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A Mid-Summer's Catch Up
Jayland Walker Protest this Saturday • Podcasts • Story Updates: Kasaris, East Cleveland • New Stories • Fighting Burnout and Playing Music
I started writing this a few days before Jayland Walker’s brutal killing by Akron Police. On Saturday July 9th at 2pm, I will be at a protest outside the Akron Justice Center, where I have been invited to speak about my work covering police abuse. Please spread the word to anyone you know in Northeast Ohio.
The gist of this post is to catch you up on the state of the overwhelming nature and quantity of stories I’m working. Sadly, Walker’s story must be added to the queue of tragedies.
It’s been a while since I’ve Substacked, and since some of you are paying subscribers I started to feel guilty about that. Please forgive the fact that I’m smaking up the shape of this career as I go and it’s gonna messy as I figure things out.
For instance, I completely neglected to post here about the launch of a new podcast “Walking The Wire”, which critically examines the groundbreaking HBO series and uses it as a springboard to talk about criminal justice. That project started as something fun and focused to produce with a journalist I’d recently befriended, and I couldn’t be happier with how it’s turning out.
I’ve also had a couple episodes of BZ Listening drop in the last couple months that didn’t get posted here. One with the “Stephen Wright of Conspiracy Research”, as I like to call him, Jimmy Falun Gong the host of Programmed to Chill. And this week I released episode 80, my second interview with a personal hero, Curtis Eller.
Now a quick catch-up on the stories I have worked and have yet to work…
In January I received a letter from David C. Comstock, the attorney representing Senior Assistant State Atorney General Dan Kasaris, threatening me with libel over my reporting on the allegations of Tony Viola regarding prosecutorial misconduct by Kasaris.
I’m not at all ashamed to admit that scared the shit out of me. Not because I was worried I’d actually committed libel, but because defending against a bullshit lawsuit still costs time, money, and sanity.
I quickly calmed down when I realized that Kasaris would have way more to lose from the discovery process than I do. What’s more, the request was comically ambiguous. Comstock essentially pasted in several pages of a judge’s opinion on Viola’s federal appeal, and then told me to fix my article accordingly. With the advice of my attorney I held firm and we requested that Comstock provide specific lines and paragraphs that should be corrected in my reporting. Six months later we have yet to receive a reply, and no lawsuit has been filed.
In February I attended one of Tony Viola’s many attempts to get Ohio courts to recognize and fully investigate his allegations against Kasaris. The effort was ultimately unsuccessful, but the journey towards that disappointing verdict was as educational as it was complicated.
I have continued to follow Viola’s story, and am struggling with the best way to fully tell it and bring attention to the disturbing behavior of the Kasaris, the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s office, and the Federal Mortgage Fraud Task Force that prosecuted Viola.
Meanwhile, Kelly Patrick’s ex-husband John Patrick (the brother of Kasaris, who she discussed with me last October) and her own mother continue to claim that Kelly is bipolar and makes up stories about abuse. John has managed to pursuade a local family court judge to grant him full custody.
Needless to say, I do not believe Kelly is a mentally disturbed liar, and am committed to helping her continue to tell her story, complicated and disturbing as it is.
Another complicated and educational event I experienced in March was the murder trial of Martaze Burrell. Burrell is the grandson of Mariah Crenshaw, whose name you should recognize if you have followed my work. Crenshaw made me aware of her grandson’s pending trial not long after we first met in the fall of 2019.
In May of 2018, Burrell was arrested for the murder of Steven Swaim Jr., killed in fall of 2017. Crenshaw suspected from the start that her grandson was framed by the East Cleveland Police in retaliation for the work she was doing to expose their department’s failure to comply with state laws regarding officer training.
I watched Burrell’s trial from voir dire to verdict, and I can report that her suspicions are not unfounded in the least.
There’s no way to summarize everything wrong with the prosecutor’s case, it needs a whole article. What will say here is that I believe the all white jury acquitted Burrel because his defense attorney clearly demonstrated that there were at least five other more compelling suspects for Swaim’s murder who were never investigated.
The motive the prosecutors held up would be laughable if it weren’t so insidious. A month before his murder, Swaim stole a car that belonged to the mother of five brothers (last name: Jackson. No shit.), who were also friends with Burrell. Swaim posted a photo of himself on top of the car, with a taunting comment tagging one of the brothers and Burrell.
The prosecutors would simply not shut the fuck up about this post. They wanted the jury to believe that Burrell was so mad about Swaim stealing his friends’ mother’s car that he’d murder him over it a month later. Now would be a good time to mention that for most of their childhoods, Burrell and Swaim were close friends. Around the time of the murder, Swaim was becoming more wild, into guns and beefing, and the two were drifting apart.
The prosecution’s flimsy instagram motive was decimated by the defense when they introduced another social media post by Swaim, from a few days before he was killed. In this photo, Swaim is holding up two assault rifles, with a caption to the effect of “Ya’ll n****** want war? You got a war”. It was posted on the same evening that Swaim was robbed in a dice game by one of the Jackson brothers. Burrell had nothing to do with that post, and the prosecutors were in the uneviable position of arguing it had no relevance to Swaim’s death.
I don’t find it difficult to believe that the East Cleveland police were fixated on Burrell because he was related to Crenshaw, a bonafide thorn in their side. Whether Burrell was convicted or not, they benefited simply by having Crenshaw distracted and concerned over helping defending her grandson, rather than doing the work she was engaged in to hold police accountable.
This case will make an excellent entry point for another State of Injustice series focused on East Cleveland. Here’s hoping I can get the ball rolling on that one soon.
New Stories and Battling Burnout
I’ve also had two other tragic tales of wrongful conviction come to me this year. I’ve spent hours on the phone with each of them and am still working out the best way to fully tell their stories.
One is a woman who was defrauded and framed by her employees, ignored by police in the lead up, abused by a tyrannical judge, raped by her defense attorney, and now can’t work in her chosen profession because of the wrongful conviction. The other is a gentleman currently incarcerated for a murder he didn’t commit. His is another tale of prosecutorial misconduct and failures by defense attorneys, similar to Viola’s.
To be frank, all of these stories I’ve summarized so far have me paralyzed for a lot of reasons. I’m still struggling to figure out the best medium and narrative to craft for a lot of these. I have all the rough clay I could ever need, but shaping it is intimidating.
Another issue that has slowed me down is the terrifying possibility of litigation now that I’m looking into corrupt and inscrupulous prosecutors and defense attorneys. The first story I wrote on Brandon Patterson garnered me an adorable threat when I reached out to him for comment. Patterson didn’t answer any of my questions and told me to expect to hear from his lawyers. Still waiting.
Thankfully, I’m no longer struggling with imposter syndrome. As my Walking The Wire co-host Philip Fairbainks told me on our first call swapping stories about the legal threats we’d received, “if powerful people are threatening to sue you over your stories, you’re a journalist.”
So I crashed through that wall of doubt at full speed, and went straight past having a career to burnout. This work takes a real toll on the soul. As much as I knew the system was broken before I embarked on this path, now I’ve seen it up close and I know it in my bones.
I’ve watched the gears of our justice system grind innocent people into dust and gore. I’ve also witnessed the powerful activiation that can occur in the hearts and minds of the wrongfully convicted and those who care about them.
The biggest obstacle I’ve had to putting out more work is the burnout that comes from being a one-man-orchestra. In any other news organization, you wouldn’t ask one person to find stories to write, AND produced their own graphics AND their own video editing, AND proofread, AND fact-check, AND (worst of all) promote the final product.
That said, it’s been incredibly satisfying to take the skills I acquired over two decades in the cubicle coalmines of web development and advertising, and apply them to something meaningful. I haven’t bothered trying to shape myself into a suitable candidate to join an existing news organization because I deeply value being independent and free to define my own editorial policy and perspective on “objectivity”.
Lately I find myself saying variations of the same thing to folks who ask how the journalism is going:
“I’ve figured out how to do the job, I just don’t know how to get paid to do it.”
I may have some exciting news to report on that front soon, but for now I just wanted to catch up you Substackers with what I’ve been up to outside of this newsletter.
Thanks so much for your support and attention.
P.S. Making Music and Community
Over the last couple months, I’ve also backed off reporting a bit to get back to performing music regularly with my wife as BZDZ, in order to heal myself and my marriage a bit. Happy to report that it is going very well, to the point where we’ve got new gigs being thrown at us every week or two now it seems.
For any readers in the Cleveland area, I stumbled into a gig hosting an open mic every Monday from 8pm-Midnight at The Social Room in Cleveland Heights (just down the road from the Cedar Lee Theater). It’s been envigorating and healing to be given the chance to play music once a week, and the opportunity to foster a nurturing place for grassroots performers, similar to the ones that allowed me to grow into a musician.
I’m also bringing my work into that space. Two weeks ago Tony Viola accepted my invitation to come down and use his 10 minutes to tell a short version of his story. I’m thinking I’ll just lean into the whole “singing journalist” thing.
At the very least, I’ll be telling any fans I gain, “Oh, you like my music? Cool! Now check out this other shit I do…”