If, God forbid, jurors get assigned to an intellectual-property case, or worse, a class-action asbestos suit, they might as well quit their jobs, cancel their vacations, and consign themselves to lives of service. They may endure weeks, if not months, of mind-numbing boredom involving pie charts, “expert” witnesses, and multiple Power Point presentations. And then, just when they’ve come to care about the case for no good reason other than overexposure, it will be settled out of court. They will be curtly thanked and sent home to look for a new job.
But a murder trial? Ha! A mere civic holiday! A week, tops (provided the defendant is not famous, naturally). A day of jury selection, a few volleys of semi-coherent testimony, several long lunches at Taco Bell, and boom. A young man goes to prison for 300 years, or he collects his watch and wallet and goes home for a steak dinner. Just like on TV!
But lawyers (like journalists) almost never get picked for juries. And very few ever try murder cases themselves, either. So to Thomas Geoghegan, Chicago’s criminal court came as a terrifying surprise. Geoghegan is a civil litigator who, before this, has written two well-received books chronicling the decline of the labor movement and liberalism in general (including the 1991 treatise, Which Side Are You On?: Trying to Be for Labor When It’s Flat on Its Back). But, like most civil litigators, he hardly ever tries any cases. (He estimates that the percentage of civil lawyers who go to trial is 2 to 3 percent, or less.) His cases settle, invariably, after months of billed hours and vows never to do so. All the while, like most lawyers, he yearns to be doing something else: “I keep thinking that somewhere for me there is another life I have as a lawyer and I’m not being allowed to live it.”
So it is by sheer accident that Geoghegan ends up helping to defend a young murder suspect named Rolando. At age 15, Rolando had helped two older kids rob a bar. He didn’t have a gun and didn’t hurt anyone, but one of the other kids shot a customer. So Rolando was convicted of felony murder. By some miracle, seven years into his sentence, his verdict was overturned. Geoghegan’s criminal-defense attorney friend gets the case and, in passing, cajoles his buddy into helping out with the new trial. Geoghegan fully intends to call him later and politely cancel, but he forgets. So there he finds himself on Monday morning, sitting in a grimy criminal courthouse, trying to put on the correct facial expression as a jury decides the fate of a boy who has grown into a man in prison. And the ride begins.
Geoghegan’s naivete can be intensely annoying. For example, the instant he meets Rolando in the court’s holding cell, he is gripped with a conviction of his innocence. “[He was] standing in a golden light, and all I could think was–He’s innocent!” But the Pollyanna act can, at other times, be charming. After all, the reader gets to walk behind the scenes of a murder trial, never feeling any dumber than the author. Geoghegan’s humility and honesty, coupled with his ceaseless inner dialogue, make him a sort of Woody Allen of the courtroom drama–perpetually tortured but nonthreateningly so.
In the best section of the book, Geoghegan shares his notes from the voir dire. And we get to see behind the curtain. “Juror Candidate No. 1: Mrs. V. I don’t like her. She’s East European, which I like, but it’s in a ‘1938 East European’ way, which I don’t like. ‘Strike her,’ I write. Juror Candidate No. 30: Juror from Hell. Why? Because he’s a white CEO in the burbs, but worse: His dad owned a bunch of gas stations, which were held up all the time. So he probably has nightmares of kids doing holdups.” And so forth.
But meanwhile, Geoghegan’s frequent digressions into his own private agonies try the patience. “It’s odd how in my life, after being young so long, I’m now the oldest person on the El.” But we read on. And it’s probably not because we are fascinated by his thesis that this kid’s sad life is a test case for human rights in America. It’s definitely not because we care about Geoghegan’s identity crisis over his life’s work as a civil lawyer. We read for the same reason we will always read murder trial stories, no matter what cultural critique they’re dressed up as. It’s the same reason Rolando’s fiance reads a John Grisham novel during breaks in the trial, much to Geoghegan’s annoyance. We want to know, is he guilty or not?
Until the moment we find out the answer, three-quarters of the way through the book, In America’s Court makes for a pleasant, breezy read. From that point on, though, Geoghegan’s overindulgence becomes intolerable. He spends the rest of his book trying to justify writing a book about a trial in which he just barely played a role. He wrings his hands over the worth of his legal career and vaguely hopes we are seeing the dawn of a new era of global human-rights law. But it’s too lazy an analysis to merit the space. If only he’d spent the next few years following Rolando after the trial, we might have learned something more alongside our accidental tourist.