It’s easy to understand the American public’s longtime fascination with the goings-on of courtrooms. Where else can you see confrontations between good and evil, learn the truth about murky matters, achieve perfectly legal revenge, and best of all, watch the secret lives of the likes of Michael Jackson and Martha Stewart spill into the public domain?
That’s the fascination driving courtroom accounts, from the Salem witch trials to Erle Stanley Gardner to Court TV. The courtroom drama has been presented so many times in so many ways it would seem unlikely anyone could fashion a new and revealing take. But that’s exactly what Steve Bogira, a reporter for the Chicago Reader, has done in this compelling dissection of modern urban justice. Bogira, a veteran courthouse and police reporter, camped out for a full year in a single courtroom in Chicago’s Cook County Criminal Courthouse on 26th Street, one of the nation’s largest legal-processing centers, where some 30,000 cases, ranging from dope possession to murder, are docketed each year.
Bogira witnessed how justice was dispensed by a judge with a sterling record, a rotating cast of competent prosecutors and defense lawyers, and a pair of stony-eyed deputies who made sure nothing got out of hand. Despite those good intentions, Bogira finds the courthouse to be a place where “justice miscarries every day, by doing precisely what we ask it.”
The chief commerce conducted in courtroom 302 is a nonstop floor sale in which guilty pleas are traded for reduced charges. Those who insist on their innocence face the “trial tax”—far higher sentences following expensive jury verdicts. Among those Bogira meets on this assembly line is Larry Bates, a laid-off warehouse worker and cocaine user who is haunted by a tragic past. Bates is too proud to steal yet can’t break his crack habit. So he performs small tasks for dealers in exchange for drugs, an occupation that leads to repeated arrests. On one of his trips to 26th Street, Bates observes to Bogira that he can’t help but notice that virtually all the justice dispensers are white, while the receivers are not. “It’s more or less a racket,” Bates reflects, “all these people fattening up on us.”
Maybe so, but many are there for crimes for which any just society would demand an accounting. There is Leslie McGee, a 16-year-old suffering from a bipolar disorder who is charged with shooting a 36-year-old cabdriver to death. During breaks from her trial, McGee sits in the lockup behind the courtroom sucking her thumb. McGee is convicted, but in a not uncommon courthouse scenario, prosecutors have charged the right person for the wrong reasons. It wasn’t a robbery gone bad, as the jury was told. Bogira learns through his own intrepid digging that the cabdriver was her lover. When Bogira tells this to Judge Dan Locallo, considered one of the fairest jurists in the building, the judge is at first shocked that a fantasy has played out in his courtroom. Then he shrugs. “So what? She still killed him,” he says.
The steady diet of crimes both mundane and squalid is interrupted in courtroom 302 by a “heater”—a case that draws rare press attention. A vicious racial beating has put a 13-year-old black boy in a coma and drawn condemnations from Jesse Jackson and Bill Clinton. The alleged ringleader in the assault is the son of an alleged Chicago mob figure. Before trial, a key witness is murdered, a shooting the prosecution believes, without proof, to be a hit. Judge Locallo, whose father was a Chicago police detective and who drew his own legal inspiration from Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, finds the attention intoxicating and is clearly relieved when the jury convicts all three defendants.
The accepted wisdom is that it’s a righteous victory, a vindication for all those black and brown defendants shuttled in and out of the limestone courthouse. Bogira, alone, doesn’t buy it. In an example of what makes this book so uniquely satisfying, the writer turns up the microscope one power higher. One of the accused, he argues convincingly, has been railroaded by cops under pressure to identify the culprits. It’s another instance of justice miscarrying by doing exactly what we ask it.