Finding the System Guilty

By David Feige

A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse

By Steve Bogira

The Cook County Courthouse has more felony cases under one roof than anyplace else in the country. Opened on April Fool's Day 1929, and crammed into a predominantly Mexican neighborhood on the Southwest Side of Chicago, the limestone behemoth is known to those who work there as "26th Street." In 1998, Steve Bogira, an award-winning veteran of the Chicago Reader, spent a year sitting in a crowded courtroom, watching the justice system deal with a tiny slice of poverty and criminality. "Courtroom 302" is his gripping account of that year.

The American criminal justice system is almost unimaginably vast, costing taxpayers more than $165 billion a year, incarcerating more than 2 million people (at a cost of more than $20,000 each) and supervising almost 4 million more through probation or parole. The system employs more than 2 million people -- judges and jailers, clerks and cops, prosecutors and public defenders -- all working to process the millions of cases docketed across the country every year. As Bogira tells it, the system is hardly up to the task. From his perch inside Courtroom 302, he convincingly argues that what happens at 26th Street has far more to do with processing cases than with doing justice.

Most people get their sense of the justice system from fictionalized television dramas and a small number of cases that get a lot of press. Judge Daniel Locallo, who presides over Courtroom 302, understands this well. "The overnight crime reports always interest him," Bogira writes. "They're like coming attractions -- the first accounts of the mayhem wrought by the future 26th Street customers, any one of whom could end up in his courtroom. His ears are tuned especially for the potential heaters, the crimes with a special twist that are likely to captivate the press; those he hopes end up in his courtroom."

Locallo has "always known he'd do something momentous." Like most ambitious judges, Locallo is hot for heaters, because the big cases attract reporters, influence readers and affect judicial elections. But when the press is around, justice is done differently -- smiling countenances and abundant patience quickly cloak the brutal reality of the system. This Heisenberg effect colors nearly everything, but as "Courtroom 302" deftly shows, if you just wait long enough, once the cameras are gone and the reporters have moved on, the abuse inherent in the process hides in plain sight. It hides in all the small, otherwise ignored cases.

In looking at them, Bogira captures the unspoken realities of the criminal justice system: that, despite a culture of deception among police officers, judges almost always find them credible; that innocent people, too poor to afford their release on bail, plead guilty to get out of jail; that judges suppress evidence only in unimportant cases; that the system has an astoundingly high tolerance for overt corruption. But even when Bogira is exposing these hidden truths, the book can read like a bland list of transgressions. And for someone whose sympathies lie with poor defendants to begin with, his unwaveringly neutral tone can be hard to take. The outrage is missing. Because Bogira refuses to caterwaul, he has, ironically, written a chronicle of damnation whose removed, reportorial tone mirrors the pervasive aloofness of the system itself. It can leave the reader longing for more emotion, even fury.

"Courtroom 302" fares best when it focuses on the anonymous petty crooks and drug dealers whose trials unfold before a single weeping relative or a completely empty gallery, so it is unfortunate that Bogira ultimately surrenders to convention by structuring the book around the progress of a high-profile case -- a racially motivated murder with mob undertones. The defendant is white and wealthy and represented by a sleek private lawyer. It's fitting, perhaps, that this trial proceeds in a different courtroom. In the usual 302 case, the defendant is poor and black and represented by a public defender. Although Bogira is clearly alive to the distorting effects of money, race and publicity, here he fails to sufficiently explore the obvious and powerful contrast between high-priced and low-cost justice.

Still, if "Courtroom 302" falls short in its structure, it is triumphant in its detail. For instance, on a summer Monday in 1998, Larry Bates comes to court knowing he is going to jail. Free on a weekend pass that allows him to attend his son's high school graduation, Bates has the strength of will not to run away despite his history of depression and drug addiction, and his understandable fear of walking back into a jail cell. There is no reason to know of Larry Bates. No one was watching when Judge Locallo first ordered him locked up. But it is Larry Bates, rather than the fancy lawyers, heater cases or high-profile defendants, who makes "Courtroom 302" a worthwhile read.

In his account of Bates, and so many others -- the cherubic Leslie McGee, the 16-year-old girl in the Winnie-the-Pooh jumper charged with shooting a cabbie in the head with a .357; or Leroy Orange, who was tortured into confessing to a quadruple murder it seems clear he didn't commit -- Bogira is able to capture brilliantly (if not condemn loudly enough) the futility and hopelessness that pervade the criminal court system. In his analysis of these unknown cases, he carefully assembles and presents a portrait of a system plagued with abusive police officers and corrupt judges, a system more interested in statistics than people, a system more focused on punishment than rehabilitation. And that is why, perhaps as well as anyone before him, in writing about average defendants, Bogira is able to explain a system that "miscarries every day by doing precisely what we ask it to do."

David Feige, a public defender in the Bronx and a Soros Media Justice Fellow, is the author of the book "Indefensible", to be published in 2005

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