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Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse

Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse - Steve Bogira This is a fascinating book about the workings of the criminal justice system in Chicago. The author spent a year in a felony courtroom, not only observing its public business but interviewing the judge, the prosecutors, the public defenders and private attorneys, the defendants, the families of the victims and accused.

Bogira is an excellent storyteller, and brings suspense to the story of each trial he highlights: the parade of small murder cases (which excite no media interest), the burglary case in which the judge and his staff take a field trip to the crime scene, the high-profile attempted murder trial for a racially-motivated attack on a young boy. We also see a probationer who, despite good intentions, can’t kick his drug habit and keeps returning to court; we learn about the legacy of judicial corruption and police torture in Chicago; we see what a difference having money makes and the influence of judicial elections. Bogira is observant and incisive, and his writing even-handed. Although this project was possible because Judge Locallo welcomed Bogira into his courtroom, the judge’s portrayal is far from fawning; though dedicated, hardworking and generous with his time, he’s also a media hound who refuses to acknowledge his own mistakes or any flaws in the system. I never got the impression that the author chose sides or had an agenda, though certainly many of his observations speak poorly of the system: public defenders have less than a minute to speak to their clients before their bond hearings; tens of thousands of dollars go to prosecuting and incarcerating people for possession of drugs worth $20 or less; possession of minute amounts of cocaine and heroin is a far more serious crime than beating a wife or girlfriend (the former being a felony and the latter almost always a misdemeanor).

There are some drawbacks to this book – not flaws, but drawbacks. Though it was published in 2005, the author’s year of observation was 1998, and while many of the trends he observes have become even more pronounced, it is nevertheless a bit dated. Also, it is set in Chicago, which is described even in the blurb as having the nation’s “busiest felony courthouse” – so not everything we see here is applicable to the rest of the country. For instance, at one point Bogira tells us that a public defender demanding a jury trial on a “mere” burglary would be in flagrant breach of court etiquette, and might see the judge retaliating against his or her other clients. You wouldn’t see that in a typical American courthouse, though it’s true across the country that a tiny percentage of cases go to trial. Finally, the justice system is made up of people, with enormous differences between judges; Bogira certainly notes this, but in focusing on a single judge, has little room to illustrate how different the results can be.

However, for those interested in the court system, this book is an excellent choice. The writing is clear, readable, and informative, with a flair for storytelling. We get a real behind-the-scenes look at how things work, the strategic decisions made by lawyers on both sides of a case and all the evidence the jury doesn’t see. For instance, there’s the murder case in which the victim was actually the defendant’s boyfriend, but both sides present the case as if the two were strangers: the prosecution because it doesn’t want to draw the woman’s confession (in which she claimed they were strangers, but admitted shooting the guy) into question, and the defense because it doesn’t want the killing to look premeditated. We also see what happens to the people involved once the trials are over and the media interest (if any) dies down – who gets out of prison after serving a fraction of their sentence, who gets arrested again on a similar charge, who dies in jail when the guards don’t bother to call for medical help. This is a book about the business of a courtroom that also shows us the real people involved – those who work in the system and those caught up in it – and so it isn’t always easy to read. But it is worth it.