three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
17-July-Aug-2005
By: 
Steve Bogira
user_rating: 
0

A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse

A-Courtroom302Veteran journalist Steve Bogira spent most of 1998 immersed in the day-to-day life of Chicago’s Cook County Courthouse, one of the nation’s biggest and busiest court buildings. During that time, and with a judge’s permission, Bogira watched a staggering number of cases—a few sensational, most unpublicized—grind through the legal machinery. He also became a courthouse insider, receiving remarkably unrestricted access to judges’ chambers, courthouse back offices, and the county jail. His resulting narrative, rich with real-life stories and characters, offers a rare first-hand peek deep into the heart of the American criminal-justice system.
Knopf. 404 pages. $25. ISBN: 0679432523

Chicago Sun-Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Courtroom 302 is an immensely important book that exposes how American’s criminal justice system really works. … Bogira pulls it all together to make a convincing argument that, from start to finish, justice at 26th and Cal is a dicey proposition." Tom McNamee

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"[The book] is so crammed with the rich detail that comes from being immersed in the community of Courtroom 302 … that it appears [the author] became virtually invisible. The result is a vivid tapestry of the day-in and day-out workings of criminal justice, ranging from the mundane to the bizarre and from the humorous to the gut-wrenchingly sad." Maurice Possley

Economist 4 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Bogira’s book is a brilliant piece of journalism and a genuine eye-opener. … Mr. Bogira has produced a compelling narrative that is often more entertaining than most of the cop shows which are so popular on American television."

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"So much in Courtroom 302 is revelatory that the revelations cannot even be summarized in a normal-length newspaper review. … Get hold of this important, compelling book, then prepare for shock and awe." Steve Weinberg

Baltimore Sun 3 of 5 Stars
"The system’s inequities, biases, triumphs and failings are all there. The true stories are harrowing and banal, grisly and boring, outrageous and numbing." Ann LoLordo

Rocky Mountain News 2.5 of 5 Stars
"[I]f you’re thinking of going to law school and getting into criminal law, read this book. If you want to be depressed about the sheer enormity of big-city ‘justice,’ read this book. Unfortunately, it’s hard to enthusiastically recommend it to anyone else." Scott C. Yates

Washington Post 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Courtroom 302 fares best when it focuses on the anonymous petty crooks and drug dealers whose trials unfold before a single weeping relative or a completely empty gallery, so it is unfortunate that Bogira ultimately surrenders to convention by structuring the book around the progress of a high-profile case. … Still, if Courtroom 302 falls short in its structure, it is triumphant in detail." David Feige

Critical Summary

Courtroom 302 earned high marks for the extensive reporting and detailed writing that let readers accompany the author behind the scenes of a big-city courthouse. Reviewers also praised Bogira’s first book as accurate, precise, authoritative, and comprehensive. But several felt the book’s straightforward journalistic approach lacked heart: Courtroom 302’s "removed, reportorial tone mirrors the pervasive aloofness of the system itself," public defender David Feige complained in The Washington Post. A few criticized the book’s dense details. Ultimately, though, even Bogira’s critics note that his book succeeds in its larger goal: depicting a legal system where, in the author’s words, "justice miscarries every day by doing precisely what we ask it to."

Supplemental Reading

The Prosecutors A Year in the Life of a District Attorney’s Office | Gary Delsohn (2003): 4 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2003. Delsohn, a senior writer for The Sacramento Bee, gained full access to Sacramento’s DA office in 2001.