling at Duncan, I wanted to get my hands on as much information about Jesse's interactions with the police as possible. So the same day I went from Jesse's car to the East Cleveland Police Station to see if I could pick up some more police reports from Jesse's arrest on the Fourth of July. At the station, there was a man at the vestibule window I'd never met before, Sergeant Jeff Williams.

Sergeant Williams is an older white guy, well-built, weathered, bald with a salt-and-pepper goatee. I told him I wanted a police report. He got up, ambled over to a computer, and asked who it was for. Jesse Nickerson, I said. I want to see the reports for the Fourth of July. Sergeant Williams nodded, printed off the reports. As he walked to the window, Williams scanned the pages, laughing a little as he read what Jesse had said to the officers that night.

But then when he got to the window, Sergeant Williams's eyes suddenly welled up with tears. He told me that Jesse never would have talked to him that way. I've been trying for months to get anyone from the East Cleveland Police Department to talk to me about Jesse, and they had just been impossible. Sergeant Williams didn't say much else, but he motioned me over to a door and buzzed me into the back.

We went to an office where Williams offered me a seat at a desk. He told me he didn't want to be recorded, but he said, let me tell you why Jesse is the way he is. Sergeant Williams told me he'd been acquainted with Jesse's family for twenty years. The Nickersons were notorious in East Cleveland, and Jesse's older brothers were constantly getting in trouble.

But Sergeant Williams said Jesse was a really sweet kid, super bright. The kind of kid you want to save from the world around him. Sergeant Williams smiled when he talked about it. Then he paused. Said Jesse stopped being that bright, young kid after Ricky died. Jesse told me about Ricky, his older brother, and how Ricky was murdered in 1998 when Jesse was ten years old.

We were sitting in his living room, and Jesse built a makeshift diorama on the coffee table in front of him, using a cigarette lighter and a bottle of vodka. Jesse moved them around as he told the story about one night, Ricky had been with three friends, hanging out in a parking lot, smoking weed laced with PCP. Then one of Ricky's friends had a psychotic episode and shot Ricky in the head. The other guys ran, but the friend with the gun hunted them down one by one and killed them.

According to Jesse, all of this happened with a police officer just one street away, an officer who no doubt heard the gunfire, but didn't respond until after the shooting stopped. The police could have saved one person that night, Jesse said. But the officer didn't do nothing, sat over there, and three people died.

Sergeant Williams told me that after that night, Jesse wasn't the same. Within a couple of years, he started getting in trouble. He said Jesse's whole family seemed to reel from Ricky's death. For years afterwards, Sergeant Williams said, he would constantly be picking up one of Jesse's other brothers for small crimes, mostly drug related.

One night, Williams responded to a disturbance. And when he got there, he saw Jesse's brother was involved. Jesse's brother was so high and out of it, Sergeant Williams decided to just take him home instead of taking him to the station. As they drove, Jesse's brother told Sergeant Williams, you don't know death. Sergeant Williams admitted he didn't know death. The only people he'd ever lost were his grandparents. He dropped Jesse's brother off.

When Sergeant Williams came home that morning, he arrived to find his own fourteen-year-old son Kyle had died. He'd been huffing a bottle of Dust-Off computer cleaner and gone into cardiac arrest. Sergeant Williams said the death tore his family apart. He blamed himself for not knowing how dangerous huffing was. His daughter blamed herself because she'd seen Kyle sneak off with a bottle of Dust-Off and hadn't said anything. Sergeant Williams said she never recovered.

Sergeant Williams told me he's watched Jesse get in trouble and to him, it's always looked like suffering. And the only reward Jesse's ever gotten for his suffering, it seemed to Sergeant Williams, was to be beaten up by two cops and sent away with a little bit of money. He said these days, whenever he hears Jesse's name, he braces himself for the news that Jesse's dead. He told me that if I was going to do a story about Jesse Nickerson, I should talk to Jesse more about Ricky. So I did—three weeks later.

Jesse and I met in his apartment. Jesse was not in the greatest of moods. Our interview had spilled into a Thursday night, and he could hear his friends drinking outside. I brought up Sergeant Williams.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

I ran into him not too long ago, and he said some really nice things about you.

I started to tell him what Sergeant Williams had said, about what a sweet, bright kid Jesse was, about Ricky's murder. But Jesse said it wasn't like that.

Jesse Nickerson

Ain't no officer never did shit for me in East Cleveland. They never gave me an extra damn apple or nothing. So that's a lie. That's a lie.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

OK. He didn't even say that he'd really done—I didn't even say that he—

Jesse Nickerson

I'm just saying there's no officer that never been nice to me. So, no.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Jesse was adamant, more adamant than I'd ever heard him be. He denied that Sergeant Williams knew anything about him.

Jesse Nickerson

This is how blind and foolish he was. He's not speaking on me. He's not speaking on me. He's speaking on my brother William. I'm twenty-nine. I'm twenty-nine. My brother got killed twenty years ago. I wasn't out here in the streets. He wouldn't know me back then. That's a lie.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

But he said you were a small kid and that you were—he knew you as a small kid.

Jesse Nickerson

I wasn't out here in the streets. I wasn't out here.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

I'm trying to—

Jesse Nickerson

I'm saying, actually do the math. Man, listen. I'm not interacting with an officer. I'm in school and stuff. I'm a child. I'm not in it at all. What is you—you're not seeing me.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Jesse says Sergeant Williams must be confusing him for his brother William. I've met Jesse's brother, William. He and Jesse do look a little alike. But in any case, the thing Jesse most strongly rejected was that Ricky's death had changed the course of Jesse's life in the way Sergeant Williams was saying.

Jesse Nickerson

His brother got killed, and I seen the trouble. Listen, little kid ain't going to cry and all that. What, you've seen me cry? If you've seen me cry or something, that's what I was supposed to do. I went through the things I was going through when I was younger because I was young and dumb. I was young and dumb.

I seen everybody out here with all the flashy stuff and all that. I wanted the same stuff. Caught a case when I was eighteen. Got out when I was twenty-two and ain't ever been back. So it's cool. I'm not angry at the officer. He just got to speak facts, man. Life is about facts. But they want to single out something, like why I am a troubled human being, like why I'm a troubled person.

This is just a person spectating somebody else's life. You know what I mean? That's it. All he trying to do is be like, listen, this is why Nickerson is the way he is, or this is why he done went through the trials and tribulations he done went through. That's not the case, man. That's not the case.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Jesse went on angrily for the next ten minutes about Sergeant Williams's theory. I think his reaction was so intense because he's been through so much more than Ricky's death. His sister Denise, who Jesse was close to, went missing for over a week when Jesse was a teenager. Then she was found dead in her apartment. His brother Antwon died as an infant. His teenaged nephew DeAndre died in a drive-by. Then there are all the wrongs Jesse believes the police have done him.

I think when Sergeant Williams pins so much meaning on Ricky and how Ricky's death affected Jesse, Jesse found it offensive, generalizing. Jesse wasn't in the mood to hear the sergeant's theories. He was too angry for that. And he wasn't interested in being explained, especially by, of all people, a police officer.

Jesse Nickerson

I'm very serious from now on. I'm tired of being treated like—I'm tired of being a victim. So no more Jesse Nickerson is being a victim. I'm not letting—

Emmanuel Dzotsi

What does that mean?

Jesse Nickerson

Whatever it means. I'm saying I just want the world to know, shit, I'm not about to keep being a victim. If them motherfuckers had come up on me and put their hands on me for no reason, I'm not going to let it happen. I'm not just about to—as you can see, all these other times, I never did nothing back. I've just been the victim. I'm not about to keep being a victim, man.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

I had to press him to get him to lay it out explicitly. But Jesse was saying that the next time the police got physical with him, his plan was to fight back, which seemed worrisome for everyone, especially worrisome because in the months after that, the police in East Cleveland appeared to be driving down Jesse's street a lot, writing Jesse ticket after ticket for the usual—driving under suspension and weed possession.

One East Cleveland cop later told me the attitude of the folks in charge was that while officers shouldn't go out of their way to write Jesse up, they should quote, "handle Jesse" whenever the opportunity presented itself. Eventually, the East Cleveland cop told me, the snowball effect will, you know, take effect.

The last thing I'm going to tell you is how Jesse's pile-up of criminal charges in East Cleveland shook out. Jesse beat one charge at trial, but the bulk of them dragged on for months—months and months—until one court date in January when East Cleveland essentially held out one hand to make a deal and with the other, it took a swing.

The city dropped all five charges from Jesse's Fourth of July arrest. They didn't have body cam video that backed up the claim that Jesse was the aggressor, that he'd spat on an officer. In return, Jesse pleaded to three misdemeanor charges, including the menacing charge against Officer Duncan at the gas station. And on those charges, the city went after him, asking for a year in jail.

During his sentencing, the city prosecutor listed some of Jesse's old felony convictions, noting Jesse's long rap sheet in East Cleveland, some twenty-two cases in all. She played body cam video from one of Jesse's previous arrests, where, true to form, Jesse was mouthing off to the police officer. What she didn't know was that that same arrest was suspect. Jesse later beat that case at trial.

Anyway, in a brief filed with the court, the city argued that Jesse posed a danger to the police, and on top of that, was a, quote, "extremely negatively perverse" influence on the city of East Cleveland.

The Judge, William Dawson, didn't seem moved by the city's pitch. Instead, he did something I did not see coming. He pretty much acknowledged that the city had a point. But also, he diplomatically told everyone that he thought Jesse had a point, too, that the city and the police had it out for him. Dawson said, in not so many words, that's probably true.

Judge William Dawson

Obviously, I wasn't there. I don't know what occurred. But it seems like you prevailed. There was a settlement. So obviously, something happened. And that could be the reason you have a problem with the police. I cannot discount that.

And at the same time, that may be a reason why they have a problem with you. It's like, OK, we think that he prevailed and he shouldn't have prevailed, so, yeah, every time his blinker's not working, we're going to pull him over. Let's just call it as blank as possible. They don't like you maybe, and you may not like them. So now how do we deal with the encounters so that you don't end up in court? That's the key.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Judge Dawson decided some kind of solution other than jail time was in order. And with that, he sentenced Jesse to six months of probation and enrolled him in a program designed to teach people how to have better experiences with the criminal justice system. His hope, he later told me, was that Jesse would learn how to behave better around police, to calm himself so that these interactions would be less heated. I thought it was almost kind, though it also seemed like the judge was hoping Jesse would change because he knew the East Cleveland police weren't going to.

Sarah Koenig

Just before Jesse's thirtieth birthday, he was talking to Emmanuel on the phone. Jesse was full of resolve. He was wasting too much energy on the courts, he said. He was ready to do something meaningful, maybe write a book about his life. He wanted to write the end of his story now, he said, so that it would be a good ending.

If you slot Jesse into a data set—no one's favorite place to hang out. Sorry, Jesse. But if you consider him not as a trash talker with a rap sheet, but as a thirty-year-old man going about his business, odds are the criminal justice system is pretty much done with Jesse. Because people in their thirties and older, they're not the ones committing the most and the worst crimes. As one research paper I read gently put it, crime tends to be a young person's activity.

To see the people the system is really focused on, we need to just lean to the left a little bit and look behind Jesse, at the teenagers. That's next time on Serial, which will be in two weeks. I've got to go out of town. But then we'll be back with our final episodes.

Serial is produced by Julie Snyder, Emmanuel Dzosi, Ben Calhoun, and me, with additional reporting by Ida Lieszkovszky and Afi Scruggs. Editing on this episode from Ira Glass. Whitney Dangerfield is our digital editor. Research and fact-checking by Ben Phelan. Sound design and mix by Stowe Nelson. Music clearance by Anthony Roman. Seth Lind is our director of operations.

The Serial staff includes Emily Condon, Julie Whitaker, Cassie Howley, Frances Swanson, and Matt Tierney. Our music is by Adam Dorn and Hal Willner, with music from Matt McGinley and Wes Schwartz. Our theme song is by Nick Thorburn and remixed by Adam Dorn.

Special thanks to Derek Jackson, Mariah Crenshaw, Nick Castele, Judge Michael Donnelly, Judge John O'Donnell, David Isenberg, and Lindsey Bohrer, Greg Edwards, and Marsha Fisher from the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles, Abigail McNeal, Amanda Bates, Linda Hricko, and Jack Greene.

The art on our website was made by Martinez E-B. He created the mural for this episode. And Moth Studio did the animation.

Please check it out on our website serialpodcast.org. That's serialpodcast.org, where you can also sign up for our email newsletter and be notified when new episodes are released. Serial is a production of This American Life and WBEZ Chicago.

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