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In major American cities, there are hundreds of criminal cases on the courthouse docket each morning and only so many column-inches in the newspaper. For the countless cases dealing with black-on-black violence in poor urban neighborhoods, the bar for a prominent write-up is almost insurmountably high. If the case is yet another stray-bullet drive-by shooting, the victim need be either a revered local pastor or a school-age innocent. If the defendant’s a burglar, he should be of the brazen-daylight variety and have wreaked terror among hardworking folks for at least the duration of a summer. And if the case is a mere assault, the weapon in question had better be a machete. Scant attention goes to the junkie busted for buying a $5 baggie of coke.

That’s just the type of defendant whom prosecutors parade one after another before reporter Steve Bogira in Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse. These addicts and small-time thugs head to court far more often than the DMV, and much of Bogira’s look at the criminal-justice system is from their point of view. In his prologue, he walks us with shackled prisoners through the courthouse basement toward arraignment as deputy marshals spew profanities and one of several scribblings on the wall—“YOU WON’T BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS”—sums up the prevailing thoughts on the innocent-until-proven-guilty doctrine. Here in the courthouse underbelly, a diabetic drug addict slumps in her cell, apparently unconscious, as the deputies eat Chinese food and calmly debate whether she’s faking. Like 76 other prisoners that day, she’s waiting for a snap hearing in which a judge sets her bond. “[I]t prepares them for what they’ll likely experience in a trial court upstairs,” writes Bogira. “The time devoted to considering whether they actually did what they’re accused of and, if so, what should be done about it will be dwarfed in most instances by the time spent on procedural matters, such as determining what sentence might induce their guilty plea.”

A feature writer for the alternative weekly Chicago Reader (which shares ownership with the Washington City Paper), Bogira set out to catalog just how swiftly and sloppily justice is dished out in urban America. He found the ideal venue for such a portrait at “26th Street,” the nickname for the Cook County Courthouse, according to him the biggest and busiest in the nation. Selecting a handful of memorable defendants from what was probably a lineup of several thousand during 1998—incorrigible drug addicts, victims of abuse, lost souls with IQs in the 50s—he followed them through their various interactions with the system. After 12 months in the courtroom, he apparently spent years picking apart the cases he’d watched unfold—hounding the lawyers, poking holes in the prosecution, even getting a defendant to admit she had lied to cops. What his diligence turned up, in most cases, is a three-dimensional version of the truth that would never emerge in a court of law.

“[J]ustice miscarries every day,” Bogira opines, “by doing precisely what we ask it to.”

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What we ask is merely that the machine operate efficiently. Indeed, judges in Bogira’s courthouse are commended (and re-elected) not for their sagacity but for the speed with which they dispose of cases. Prosecutors and defense attorneys alike, struggling to keep their necks above their caseloads, cajole defendants into plea bargains even when they insist on their innocence. “[A]t 26th Street, pleading guilty doesn’t mean you are,” Bogira writes. The courthouse, he says, once played host to the “Two-Ton Contest,” a challenge among prosecutors to see who would be the first to convict 4,000 pounds’ worth of defendants. They kept tally according to the body weights listed on arrest reports; heavier defendants were offered lighter sentences in exchange for quick guilty pleas.

Bogira cites all the requisite legal articles and criminal-justice stats, but he’s far more interested in examining a faulty system through the lives of those caught inside it. There are some real gems, such as Walter Williams, a one-legged car thief, and Larry Bates, a nice-guy crackhead who’s struggled with addiction ever since his schizophrenic wife drowned their baby daughter. We quickly lose Williams, who dies from stomach swelling and asthma in a jail dorm, but we tail Bates throughout the book as he struggles to get clean, coming back repeatedly to appear before Daniel Locallo, the sitting judge and lone fixture in the courtroom of the book’s title.

Bogira skillfully cobbles a handful of feature stories and profiles into a single narrative, filling in his players’ back stories as they walk free, eat life sentences, get clean, even die. What they nearly all have in common are poverty and sad personal histories. It’s shocking how many criminals apologize to Bogira for the abuse they suffered at the hands of others. “That’s what he felt was right to do,” a murderer says of the beatings her father administered. To readers, these people’s candor with the author is a welcome relief from the adversarial legal system they’re stuck in, where the most regular casualties seem to be truth and sincerity. One flamboyant defense attorney explains: “We’re all actors.”

Understandably, everyone within the system feels compromised. Judges function as little more than cogs, as Bogira shows in a scene in which Locallo races through a day’s docket in typical fashion: “He tempts one defendant after another—conditional discharge, probation, boot camp or, at most, a brief prison stay—and one after another pleads.” Meanwhile, state’s attorneys shape their stories in whatever way necessary to secure convictions. One prosecutor, asked why he would feed a theory to jurors that he himself didn’t believe, puts it this way: “You’re selling your case. I mean, that’s just being a lawyer.”

Worse yet, the kind of corruption associated with the Prohibition era still festers in Chicago. Dirty cops fib on the stand and extort drug dealers; crooked judges face indictments for their malfeasance. Bogira soft-pedals the analogy, but it’s clear enough: In Chicago, the war on drugs has spawned the same courtroom bottlenecks as the war on booze. The cost is incalculable, the sanctions capricious. Bogira veils his indignation in cool prose, but we feel genuinely outraged when a destitute, penny-ante crackhead goes behind bars and then a couple of drug runners go free on bond.

That’s not to say criminal court is entirely drug court. Over the course of Bogira’s year, Courtroom 302 plays host to one “heater”—a case that attracts major media attention—and it’s a beast of a trial that puts Chicago race relations on the national stage. In 1997, a black eighth-grader who wandered into the predominantly white Bridgeport neighborhood was beaten for his gumption by some privileged local teens, a group whose ringleader hailed from an alleged Mob family. For a lesser writer, steering the narrative into such an atypical, high-profile trial would ruin the book’s street-level feel, but Bogira uses the incident to highlight the way political forces still squeeze the big city’s courts.

Once the case falls into Locallo’s hands, the city’s politicos, columnists, and union leaders press him from all sides. A former prosecutor and the son of a cop, the outspoken Locallo emerges as the closest thing to a hero in a book full of jaded lawyers and perps. Alternately thoughtful and obtuse, compassionate and dismissive, the judge faces the endless mill of cases each day and tries his best to mete out something resembling justice in each one. Judges are normally a tight-lipped and detached bunch, but Locallo granted the author extraordinary access (32 sit-down interviews) and reflected openly on his decisions in the courtroom. He manages to weather the political heat of the Bridgeport case—securing reasonable judgments for the defendants, as well as his own re-election—but in the end Bogira informs him he may have accepted a guilty plea from someone who wasn’t guilty. Locallo’s reaction encapsulates the system’s flaws: “Well, let’s just say he was guilty….I mean, he pled guilty.”

By the end of the year, Bogira has taken us everywhere—into Locallo’s chambers, into the jury room, into cells with the defendants—and his immersion serves up some priceless moments, such as when Locallo and a burglary defendant sit on the same bus, heading to a crime scene, and discuss the merits of a movie they both admire. But his best reporting comes through the hard questions he puts to lawyers and their clients about the details of their cases. As one cynical defense attorney says of criminal litigation, “There’s three sides to every story: your side, my side, and what really happened.” Bogira always arrives at the last. CP