70 pages 2 hours read

Steve Bogira

Courtroom 302

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2005

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Summary and Study Guide


Steve Bogira’s nonfiction work Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse was published in 2005. Bogira, as a Chicago native and long-time writer for the Chicago Reader, is a social justice advocate and focuses much of his work on poverty and segregation.


The author begins Courtroom 302 with a scene in Chicago’s Cook County Courthouse on 26th Street in the late 1990s. On a wintry day in January, prisoners were unloaded from police vans and corralled into a holding area where they awaited their hearings. The deputies regarded every criminal who passed through the jail as dangerous, though most of them were merely dope-sick, petty criminals. Most of those in custody were African American.


Bogira studies the lives of each person over whose case that Judge Daniel Locallo presided in Courtroom 302 at the 26th Street Courthouse. In doing so, he reveals that, despite the criminal justice system’s tendency to treat all criminal defendants as morally reprobate, the defendants each have their own stories and are products of social ills that have not been properly tackled. There is Larry Bates—a hard-working man who turned to alcohol and cocaine to cope with grief. Bates, like too many in his community, couldn’t escape crack addiction due to the ubiquity of the drug on Chicago’s West Side. Tony Cameron was a mentally-ill inmate with learning disabilities. D’Angelo Harris was a gang member born to Karen Harris, who was only 14 when she had him.


Bogira also explores the more lurid cases to have passed through the courtroom. The trial of Leslie McGee, which initially appears to be a gruesomely violent “crime of passion,” is later revealed to be a complex story of statutory rape and the sexual exploitation of a minor. When she was 16, McGee was the mistress of a man in his 30s; she was also a cocktail waitress at a local lounge. The author never explicitly deals with these matters, but he does chronicle how McGee’s history of sexual abuse—which is never completely divulged—led to her psychotic break and a pattern of exhibitionist behavior.


Leroy Orange’s case addressed the open-secret of torture at the hands of police who tried to force confessions out of suspects.


While Bogira provides vivid portraits of the defendants, Judge Locallo is the book’s protagonist. Locallo was an affable, middle-aged family man of Sicilian descent. He was known for quickly disposing of cases and for his sense of righteousness—particularly his urge to ensure racial justice. However, during his interviews with the judge, Bogira revealed Locallo’s repeated blindness to his own racial biases. Locallo also found it difficult to admit to instances in which he had been wrong—most notably, when he served as prosecutor in the 1982 trial of George Jones. Jones, a high school student, was wrongfully accused of committing rape, murder, and attempted murder and later acquitted, but not before being sent to prison and experiencing severe trauma.


Bogira also provides the reader with a history of crime and criminal justice in Chicago going back to the city’s founding. The story is as much about the system’s failure to cure social ills as it is about the defendants who are products of this failure. Bogira’s exploration of Chicago’s history of organized crime covers both the story of Dino Titone—a typical mob hit committed by an atypically moral mobster—and the Bridgeport case. The latter uses the theme of organized crime as a catalyst to detail the Italian mob’s persistent influence, as well as the problem de facto housing segregation in Chicago. The Bridgeport case also exposed the influences of politics and money on the outcomes of high-profile trials. Locallo, for example, came under fire due to suspicion that his 10-year sentence for the defendant in the Bridgeport case—Frank Caruso, Jr.—was impacted by his wish to avoid being unseated from the court. Despite his efforts, the black community balked at what it considered a lenient sentence for the brutal beating of the victim, Lenard Clark, while the Bridgeport community was outraged by what they perceived as Frank, Jr.’s martyrdom for Locallo’s political ambitions.


On Election Day, Judge Locallo was retained but ended up getting transferred to a civil court downtown where he presided over cases that involved large sums of money and mostly white defendants. Locallo liked the change, but acknowledged that his work on 26th Street was more important.

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