The Awakening

Serial made Robert DiCello famous, but it was his case against East Cleveland that made history

Published in 2020 Ohio Super Lawyers Magazine

When Robert DiCello’s assistant told him a man on the phone wanted to talk to him about a podcast, DiCello brushed it off. He was busy. What did he want, anyway? 

“It’s about the Arnold Black case,” his assistant said.

“Tell him I’m not interested.” 

The calls kept coming. 

“Finally, I take the call to tell this guy, Emmanuel, I’m not into it, and he’s like, ‘This is for Serial. We’re investigating the Cuyahoga County court system.’ I’m like, ‘That’s nice, but I don’t even know what Serial is,’” DiCello says. “He keeps saying it—’But this is for Serial.’ He seemed like a good guy, so I thought, OK. I’ll humor him. Next call I take, it’s PBS. Then I realize this is not some college kid with a microphone.”

It was not. Serial, which put podcasts on the map in 2014 with its longform investigation into the 1999 murder of Baltimore high schooler Hae Min Lee (and changed the trajectory of defendant Adnan Syed’s case, although his 2000 conviction was later reinstated), won a Peabody Award, and episodes have been downloaded more than 340 million times. Serial listeners discussed Syed’s case with the same breathless fervor they reserved for HBO’s Game of Thrones. DiCello laughs. “Listen, if it’s not my family, my practice or the gym, I don’t know about it,” he says. “I do now. I’ve heard from people I haven’t spoken to in 30 years.”

Serial’s third season explores how the criminal justice system works in and around Cleveland. Episode 6 focuses on East Cleveland. Why? Journalist Emmanuel Dzotsi put it this way in the podcast: 

“When I first started reporting about the East Cleveland Police Department, I couldn’t get any official information about property crimes or violent crimes, basic stuff. I couldn’t get the homicide solve rate or even the number of homicides. … The city’s law director told me flat out that the city simply, quote, ‘does not compile crime statistics.’ … East Cleveland got to this point partly because of decades of mismanagement and corruption, but also largely because of straight up structural racism. East Cleveland is a black city. It’s been a victim of blockbusting, white flight, job loss, and a collapsing tax base.”

DiCello says, “People wonder why I would take case against a city that’s under a financial emergency. Why? Because it’s not about the damn judgment, it’s about the results of the judgment. It’s not about the coins, it’s about the Constitution. And we have to take a stand. And if we don’t, what do we become as lawyers?”

On April 28, 2012, DiCello’s client, Arnold Black, was driving his green pickup truck after a landscaping gig when he was pulled over by Detective Randy Hicks and Officer Jonathan O’Leary. Hicks started questioning Black about drugs, and Black said he didn’t know anything. DiCello says it turned out Hicks was looking for a green pickup he had stopped earlier for drugs but got the wrong guy. Hicks kept asking Black about drugs, then beat him.

The police took Black in—“with zero cause,” DiCello says—and kept him for four days in a storage area, so his injuries wouldn’t be revealed, without food, bathroom or medical treatment. “After that, there was a progressive degeneration of his mental abilities,” DiCello says. “He started to have cognitive problems of all kinds, and later had brain surgery.”

Before the 2016 trial, DiCello found out there was dashcam footage that had been destroyed, and that the police knew about it. DiCello says it was part of a culture of police violence. All this came from an unlikely source—Hicks, the only person from the other side who showed up for the trial.

“I’ve never handled as many explosive allegations in one case,” DiCello says. “On the day of trial, we were all surprised that counsel for the city didn’t show up, the mayor didn’t show up. We were wondering what they were up to. We didn’t know until after the trial finished—and $22 million had been awarded to my client—that on that first morning of trial, they had run quite literally to the Supreme Court of Ohio and filed a notice of appeal, which stripped the court of jurisdiction. The trial judge realizes he conducted a trial over five days that didn’t matter. We got sandbagged.”

In August 2019, a new trial began.  

“When the case came back, [the city] was of course sanctioned for failing to participate in discovery,” DiCello says. “They destroyed every piece of evidence that they could possibly have associated with this case.”

Instead of telling the story of his client’s broken body, DiCello went another route. “This was a story of a broken spirit: of a man, Arnold Black, and of a city that was down on its knees from a history of extreme violence,” he says.

When the jury deliberated for only an hour, “I almost threw up my lunch,” he says.

But it came back with $50 million in compensatory and punitive awards, apparently Ohio’s largest-ever civil rights award. “I thought, ‘Oh, my god, we’ve got everything,’” he says. “But I’m more proud to say that my client’s case is just the tip of the spear of social reform that is starting to boil up.” 

Getting money from a broke city is the next challenge. No matter what, though, “Mr. Black is vindicated,” he says. “And now the African American community leadership has come to me to say, ‘What can we do so this never happens again?’” 

As for the Serial experience? 

“I ran up against the unique differences between journalistic objectives and trial lawyer objectives,” he says. “Sarah [Koenig] mentioned something in the episode about my client being alleged to have had cocaine. I said, ‘There was no evidence of cocaine, and I was hoping the things that were never evidenced wouldn’t be brought into the public sphere.’”

Koenig, the host, wasn’t swayed. 

“She said, ‘Look, we did our own independent investigation, and we are using it.’ So there was my need to protect my client’s case, coupled with Sarah’s need to demonstrate what she felt were the true facts of the case,” he says. “But I get it. I value what the media does, and I believed we were on the right side of the law, so I had nothing to hide.”

DiCello says even though he counts this as his hardest-fought case, he’s not daunted at the idea of staring down East Cleveland again someday. 

“I’ll share a little secret with you,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to be in these big conversations. I’m really thankful that I have that opportunity. This case could stand for a conscious awakening, and I want to do more.”  

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