S03 Episode 06: You in the Red Shirt

Life after you put a cop in jail.

Previously on Serial. In your experience as a police officer, can you smell raw marijuana in a bag inside someone's pocket? Yes, I probably put more people on probation than any other judge in this courthouse. Yeah, because I can always put me in prison later.
I don't think he had anything to do with me. I don't want to be a rat rat on your guy. Currently he has. How can you help us do that?
From this American Life and WWC Chicago, it's serial one courthouse told week by week. I'm Sara. I was talking to this guy, Kevin, 40 years old. He'd been busted for giving someone at his college a marijuana cookie. He'd offered it as a nice gesture.
Really? Just pay. Have one. He thought the guy understood what it was. Wink, wink. But he didn't. What went wrong? Kevin ended up with a felony conviction. Well, another felony conviction. The case sounded absurd. There'd been a trial over this cookie. That's funny, right? I went to talk to Kevin the Cookie Baker in the hallway outside the courtroom in the justice center right after the verdict. Not funny. He was in what my mother would call a swivet cracking angry jokes, but also desperately upset, half crying.
Kevin said he'd been a drug dealer when he was young, but he changed. He was in school volunteering in his community, trying to start his own business, doing well. And now this, what Kevin called Filoni is childish stupidness. They got him kicked out of his college.
And it also triggered a probation violation on a case from a few years earlier. Kevin had been just two months shy of completing that probation. He was almost done. And now this. I'm sorry. I said this is a rough day. He said, it's all right. It's all right. It's all right.
I'm starting to get used to it, actually.
He started running by six days. It was a I like was any case I got here, just like a bad relationship. I can't get out of here in this building, man. Yet the justice system. So far in this series, we've talked a lot about the system aspect of the justice system, how the machinery of it works or doesn't.
Now for the rest of the series, we want to look at the criminal justice system a whole other way.
We want to follow people who are like Kevin, people who feel like they have roots in the system, who've been in it for years and who've been shaped by its machinery. Probably nothing we've reported so far would be news to them. They know it. I know it's pretentious to say this, but I keep thinking of this Russian word choose to elides it means to feel something almost sensually to the point where you can taste it. You know it in your bones.
So now we're going to follow people out of the justice center, out into the world, into their normal lives. The guy we're gonna start with, his name is Jesse Nickerson.
Back in the summer of 2016, before we got to Cleveland, there'd been a police scandal with a satisfying twist. If I'm allowed to call it that, two officers had arrested this guy, Jesse Nickerson, and instead of taking him back to the station, they drove to a city park, took off Jesse's handcuffs, and one of the officers got him to name Dixon.
Six foot four former linebacker in the Arena Football League challenged Jesse to a fight. Jesse squared off with detained Dixon for a second, but then he took off, ran into the woods.
The officers eventually found him, cuffed him. Jesse said they beat him. The officers said he hurt himself. The story made the news absolutely sick and absolutely shocked. Sick. That was the mayor talking to a TV reporter.
This all happened in East Cleveland. Not to be confused with the east side of Cleveland is Cleveland is its own small city bordering Cleveland.
Seventeen thousand people. It's got its own city government and its own police department. And it seemed refreshingly as if those entities were taking responsibility for what happened. And swiftly, no excuses. Both officers were fired within days. The police chief referred the case to state investigators. The county prosecutor's office sought criminal indictments. One officer pleaded guilty to a couple of misdemeanors. The other, Denine Dixon, pleaded to a couple of felonies.
We went to Denene Dixon sentencing at the justice center of our criminal justice system.
That's the public sees.
That's the prosecutor, Ashley Kolbeinn. Yeah, we have somebody who's a public official. What a false alarm. He then tries to cover up cover up by turning off the body of a police officer convicted for bad behavior on the job.
Already unusual in this courthouse. And here, Ashley Cobain was arguing forcefully for the harshest possible punishment. She was pitching consecutive sentences, meaning the sentence for each crime would run back to back.
The judge, Nancy first invited Officer Dixon to speak.
Do you have anything to say, sir? And he did. He apologized. He said, I understand. I was put in a position of authority and I was entrusted with the public's trust to make a difference, to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.
And then he said, I had no intention of assaulting anyone.
I no or it's difficult to hear.
But he says it was a tactic I had seen done before. You know, take a guy out of cuffs and get him to stop running his mouth or whatever.
Officer Dixon's lawyer told the court that Dixon had told him the same thing, quote, which is kind of disturbing. Other than that, no one remarks on this kind of disturbing information. Just lets it go. The judge sentenced an aide, Dixon, to two years in prison and it was over.
Victim Jesse Nickerson was not in the courtroom the day of the sentencing, but he'd been in touch with the county prosecutors throughout the case. He told Emanuel that at one point they'd given him some advice that he found kind of disturbing. The prosecutor.
And then they told me, they told me to stay out of East Cleveland.
Jessie said they told him, remember, Deneen Dixon's got friends.
They say, you know the name. They know. You know, they have you know, you have people. The other East Cleveland they like. We want to hear about you, son. Happened to you. That is Cleveland.
Usually these cases of police brutality, the ones we hear about the government response is constipated months, sometimes years of stop start internal investigations, equivocating public officials, officers placed on desk duty. And then it just peters out. And Jesse's case there was none of that. The officers who'd abused him had been fired, convicted and sentenced. Jesse had gotten all the things, the rare things people say they want. In cases like this, Jesse had one. And yet here he was on high alert.
This whole situation with the police, it was not over.
Emmanuel. He lived in Cleveland for most the year we were reporting there. And this is one of the cases he began to look into. Manual interviewed police and prosecutors and he interviewed Jesse Nickerson. And that interview turned into a nearly year long adventure. Is too happy a word misadventure. I guess a year watching Jesse negotiate the afterwards of his case, the push and pull of one man's relationship with the police in his town. Here's Emanuel. Jesse Nickerson told me that he was sort of relieved the officers who taken him to the park that night were black and not white.
He feels like if he'd been white, he probably would have gotten shot. The first time we met, we went over the Forest Hill Park so he could walk me through what had happened. He showed me the spot where the hidden behind the tree, the place where he says the officers choked him until he blacked out.
They beat me right here. And look how far we have, why we make it to the bottom of this big hill.
But he says the officers froom down when Jesse stops and he points at something through the trees.
Here you see the police. Oh, yeah. See the police. Way, way off in the distance.
Just spotted a cop car, a black Ford Explorer with police in block letters down the side. Jesse had been calmly and casually reciting details of this alleged assault. But now he's uncomfortable.
That's the same truck I was in and I think that's the same truck I was in when I did that. How do you know they only got one?
It's been almost a year since the police took him to the park. And in that year, Jesse's had a persistent fear of retaliation because it feels like everybody, especially the cops, know him as the guy who's an officer, Deneen Dixon, to prison right off to receive his police truck. Jesse turns to me and says, I got you as a witness in case anything happens. But then when we make our way to the top of the hill and get to the truck, they just they just eaten lunch into Poland.
Who was that, you know? Yeah.
Yeah. Good officer. Good one from the neighborhood. Go, go. That's the officer that they had on TV. They're doing the Instagram stuff.
He doesn't know this guy's real name. He says everyone calls and knew knew a few months back, knew knew sort of his people famous when he posted videos of himself messing around and singing in his police cruiser.
He tells me you. He's all right. Just relax a little.