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Trial and Errors

A Journalist Goes On The Trail Of Justice In An Inner-City Courtroom

Emily Flake

By Scott Carlson | Posted 6/8/2005

Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courtroom By Steve Bogira

Knopf, clothbound

As a guy who earns his daily bread as a reporter, I couldn’t help but read Courtroom 302 with both great admiration and nagging envy for journalist Steve Bogira’s talent and tenacity. In his chronicle of a year inside a Chicago criminal courtroom, all of the details come together to assemble a deep, compelling, and condemning account of the U.S. justice system. And although Bogira covers the daily tribulations of murderers, thieves, and other ne’er-do-wells, he manages to maintain a fresh perspective on each person in each case. It’s a perspective not shared, apparently, by any of the prosecutors, public defenders, guards, or judges who grind their cases through by the thousands every year.

In this way, Courtroom 302 sheds light on a sector of society that most Americans would prefer to ignore. The characters of this drama each have their parts, with the earnest Judge Daniel Locallo often at the center of the action. He oversees the fates of bit players like Pouncy, Titone, and De’Angelo, as they pass through the courtroom theater with relatively few lines—perhaps a confession, or an elaborate denial. Then they are whisked off by an acquittal or a condemnation.

The book is less about the players, however, than it is about the system that runs them all. In Courtroom 302 (even the name implies some massive and nearly anonymous bureaucratic system), prosecutors and public defenders handle cases by figuring out how they can least gum up the docket. While Judge Locallo’s legal career has been inspired by idealistic courtroom figures like Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird, from Bogira’s perspective he and other judges gauge their success only by how efficiently they push cases to quick resolution.

In many of the cases, Bogira takes pains to humanize the accused—showing how they ended up at the defendant’s table. A small but significant example is the case of Tony Cameron, a learning-disabled man with mental problems, accused of armed robbery. On his day in court, Cameron is tired and wants to plead guilty to the crime because he feels like nothing is going to go his way anyway—nothing ever has in life, he says. That plea is fine with Locallo and lawyers on both sides, as long as it doesn’t look like Cameron was pushed to a plea without knowing his options, which might invalidate the case in a later appeal.

In the middle of this hearing, Bogira cuts away to recount Cameron’s history: He was deemed by a psychologist to have the mental acuity of a 10-year-old and the emotional development of a 4-year-old. He had a history of hearing voices. His uncle used to lock him in a room with one of his brothers and make them fight each other until noses were bloodied, to toughen them up. His mother used to beat him with extension cords and bottles. “Locallo isn’t familiar with any of these details about Cameron,” Bogira writes. “The judge has more than three hundred cases involving more than 350 defendants on his call; how could he be expected to delve into such minutiae?”

But Bogira does delve, time and again. In a case involving De’Angelo Harris—a young man who shot a college student while the student waited in his car for a girlfriend—family of both Harris and the victim wonder why Harris committed the murder. For Bogira, it’s not much of a mystery. He notes records showing that Harris’ mother, present for the trial, has been a drug user, arrested for various aggressive acts. The woman that Harris went to live with when his mother was found negligent was arrested for menacing people with baseball bats. His stepfather didn’t discourage drug dealing. His father was absent. And Bogira doesn’t just rely on public records. In the courtroom, he watches Harris’ mother, how she threatens her daughter with a whupping when she gets antsy, and he records every scowl and hiss.

Universal and banal courtroom procedures, meanwhile, like the testimony of police officers, provide an opportunity for Bogira to discuss the workings of the system through lost histories or overlooked scholarship. “Chicago police lie ‘pervasively’ in court and ‘throughout the investigative process,’” Bogira writes, launching into a description of a 1992 study showing that judges frequently believe police testimony, especially in crucial, high-profile cases. Then Courtroom 302 builds toward just such a case: the savage beating of a black man at the hands of young white men, in particular the hands and stomping boots of Frank Caruso Jr., whose family is reputed to have mob ties.

Although he often claims to be impartial, Locallo relishes the opportunity to hear this high-profile case, in part for the publicity and in part to show his black constituents that the system can deliver justice. In the end, the case nearly blows up in Locallo’s face. Caruso’s friends and neighbors claim that the judge’s eight-year sentence is too stiff and launch a campaign to get Locallo off the bench. Meanwhile, African-American activists, dissatisfied with the justice Locallo hoped to deliver, say the sentence was too light.

In a sense, the high-profile Caruso case that consumes the last part of the book seems like a different narrative altogether—it distracts a bit from the theme of examining the justice system, which Bogira had set up so well from the beginning. In another sense, it is an engaging contrast to the book’s early, more common cases. When a white and relatively affluent defendant finds himself in court, he is not alone—family and friends provide moral support, political pressure, and good lawyers, no matter how horrific the crime. But at the trials of Cameron, Harris, and the other usual suspects who pass through that Chicago courtroom, you get the impression that Bogira is one of the few people there to witness them, as they travel from one netherworld to another.

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