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'Courtroom 302': Criminal Justice, Chicago Style

ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Chicago's Cook County Criminal Courthouse is the busiest felony courthouse in the nation. Journalist Steve Bogira spent some time observing the criminal justice system and the people who approach it from all sides of the law. He shared some of their stories with our correspondent, Farai Chideya.

Mr. STEVE BOGIRA (Journalist): `The prisoners pair up and link arms, like first-graders, except for the handcuffs the sergeant clicks on. They follow a deputy through the tunnel to the elevator. The caboose on this train, a prisoner without a partner, a skinny black man in a tattered jacket and dirty pants, manages to keep up with the line. No easy trick for a man with one leg, one stump and one crutch.'

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

That's journalist Steve Bogira reading from his book on the criminal justice system, "Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse."

Mr. BOGIRA: `His name is Walter Williams(ph), and he turned 34 just three days ago. He lost the leg as a child. One afternoon when he was nine, he climbed into a slow-moving boxcar near his home on the South Side. When he fell from the car, the train crushed his left leg, but he didn't wallow in self-pity afterward, his brother Henry(ph) tells me later. He learned to swim, play basketball and ice skate. He also learned to fix cars. But repair shops weren't looking for a one-legged asthmatic mechanic, so he worked only sporadically on the cars of relatives and friends. Yesterday afternoon, he and a cousin were caught in a stolen van. The deputies in this basement know nothing about Williams' life, of course. To them, he's just another scumbag with three limbs, instead of four.'

CHIDEYA: Walter Williams is just one of many memorable real-life characters in "Courtroom 302." To write the book, Steve Bogira spent a year tracking the ebb and flow of defendants and the lives of prosecutors, lawyers and police officers. Welcome, Steve.

Mr. BOGIRA: Good to be here, Farai.

CHIDEYA: I'm going to read off the names of a few people in your book, and I just want you to tell us a little bit about them and what you think their stories say about the criminal justice system. Let me start with Judge Dan Locallo.

Mr. BOGIRA: Judge Locallo is a hard-working judge, a person who prides himself in knowing the law. He's ambitious. He wants to become an appellate court judge one day. And like all judges at 26th Street and in most big city courtrooms, he has too many cases, so he spends most of his time hashing out the details of plea bargains to get rid of cases as quickly as possible.

CHIDEYA: And that's a common syndrome in the court system?

Mr. BOGIRA: Yeah. It's the only way to deal with the huge load of cases that these judges are facing. So even judges who are well-intentioned can't really consider the context of crimes that defendants are accused of.

CHIDEYA: Let me move on to the developmentally disabled prisoner named Dan Young. What did his story sort of teach you?

Mr. BOGIRA: Dan Young had an IQ in the lower 50s, and he confessed to a murder, a sexual assault murder, which two other suspects confessed to. They were tried and convicted and sentenced to life. Recently, Dan Young has been freed after 14 years in prison because DNA tests could not link him to their crime, but the fact that he confessed, his defense lawyer at trial maintained that the confession had been beaten out of him and that he had been tricked into confessing, and it was an easy thing to do with somebody who was retarded.

CHIDEYA: Who did you meet along the way who was trying to make the system better?

Mr. BOGIRA: Well, there are a lot of people in the courts who are well-meaning and who really do care. I think that they just feel like their hands are tied by the caseloads. But I mostly remember a public defender named Amy Campanelli(ph) who started the year in Courtroom 302 and talked to me about how she really wanted to make a difference for her clients. Unfortunately, Farai, she talked to me about this on the day she was leaving because she was so burnt out from having a hundred cases and not being able to visit her clients in the jail regularly. She's someone who was really straining to make a difference in the lives of her clients, but felt badly because she couldn't visit them and talk to them enough about their cases, so on the one hand, she was someone who was making a difference for a while, but she was burnt out, so she was leaving. She's now back at the courthouse, though, working as a supervisor and doing, from what I hear, great work once again.

CHIDEYA: And finally, what do you think Americans need to know most about the criminal justice system?

Mr. BOGIRA: Well, I think they have to remember that it's a factory. It's not jury trials in front of crowded galleries like it is often on the TV shows or in the celebrity trials. It's plea bargains hashed out, and when cases do go to trial, it's often before empty galleries because no one really cares. A lot of times, for the victim or the defendant, it's a real sad place, it's a tragic place, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't pay attention to it. In Cook County, we have a jail behind the courthouse with 11,000 people in it, and in big cities throughout the nation, we have those kinds of stockyards. We really need to be concerned about how these people are treated and what we can do to make sure that our courts aren't a revolving door. And I think paying attention to what brings people to criminal courtrooms in the first place, the facts of their lives is the starting point.

CHIDEYA: Steve Bogira is the author of "Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse." Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. BOGIRA: Thanks, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Farai Chideya, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Farai Chideya
Farai Chideya is a multimedia journalist who has worked in print, television, online, and radio. Prior to joining NPR's News & Notes, Chideya hosted Your Call, a daily news and cultural call-in show on San Francisco's KALW 91.7 FM. Chideya has also been a correspondent for ABC News, anchored the prime time program Pure Oxygen on the Oxygen women's channel, and contributed commentaries to CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and BET. She got her start as a researcher and reporter at Newsweek magazine. In 1997 Newsweek named her to its "Century Club" of 100 people to watch.
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