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Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in…

Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse

by Steve Bogira

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Courtroom 302 describes a world most of us will never see, nor would we wish to.

"No man can examine the great penal system of this country without being astounded at its magnitude, its cost and its unsatisfactory results," said John Altgeld, Cook County judge and later governor of Illinois in 1890. At that time, the end result was the imprisonment of fifty thousand citizens. Today the yield is 1.5 million.

Ironically the vast majority of those in the system are there for drug-related offenses, almost always non-violent crimes. If you beat your wife, you'll get released on an I-bond (recognizance), because it's a misdemeanor, not a felony, unlike drug offenses. For some bizarre reason we consider a health problem of much greater import than a violent crime.

Bogoira's book examines a the Chicago justice system during the course of a year from a variety of viewpoints: judges, accused, police and attorneys. You will finish the book grateful to have a job and money. Without these, you would most likely be lost in the maelstrom of the justice system.

The police have immense power and that force was amply displayed in the case of George Jones, prosecuted for the rape and murder of Sheila Pointer. A federal grand jury, which later investigated the case, found it to be a frightening abuse of power by members of the Chicago Police Department. Exculpatory evidence was ignored and other evidence manufactured to charge an innocent man. Seven policemen were later indicted for false imprisonment, false arrest and malicious prosecution.

Bogoira follows several individuals as they work their way through the court system It's a scary place where everyone is overworked and justice not an accepted concept. It's clear that it's the innocent who need lawyers, not the guilty, but they are only available to the rich.

Not only that, police malfeasance appears common place, so much so it's even enshrined in process. A basic requirement of the legal system is that the defense must be advised of all exculpatory evidence (Brady v Maryland). To get around this, Chicago police kept a double filing system: the evidence they gave the D.A.'s office which had too be turned over to the defense in one file, and all the notes and ancillary material which they decided might not help the prosecution, something called their "street file," is kept in the local police station. Street files never left the precinct and the prosecutor could say in court that the defense had all the records that existed in his files. No mention was ever made of the street files which often contained material that would have been invaluable to the defense.

Confessions from anyone, it seems are suspect given tactics often used by police, but the mentally retarded are particularly vulnerable. Bogira cited a study that read Miranda warnings to forty-nine adults with IQs averaging 55.5. A control group was given similar simple explanations of the words in the warning, and it became clear that the retarded adults never understood the meanings nor the implications of the rights they were being asked to waive.

Chicago suffered from a great deal of corruption in the court system as revealed by the Greylord investigations in the early eighties. Several judges were sent to jail for having taken bribes. No one could have foreseen the havoc that resulted. The corrupt judges, in order to "balance their sheets," apparently might often help convict those who might be innocent, but who had not bribed the judge, to show their "impartiality." Often, those whose attorneys had been involved in the bribery schemes, were granted new trials; some who had not been, were not. The Appeals courts were concerned that granting new trials across the board would open a flood of new trials. Ilana Rovner, a Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals judge, in a dissent, argued ,"It is a sad day indeed when defendants who attempted to purchase their way out of a conviction receive a greater measure of justice than those who do not." Indeed. One cannot help but wonder if Chicago might be the rule rather than the exception.

One interesting case was of a woman who shot a cabbie. She had confessed, but even the prosecutor in his opening arguments, revealed he didn't know whether to believe her version of the story. Nolan, the prosecutor, was looking forward to the case because his opponent would be public defender of the Homicide Task Force, Marijane Placek with 20 years of experience (ade who changes her hair and contacts almost daily depending on her whim.) Nolan remarked to the author that something he's learned over the years is that " 'everybody lies'. Defendants, witnesses, defense lawyers, prosecutors, judges, cops -- 'we all have our agenda. It's part of the game, I guess.' " Bogira interviewed the witnesses and others involved and we get to see a part of the story the jury does not, especially the roles of the prosecutor and defense as they battle their way to the eventual outcome (no spoilers, here,) so he and the reader get to second-guess both sides. What appears on its face to be black and white turns out to be very gray indeed. Neither prosecution nor defense, each for different reasons, wants what they both suspect to be the truth to be offered as evidence.

This was something that bothered me about the complaints after the OJ trial. Most people were sure the jury had been prejudiced in favor of OJ and that was the reason for the acquittal. I wasn't so sure, since the jury had been out of the courtroom for a lot of the debate over what was or was not admissible, etc. They had to make a decision based solely on what they heard and it was very different from what the rest of us saw and heard.

An extremely interesting and readable book, filled with anecdotes, if more than a little depressing. ( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
The courtroom in question is in the Cook County Criminal Courthouse, at 26th & California in Chicago. I had never been to (or even heard of) that building until [book: Never a City So Real]; in one chapter, Alex Kotlowitz follows a defense attorney around for a day. And thus was my interest piqued. ( )
  catalogthis | May 6, 2011 |
Steve Bogira, a reporter for the Chicago alternative paper, The Reader, has written a fascinating account of one year in a particular courthouse at 26th and California. Through this lens, he shows us the unseemly, “behind the scenes” truth about our criminal justice system. Focusing on one courtroom and judge, Bogira describes in minute detail the “machinery of justice”, which is all but guaranteed to grind defendants down to guilty pleas.
If there’s a hero to the story, it is in the figure of Judge Dan Locallo, the hard-working, often-wrong-but-never-indecisive judge who focuses on disposing of his cases as fairly, but as quickly, as possible. Yet even with an honest, hard working judge, the courtroom is overwhelmed by the number of petty drug cases that ends up before the court. If anything, this book shows the hidden costs of our war on drugs: the sad unfortunates that end up pleading guilty and getting jail without drug treatment or the repeat offenders who are addicted to their own products.
Well worth reading, this book is suitable for juniors and seniors in high school and should be featured reading in any criminal justice course. ( )
  barlow304 | Feb 13, 2011 |
An awesome and amazing book on the workings of the American criminal justice system. It was intriguing and extremely engaging. It really made me think about what needs to be done to fix our criminal justice system. ( )
  weejane | Jan 12, 2011 |
This is a well-done work. The author spent a year in the Chicago criminal courts. It is amazing the volume that is involved. Much of the book tells of cases handled in 1998 by Judge Dan Locallo, who cooperated with the author and enabled a read behind-the-scenes look into the operation of his court. Seemed to me that there were lots more flaws in the court system in Chicago than there are in Iowa, though it is obvious that there are many good people working in the court system in Chicago. I found this a very fascinating book, well worth my time. ( )
  Schmerguls | Feb 2, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679752064, Paperback)

Courtroom 302 is the fascinating story of one year in Chicago's Cook County Criminal Courthouse, the busiest felony courthouse in the country. Here we see the system through the eyes of the men and women who experience it, not only in the courtroom but in the lockup, the jury room, the judge's chambers, the spectators' gallery. From the daily grind of the court to the highest-profile case of the year, Steve Bogira’s masterful investigation raises fundamental issues of race, civil rights, and justice in America.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:53 -0400)

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This book is the story of one year in one courtroom in Chicago's Cook County Criminal Courthouse, the busiest felony courthouse in the country. We see the system through the eyes of the men and women who experience it, not only in the courtroom but in the lockup, the jury room, the judge's chambers, the spectators' gallery. We witness from behind the scenes the highest-profile case of the year, and we follow the cases that are the daily grind of the court. Bogira shows us how the war on drugs is choking the system, and how in most instances justice is dispensed rapidly and mindlessly. The stories that unfold are often tragic, but they no longer seem so to the people who work there. This illumination of our criminal court system raises fundamental issues of race, civil rights, and justice.--From publisher description.… (more)

» see all 2 descriptions

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