Vol. 16 No.1 (January 2006), pp.26-30


COURTROOM 302, by Steve Bogira.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.  416pp.  Hardback. $25.00 ISBN:  0-679-43252-3.  Paper (2006). $14.95.  ISBN:  0-679-75206-4.


Reviewed by Jack E. Call, Department of Criminal Justice, Radford University.  Email: jcall [at] radford.edu.


This is an excellent book about the criminal courts in Chicago.  The book is written by Steve Bogira, a reporter for THE CHICAGO READER (a self-styled alternative weekly newspaper).  The story of the Chicago criminal courts is told largely through Bogira’s observations of the courtroom (Courtroom 302) presided over by Judge Daniel Locallo, a former prosecutor.  Judge Locallo gave Bogira extraordinary access to him and freely shared his thoughts about events that Bogira observed and issues with which Locallo had to deal.  Many others in the court system, including many defendants, did the same.  The result is a compelling, well-written story that gives the reader considerable insight into the daily operations of a criminal court.


The general organization of the book focuses on the various stages of the criminal process.  It discusses a wide range of criminal justice issues, such as sentencing, plea bargaining, prosecutorial discretion, racial discrimination, police misconduct, judicial corruption, to mention just a few.


Unlike some books that use a single case for this purpose (Phillips, 1978), Bogira acquaints the reader with several cases, and emphasizes one of them when it is most relevant to a stage or issue that comes under discussion.  Occasionally, a case is discussed at length in only one place in the book, to highlight a particular point or issue.  For example, a murder case is used to demonstrate how cases often have both good and bad facts that the defense can try to downplay and stress (Chapter 4 – “Good Facts, Bad Facts”).  The defendant (a young man named Harris) killed another young man who was sitting in the victim’s car, apparently because Harris thought the victim was a member of a rival gang (based on the fact that the victim was wearing a baseball cap with a “T” on it) – although the motive was never clearly established.  An eyewitness identified Harris as the killer, and Harris confessed (bad facts).  On the other hand, Harris is a very young man who was susceptible to police pressure, and the eyewitness initially identified another suspect (good facts). 


A burglary case is used to discuss the effectiveness of public defenders (PDs), especially from the perception of their clients (Chapter 7 – “A Real Lawyer”).  Many indigent defendants (especially, presumably, those who are repeat players) are so disparaging of the quality of assistance they receive that they tell others PD stands for “Penitentiary Dispenser” (p.126).  In this burglary case, the defendant is initially somewhat skeptical about the quality of advice from his PD.  However, when the defendant insists on going to trial, the PD is so persistent in his presentation of evidence favorable to the defendant that [*27] he is acquitted.  This prompts the defendant to tell his attorney, “Hey, you good. . .  Why ain’t you become a real lawyer?” (p.138).


One case receiving considerable attention in the book is dubbed “The Bridgeport Case” by Bogira.  It involves the brutal assault of a 13-year-old African-American teenager who had wandered into the white community of Bridgeport (with two other teen-agers – one African-American and another Mexican-American) to get air for his bicycle tires.  An 18-year-old white man, Frank Caruso Jr., (assisted by two other young white men) accosted the three teen-agers, told them they did not belong in the neighborhood, chased down one of them when he tried to flee, and beat and kicked the 13-year-old into a 6-day coma.  Bogira uses the case to discuss several issues of importance to the criminal justice system.


One issue has to do with race relations (Chapter 3 – “Baggage”).  This case was especially difficult for the judge and prosecutor because of its interracial character.  Judge Locallo knew that the black community would watch the case closely to see if the perpetrators were dealt with harshly, but he also recognized that if he rushed to judgment to assuage the black community’s concerns, the result could have been a lack of justice for the alleged perpetrators.  These concerns were exacerbated because the evidence against the two less culpable defendants was not as strong as that against the principle defendant.  In fact, Bogira later presents a very strong argument (Chapter 19 – “Politics”) that one of the two less culpable perpetrators who entered into a plea bargain may well have been innocent.  


The Bridgeport Case also serves as a useful vehicle for discussing jury selection (Chapter 16 – “Prejudice”).  The Supreme Court has taken steps to insure that jury selection will be color-blind, but, in the Chicago criminal courts at least, it is not.  Prosecutors have developed what an Illinois appellate judge has called “Twenty Time-Tested Race-Neutral Explanations” for excusing black jurors.  Two black women made it onto the jury, but no black men survived voir dire


Perhaps the most interesting aspect of The Bridgeport Case is the sentencing decisions it presented Judge Locallo (Chapter 18 – “Compassion”).  Locallo faced a difficult dilemma.  He did not want to appear to condone a violent, racially-based beating, but often first offenders (even first violent offenders) receive probation.  Plus, at the time he had to decide on the sentence for Caruso, the most culpable defendant in the case, Locallo knew that it was likely he would be asked to approve probation sentences for Caruso’s co-defendants because the evidence against them was so much weaker.  The prosecutors feared acquittal if they went to trial with those two defendants.  If Locallo gave Caruso a stiff sentence but approved probation for the other two, it might appear that he was being inconsistent.  (Eventually, he decided to give Caruso an 8-year prison sentence, while awarding probation to the other two defendants).


Through another case (the Larry Bates Case), we see the system’s difficulty dealing with drug crimes.  Larry Bates is a man with a drug problem, but he is not [*28] a hard core addict.  He genuinely wants to stay off drugs, but his criminal drug record makes it difficult for him to do so.  Judge Locallo gave Bates every chance to straighten out his life.  Even after Bates committed a second drug possession offense, Locallo gave him probation again (“paper on paper.”  Chapter 1 – “White Sales”).  Amazingly, when Bates was caught a third time, for selling drugs this time, Locallo was still willing to give Bates a shot at a drug treatment program, rather than prison (Chapter 12 – “Defective Products”).  He got his life straightened out enough to find a good woman to marry him (his second marriage).  However, after a series of low-paying jobs that made it difficult to make ends meet financially, Bates returned to his old practice of selling drugs to raise enough money to buy drugs, was caught, and finally went to prison – for seven and a half years (Epilogue).  In the course of relating the Larry Bates saga, Bogira discusses the effect of drug offenses on the criminal justice system, the history of illicit drug activities in the United States, and some of the racial implications of the system’s treatment of offenses.


Two very important issues run throughout the book.  The first concerns the implications of electing judges.  In Chicago, some associate judges are selected by other trial court judges and are subject to reappointment every four years.  Because associate judges are paid less than circuit court judges, most aspire to circuit judge status.  Circuit judges are elected in partisan elections and are subject to periodic retention elections, in which they must attain a 60% majority in order to remain on the bench.  Judge Locallo was an associate initially, but had been elected a circuit judge by the time Bogira did his research.  During much of the period covered by the book, Locallo was preparing for a retention election.


It is clear that Locallo (and presumably his colleagues as well) often thought about the election implications of his decisions, even though losing a retention election is extremely rare.  He liked to preside over highly publicized cases (“heater cases”) not only because he found them interesting but also because he thought they improved his chances for retention (even though heater cases also carry a greater risk of presenting an issue to resolve that might be both controversial and unpopular).


The disposition rates of judges are published prior to retention elections by the Chicago Crime Commission.  Judge Locallo prided himself on his caseload management skills.  Sometimes this preoccupation with caseload management resulted in tactics that were arguably questionable and were indisputably unpopular with other courtroom players.  For example, Locallo often heard evidence in bench trials during breaks in jury trials.  This meant that he would base his judgment of guilt or innocence on evidence that he heard in bits and pieces over the course of several days.  Police officers, prosecutors, and defense attorneys disliked this practice because it often required them to spend a few hours in the courtroom awaiting the possibility of a break in another trial.


The Bridgeport Case provides the best example of how retention elections may influence a judge’s decision-making.  As we have seen, Judge Locallo had to make difficult decisions about Frank [*29] Caruso’s sentence.  Caruso’s attorney accused Locallo of rushing to a quick sentencing decision as to Caruso, because Locallo knew he would be accepting a lenient plea agreement with respect to the other two defendants and wanted to get a harsh sentence for Caruso on the record before the retention election.  Whether that was true or not, it was clear that Locallo took the Caruso sentencing very seriously.  After pronouncing sentence on Caruso, Locallo distributed to the press copies of his explanation and rationale.


The other important theme that runs throughout the book concerns the questionable ethics that are displayed time and again by virtually every player involved in the courtroom scene.  It is often thought that defendants will lie in an effort to avoid conviction, so we should not be surprised to learn in the Epilogue that a defendant in a murder trial Bogira had discussed earlier in the book admitted to Bogira that she lied on the witness stand at her trial (and in her confession to the police) when she testified that the victim tried to sexually assault her in his taxi cab.  (In fact, the defendant had been engaged in an affair with the cab driver and killed him when he told her he was ending the relationship).  Even some readers without extensive prior knowledge about the judicial system may have read something about the Operation Greylord investigation that developed evidence of extensive bribery of some Chicago judges by some defense attorneys and will thus not be completely shocked when some of this information is discussed.


It is the relentless drumbeat of questionable ethics that is so remarkable and that may be somewhat surprising even to readers who are quite knowledgeable about the operation of our courts.  Because of the sheer number of incidents discussed in the book, it is impossible to mention all of them or to discuss any of them in great detail.  Suffice it to say that we see prosecutors who are willing to negotiate plea bargains in cases where they know they probably cannot get convictions, defense attorneys who are willing to urge their clients to accept such offers, and judges who are willing to approve them.  We see police officers willing to use questionable tactics (including torture) to obtain evidence and judges who remain skeptical about claims of torture even after such tactics have been documented.  We see police officers who create separate, unofficial files (called “street files”) to hide evidence that might be helpful to the defense and prosecutors who are willing to keep the practice from coming to light.  We see a jury foreman who seems more interested in reaching a quick verdict than in reaching an accurate one.  We see a prosecutor who is willing to try to prove a defendant’s guilt based almost exclusively on the testimony of a 10-year-old brain-damaged witness, who saw his sister killed but whose recollection of that event was, to put it mildly, of questionable reliability.  We see judges who are willing and allowed to, in effect, review the judgments of colleagues who are friends (and sometimes even mentors) as well.  We see a prosecutor present a theory of a case based on facts that he probably does not believe to be true and prosecutors who withhold evidence from the defense that they have a legal duty to share with them.  For many readers, this book will [*30] leave them with a picture of a court system in great need of improvement.


This is an excellent book to use with college students.  Bogira is a journalist whose writing style should be very appealing and accessible to undergraduates.  The use of several cases that run throughout the book assists greatly in engaging the reader.  One develops an interest in the principals in these cases – the judge, prosecutors, defense attorneys, public defenders, deputy sheriffs, witnesses, victims, victims’ families, and even defendants (in spite of the fact that the reader assumes they are guilty of significant crimes).  The reader wants to know how these people fare in the system, how they feel about their role in the system, and whether they feel the system has treated them well.


Another plus for this book as a college course resource is that Bogira has done his homework.  He puts events and issues in context with empirical evidence developed by academicians.  (One slight drawback is that, while he cites the empirical sources in the back of the book, there are no footnote numbers or other specific indicators in the text that would clearly alert the reader that a source will be cited in the back.  On the other hand, it is usually fairly clear when Bogira is referring to a source that will be cited).  The book also has an excellent index that is very useful in pulling together all the strands of a case that is discussed in several different places.


The book is not without its deficiencies.  For example, in an early chapter, Bogira describes the process by which it is determined which defendants receive relatively lenient treatment and which are dealt with more harshly, but he does not systematically describe the criteria that form the basis for this “sorting” process.  Similarly, Bogira indicates that his overall theme is “how justice miscarries every day, by doing precisely what we ask it to” (p.22), but he does not finish the book by discussing this point comprehensively.  Pedagogically, this might be turned into a positive.  The book provides more than enough information to permit the reader to address the issue of whether the courts do justice.  Teachers may ask their students to address that issue knowing that they will have to answer it largely on their own, without being influenced or limited by Bogira’s conclusions.



Phillips, Steven J.  NO HEROES, NO VILLAINS:  THE STORY OF A MURDER.  (Knopf Publishing Group, 1978).


© Copyright 2006 by the author, Jack E. Call.