Steve Bogira: Presenting Court Cases for Readers to Judge

Editor’s Note: This is the 16th in a series of “How I Got That Story” interviews featuring the winners of the 2005 AltWeekly Awards. First-place entries are collected in the book “Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2005.”

Steve Bogira has been writing primarily about urban poverty for the Chicago Reader for 25 years. A native of Chicago’s southwest side, Bogira attended Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism before working first for the Chicago Tribune and then for the Reader. His column, Courtside, which won a 2005 AltWeekly Award, features stories from Chicago’s courts.  The three columns that earned the honor include one on the 90th birthday celebration of a court buff who entertained himself by attending trials, another on an appeals court judge’s justification of his frequent interruptions of lawyers, and another on discerning the truth about whether a defendant was guilty of possessing a loaded gun.

His new book, Courtroom 302 (Knopf), describes a year in a single courtroom of the Cook County Criminal Courthouse.

How would you describe what you write about?

My interest has always been people who aren’t written about a whole lot: stories that we don’t get in the daily papers or on TV. Poor people are fertile field for those kinds of stories.

Don’t people write about poverty all the time?

I think there’s a lot of general talk about poverty, but there is little looking at the specifics of it and telling the stories — partly because it’s difficult. Poor people often don’t have telephones; they live in dangerous neighborhoods; they’re not as accessible as affluent people. And reporters tend to write about what’s under their noses. They hear about stories from others in their social circles; they notice things in their own neighborhoods.

What led you to write about the courts?

If you’re going to write about poor people, you’re going to end up writing about the criminal courts — because the lives of poor people are bound up with the courts. Poor people usually have defendants or victims or both in their families. So some of my stories led me to the courthouse on 26th Street on the southwest side of the city, and I began to get interested in it.

It seems like you became fascinated not just with the stories but with the court system itself —

I’m not nearly as interested in the nuts and bolts of the courts as I am in the lives of the people in the system, especially the defendants. I see the defendant as the key person in the criminal justice system and the one most neglected by reporters. The part that interests me the most is who the defendants are and how they came to be appearing before a judge — not just the facts of the case that brought them before a judge but the facts of their lives that brought them into conflict with the law.

In your piece “What They See and What They Don’t,” you describe a defendant who gets acquitted of charges of carrying a gun. But the story is full of uncertainty. In the end it isn’t clear whether or not the defendant, Damaro Sterling, was telling the truth. How do you write a story when you yourself don’t know the truth?

In some ways it is more challenging to write a story when one doesn’t know for sure where the truth lies. I think life is ambiguous. There’s a danger in doing too much work for the reader. Readers get lazy. They’re expecting to be told what to think and what to feel in the stories they read. Stories are far more powerful when readers are involved in them. And I think it’s more democratic to write a story in which the reader decides how he or she feels about the main characters.

It’s easy for me to do that because my feelings about the characters are also complicated — the defendants are often people who have done repugnant things. But when one knows the circumstances of their lives, it’s easier to put their crimes in perspective, and I think it’s important to understand the context of what’s going on. That’s more important than judging. I think people feel that our job is to decide whether someone is good or bad, but we learn more when we open ourselves to people’s circumstances. For me, the important thing is to present as much evidence as possible, and let the reader judge.

So, if you’re "presenting evidence" to paint a picture of the defendant, how is that different from what the lawyers are doing?

There’s  a danger that we journalists can succumb to when we’re writing court stories, which is that we’re watching lawyers work, and we begin to work like lawyers. We prosecute our stories, especially in what seems to be the favorite kind of journalistic story, which is "Innocent Guy Gets Convicted." We’re so eager to tell that story that sometimes we marshal the evidence to show that somebody was wrongfully convicted. And sometimes — often, I think, actually — journalists overlook evidence that suggests that maybe somebody is guilty.

And it does bother me that that’s such a favorite story; that story doesn’t interest me as much as the stories about the truly guilty. I think most defendants are guilty of at least one of the charges lodged against them. In Illinois we have 45,000 people in prison, and I’d say that the vast majority of them are guilty of the crimes they were convicted of. To me the story is, why did they do what they did? And when you’re writing about somebody who’s really innocent, you can’t write the story that responds to that question. It’s a dead end in terms of getting at the bigger story of what causes crime to occur. You have to write about guilty people if you want to get to that story. 

What was the bigger story for you in the Sterling case?

It reflects what a nebulous thing truth is in the criminal justice system. There is an awful lot of lying in courts; it seems ironic. People take oaths to tell the truth, the whole truth, and yet I know from my experience covering the courts that most everybody lies. Cops lie in their reports and in their testimony; judges lie in their rulings. When they don’t want to suppress a confession that they know was coerced, they’ll lie and say that they don’t believe it was coerced. Prosecutors, defense lawyers, witnesses, defendants: Everybody has a vested interest, and they’re eager to win because it’s an adversarial system.

How do you get all these people to talk to you?

It doesn’t seem that hard. I think part of it is how you approach people. It would be easier to answer that question if I had had trouble doing it at one point. Often I learn something first about the people I talk with, and I use that to get them to talk to me. But it doesn’t take much.

With lawyers it sometimes is hard. Defense lawyers are nervous if there’s a lot of attention on a case, especially if it’s getting regular press in the papers. Judges are reelected because they’re hard on defendants, not because they’re easy. So defense lawyers feel like it’s better if there’s no press on cases generally. With most defense lawyers I know, the thing that helps is showing them I’m not in a rush, that I’m interested in more than a quick quote.

Do you have free rein to pick your stories? Does your editor have a say in what you write about?

I find stories myself, but my editor certainly has a say, and she helps me. Sometimes I struggle to see what the drama is, what the story is. You’d think that as you get more experienced, you’d need help less, but lately I’ve felt that it’s really helpful to have the input from an editor or a colleague. Usually the idea is mine, and how I write it is mostly me, but it’s really helpful to have the kind of editing I’ve had at the Reader.

Is that what your editor is most interested in? The drama?

Yeah, I think so. I see myself as a storyteller, and the editors want intriguing stories. I think it’s harder to say you want to write something important and illuminating and then go look for a story to show that than to do it the other way around. You start with an interesting story, and if you follow it long enough, there will be stuff that’s important and illuminating.

The book is about a real important subject – criminal justice. This is a country that spends billions on criminal justice. We have more than 2 million people in jails and prisons, they all pass through courtrooms like the one I wrote about, and yet we don’t know how these courtrooms work. So it’s an important subject, but no one’s going to read it because of that. They’re going to read it based on the start of the book or the lead of the story. On the other hand, you don’t want to just be salacious. You want to write something that helps us understand life. But it starts with the story.

Isaiah Thompson is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and was a 2005 fellow of the Academy for Alternative Journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he is a freelance writer and educator.

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