Addictive portrait of an American courtroom.
Chicago Reader staffer Bogira chronicles a year in the titular Courtroom 302 of the Cook County Criminal Courthouse, where Chicago’s felons are tried, convicted and sentenced. He aims to show “how justice miscarries every day, by doing precisely what we ask it to.” The resultant account is eye-opening and bold from the start, beginning with the prologue; there, Bogira portrays a deputy shouting obscenities at prisoners waiting in the courthouse’s holding pen and quotes a lieutenant saying, “We get the dregs of humanity here. If these people moved in next door to you, your lawn would die.” Readers meet a host of defendants, including Larry Bates, a middle-aged, small-level drug criminal, in for violating the terms of probation, and Tony Cameron, arrested for armed robbery. But the strongest portrait here is of Judge Daniel Locallo, who emerges as a hero even though Bogira doesn’t refrain from criticizing him. Locallo is fair, doesn’t suffer fools, genuinely loves what he does each day and seems to dispense justice as best he can from the bench in an imperfect system. The narrative turns on the so-called Bridgeport case, involving three white teenagers charged with brutally beating a 13-year-old black boy. In racially charged Chicago, this case can only be explosive. It has all the elements of a great story: heartstring-pulling parents of the kids on trial; whispers of mob involvement; rumors that a hit has been ordered on Judge Locallo himself. Bogira’s critique focuses on the culture of the courtroom. Judges are awarded for getting as many cases through their courtroom as possible in a given day; defense lawyers have almost no time to spend with their clients; and the defendants, even innocent ones, feel pressured to take plea bargains. Meanwhile, judges are elected, but a system of merit appointment would ensure that they weren’t catering their decisions to voters’ whims.
Modern-day muckraking at its best.