The New York Times Book Review, May 1, 2005

The Wobbly Wheels of Justice

Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse
By Steve Bogira, Alfred A. Knopf

In Chicago’s Cook County Criminal Courthouse, “the biggest and busiest felony courthouse in the nation,” 17-year-old Leslie McGee sits before Judge Daniel Locallo, on trial for a murder she confessed to committing at 16. The victim, a cabdriver, asked for sex as payment for a ride and grabbed her breast, McGee says; she shot him, and soon after attracted the attention of the police as she threatened to kill herself. McGee’s defense lawyer argues that what she did in the cab is understandable given that she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder: a year earlier, she’d been abducted at gunpoint and kept for several days until she escaped and the police found her “running naked from her captors.” On the evening of the third day of the trial, Leslie McGee, being tried as an adult, is convicted of first-degree murder.

What didn’t the jury know about this case (which the prosecutor, outside the courtroom, called a “weird little murder”)? All kinds of things, some of them shockingly relevant. For one, McGee and the married cabdriver had probably been having an affair for several months. According to one confession she gave the police, she killed him because he’d been beating her; according to a second, because she’d seen him with another girl. She had fired the gun after saying, “God bless you,” and kissing him on the cheek. In jail, McGee had been given a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. She was the second of her father’s children to have killed someone as a teenager. (“When she was 6, her 17-year-old half brother plunged a butcher knife into the face of his mother’s boyfriend during a fight.”) No matter the outcome of the trial, she thinks she needs to be locked up for a few years, “somewhere I can close myself off from the world, clear my mind of all the negatives.” At the defense table, she dresses like a schoolgirl, with pigtails and Winnie-the-Pooh on her blouse. But tattooed on one calf, under a pulled-up crew sock and invisible to the jury, is an image about as far from the Hundred Acre Wood as you can get: a picture of a hand grasping a penis.

Steve Bogira, for years a reporter for The Chicago Reader, burrows into the machine that processes thousands of citizens a year, most of them poor, African-American and involved with drugs. His intuition was that the goings-on in the old limestone courthouse on 26th Street, however banal-seeming, might hide sprawling human dramas. And by focusing on something small — the cases coming before one judge, in a single courtroom — he gets a handle on something large and hard to make sense of: the American way of criminal justice.

Bogira gained admittance to Courtroom 302 with the permission of Judge Locallo, a Chicago native and policeman’s son. Locallo gave Bogira access to his chambers, his staff and, more than once, his own home. The prosecutors and public defenders assigned to the courtroom also opened up, allowing him to see police reports and other documents. These reports were crucial because, as Bogira notes, ”the heart of criminal court proceedings is not the judge . . . but the defendant, who is the reason for the whole exercise.” Incidents he learned of in the courtroom gallery (the shooting of a burglar by a homeowner, a stabbing in a prison barber shop) were merely the starting point for Bogira. He found and interviewed defendants’ parents (often absent from the trial) and grandparents, talked to jurors, psychiatrists and probation officers and, by following up with convicted defendants in jail and prison, even collected a confession of perjury, as well as at least one admission of guilt from a defendant who had claimed he was innocent at trial.

In this search for context, Bogira read seminal articles in legal journals. For the McGee case, he can offer a synopsis of the history of juvenile justice in the United States. Other cases open the door to informed asides on issues like the value of expert witnesses, jury selection and race, prosecution of the mentally ill and mentally retarded, and false guilty pleas (“at 26th Street, pleading guilty doesn’t mean you are”).

”Courtroom 302” also shines in its intimate portrait of a judge and his work. Daniel Locallo seems in many ways a judge’s judge — he receives positive ratings from six bar groups and is, from all evidence, honest and hard-working, candid and open. Yet the portrait is sometimes unflattering. We learn how, as a young prosecutor, Locallo uncritically pressed a raft of trumped-up charges against a black teenager accused of a rape-murder, possibly giving inappropriate coaching to a child witness. We watch his impartiality compromised by friendships and realpolitik, and we hear him refuse to repudiate his mobster uncle for the same crimes he convicts strangers of every day. (“Maybe it’s because I loved my uncle Vic, but I never looked down on him because of what he was involved in. You do what you have to do sometimes.”)

In the book’s most extended and suspenseful subplot, Locallo presides over the cases of three white teenagers accused of savagely beating two black kids who wandered into their neighborhood. This being Chicago, the probation deals offered two of them provoke the Rev. Jesse Jackson and other activists, while the eight-year sentence given the leader sparks a campaign by his family and organized labor to unseat Locallo (Illinois judges face re-election every six years). Locallo keeps his seat, but when he tells Bogira that his only regret “is that I didn’t give the sonovabitch 10,” we see even a good judge can nurture a grudge.

Most of Locallo’s proceedings, however, are not so exciting. Readers whose acquaintance with criminal justice comes mainly through high school civics may be perplexed to learn that one important measure of performance is the number of “dispos” — that is, dispositions, or plea bargains — a judge can achieve. Trial by one’s peers seems almost quaint today, so strong are the incentives for a defendant to choose something less demanding on the system than a jury trial. More than four of every five cases in the courthouse are “dispo’d,” Bogira reports. He compares the negotiations to car sales: the maximum sentence is the sticker price, the plea offer the wholesale.

Of course, it is drug cases that have overwhelmed the docket. Bogira follows the continuing story of one genial middle-aged drug defendant, Larry Bates, through three probations, repeat arrests, drug treatments and his son’s high school graduation before a prison term from Locallo. “The concept of studying an offender and devising a rehabilitation plan isn’t frowned upon so much as not looked upon at all,” Bogira writes. “The proper sentence is whatever both sides can agree on to belch out one defendant and make space for the next.”

A picture emerges of a system so cynical and overburdened it fails to elicit, or even seek out, the reasons behind crimes. (Leslie McGee’s public defender, informed by Bogira of her client’s unusual desire to be incarcerated, responds, “What do I look like, a social worker?”) The idea that the courts might attempt to facilitate reconciliation between aggrieved parties, called in progressive circles “restorative justice,” is never entertained. One of the most memorable scenes of this excellent book takes place in the gallery of Courtroom 302 on the day a murderer is sentenced. The murderer is a gang member; his victim, a college student. Both are African-American. The murderer never testifies and no explanation for the crime emerges, even after the conviction. The murderer’s mother, trying to control two small children (one of them his), sees the victim’s mother and her family enter:

“After they’ve settled into a bench across the aisle, Karen Harris takes a deep breath, pushes herself to her feet and steps hesitantly over to the aisle. She catches Diane Smith’s attention, then quickly averts her eyes.”

” ‘I’m sorry about what my son did to your son,’ Harris says softly.”

“Smith tilts her head subtly in Harris’s direction, nods and says, ‘Thank you.’ ”

Sometimes, when the system fails to provide resolution, people find it for themselves.

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