At 2:30 on a cool, overcast April afternoon in 1998, a white sheriff’s bus pulls up behind the Cook County Criminal Courthouse, and the Locallo entourage boards. Judge Daniel Locallo had asked the sheriff’s office for the bus and a driver this morning, annoying the chief of security in the courthouse, Ed Hassel, who would have preferred a little more notice. But it’s par for the course for Locallo, according to Hassel, who says Locallo makes more special requests of the sheriff’s office than any other judge at 26th and California, and often with little regard for the difficulties the requests might impose.
Locallo has made a half-dozen field trips in his 12 years as a judge–more than any of his colleagues, he believes. When a trip to the crime scene might clarify things, he says, a field trip makes sense. He’s not sure why judges don’t make such trips more often. “To me, what’s the harm? It’s no big deal–you get on the bus and you go. It makes it interesting.”
What needs clarifying in this case is where a red sneaker ended up after a burglary. The shoe slipped off the foot of the defendant, Terrence Pouncy, as he was fleeing an angry Washington Demus, the 73-year-old victim of the burglary. Demus, a security guard, had come home to find two intruders in his house, and he’d chased them out the front door at gunpoint. When Pouncy’s bench trial began yesterday, Demus had identified him as the second man. Demus testified that he fired several shots at Pouncy from his porch, wounding him in the arm, before Pouncy fled south down the block.
Pouncy, however, testified that he was working on a car in front of his girlfriend’s house, next door to Demus’s house, when Demus approached and threatened to shoot him. Pouncy, who has two burglary convictions, said he fled west through the gangway alongside Demus’s house, with Demus shooting at him and wounding him in the arm before he escaped.
The red sneaker is the key piece of evidence because Demus said it slipped off Pouncy’s foot in front of the house, and Pouncy said it came off in the gangway as he was vaulting a fence. A police photo of the crime scene shows a downspout right behind the shoe. Pouncy’s lawyer had argued that this showed Pouncy lost the shoe in the gangway, corroborating his version of events. But Locallo said he couldn’t tell for sure from the photo that the downspout was in the gangway, so he scheduled the trip to the scene.
The crew boarding the bus this afternoon consists of prosecutors Andrew Dalkin and Mark Ostrowski; Pouncy and his lawyer, public defender John Conniff; courtroom deputies Gil Guerrero and Laura Rhodes; a court reporter; Locallo; and myself. It’s a midsize bus with a dozen two-person seats. The prosecutors take a seat at the front, while the 25-year-old Pouncy, the only black on board, heads straight for the rear. Conniff parks himself in the seat in front of his client, and Locallo settles in across the aisle from Conniff.
The bus crawls south through midafternoon congestion on California. “You got a siren on this thing?” Locallo calls to the deputy who’s driving.
“Yes. Why?” The driver’s tone suggests he won’t use the siren, and Locallo doesn’t push the idea.
Dalkin says something to Ostrowski about a recent vacation. Guerrero asks Dalkin whether he smoked dope on the trip. Guerrero’s antennae are always feeling for hypocrisy. He figures a lot of prosecutors must have gotten high in college, and he’d bet that some still do. He finds it funny that they always deny it.
“That what you like to do, Gil?” Locallo calls out.
“If I did I’d probably be in front of you now, asking for a contact visit,” Guerrero says, and everyone laughs.
Except Pouncy, whose gaze is fixed out the emergency-exit window next to him. He’s not sure how to act during this odd exercise, so he’s trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. As he’ll tell me later, he still can’t believe this is happening. Last night he told some friends about the coming trip to the scene, and they rolled their eyes. Even his girlfriend said, “Yeah, right.”
“Where we at–61st Street?” Locallo is saying. “Beautiful. Officer Battaglia, you’re making good time,” he shouts to the driver.
“I’m Silva,” the driver shouts back.
Earlier today Locallo made his ruling in the bench trial of a defendant named Hector Padilla, who’d been accused of shooting a young man to death in a south-side Mexican neighborhood. Padilla’s mother, father, and sister had testified that Hector had been with them on the evening in question, watching a video. But that hadn’t been enough to overcome the confession Padilla had given and the two eyewitnesses who’d fingered him. Locallo had found him guilty, declaring, with unusual vehemence for him, that he believed the Padilla family had simply lied for him.
Now Ostrowski, who prosecuted the case, tells Locallo he thinks Padilla was expecting to be acquitted.
“Hector must have misread,” Locallo says.
“I was surprised you used the word lie on the record,” Ostrowski says. “You usually say something like ‘not credible.'”
“Wonder what video Hector was watching that night,” Locallo says. “Probably The Usual Suspects.” He looks across the aisle at Conniff. “You ever seen that movie?”
Conniff shakes his head.
“One of the absolute great movies,” the judge says.
Pouncy turns away from the window for the first time, looks at Locallo, and says excitedly, “I seen that!”
“Good movie, Terrence?” Locallo asks.
“Yeah. That Keyser–”
“Keyser Soze,” Locallo says. “There’s just so many twists to it.” He pauses, eyeing Pouncy, then says, “Terrence Pouncy, usual suspect.” He and Pouncy trade grins, and then Pouncy quickly and bashfully turns back to his window.
The bus rumbles along on gritty south-side streets, past body shops, fast-food joints, taverns with Old Style signs. Pouncy feels fairly confident that this trip will clear him, but as he passes familiar street corners he also worries that this could be his last glimpse of them for a long time. If the judge finds him guilty, it’ll be his third burglary conviction–which means a sentence of 6 to 30 years.
After 20 minutes Officer Silva swings the bus onto the 6700 block of Peoria. A hodgepodge of homes, brick and frame, are squeezed together behind tiny lawns. The bus groans to a stop in front of Washington Demus’s weary two-story house. An elderly man and woman standing on the sidewalk a few doors down look at the bus and then at each other as the passengers spill out. Pouncy’s glad to see no one he knows–he’d been concerned about the embarrassment.
Locallo and the lawyers survey the gangway on the north side of the house, the one Pouncy claims Demus chased him through. Attached to the building next door they find a downspout that appears to match the one in the photo of the sneaker. That’s good news for Pouncy.
After just five minutes the entourage reboards the bus. The court reporter sets up her steno on a tripod in the aisle. Locallo says for the record that the principals have made a trip to the scene and that the sneaker appears to have been in the gangway north of Demus’s house.
“All right. John, any questions?” Locallo asks Conniff.
It’s not clear to whom Conniff would address them, but the PD says he has none.
“Andy, any questions?” the judge asks Dalkin. Dalkin likewise has none.
“Gil, any questions?” deputy Rhodes asks her partner softly.
Guerrero rubs his stomach. “Yeah. When can I get something to eat?”
On the return trip Locallo begins telling Conniff about the annual touch football game the state’s attorneys and the PDs played when he was a prosecutor. His very first year he returned a kickoff for a touchdown, Locallo says, ending a two-year scoring drought for the prosecutors.
A judge spends his workday listening to the stories of others, and perhaps he yearns for times when the situation is reversed. Locallo can see he has an attentive audience in Conniff, whose eyes never wander from him, and Conniff soon pays the price, as Locallo relates in excruciating detail the key plays of several years of the football battles. “The next year the game was six to nothing in the snow. . . . The next year the PDs go ahead with two minutes left in the game. . . . Then we had time for one more play.” The saga ends thrillingly, with wide receiver Locallo serving as a decoy, the PDs triple-teaming him, and another prosecutor grabbing a deflected pass for a last-second touchdown and a come-from-behind victory for the state. Locallo gazes blissfully out his window after finishing the chronicle. Conniff steals a look at his watch.
Conniff mentions that he’s hoping to get to his daughter’s high school softball game later this afternoon. Locallo grabs the ball and heads downfield, launching into several minutes of his daughter’s exploits in cross-country races and his son’s feats on basketball courts.
When Dalkin says something to Ostrowski about a case on the courtroom’s calender involving the northwest-side Edens Motel, it prompts Locallo to tell another story.
He was sleeping over at a friend’s house near the motel when he was ten. In the middle of the night, he says, “we got the bright idea to go out for some Cokes,” and the two boys snuck out of the house and over to the motel, knowing it had a pop machine. As luck would have it, police were monitoring the area because earlier that evening some cars in the motel lot had been broken into. Locallo and his friend neared the motel just as a string of squad cars and a paddy wagon rolled by. The boys darted across a busy street and into a forest preserve. “Then we heard ‘Halt!’ And then boom!” Locallo says. One officer had fired a warning shot. “We hit the dirt. They walked us back to the squad cars at gunpoint.”
Locallo told the officers his father was Sergeant August Locallo. “They said, ‘Well, you’d better call him.’ It was three o’clock in the morning. I said, ‘I think he’s asleep.’ They said, ‘Call him.'” Fortunately for Locallo, most of his father’s wrath was directed at the officers who’d drawn weapons to round up two kids, particularly the one who’d fired the shot. “Needless to say,” Locallo says, “it was a while before I went on any more sleepovers.”
Soon after the group returns to Courtroom 302, Locallo calls Pouncy to the bench. The judge says for the record that the police photo of the sneaker, along with the visit to the crime scene, suggests a version of events “diametrically opposed to the testimony of Mr. Demus, and under the circumstances creates doubt in this court’s mind regarding the whole set of facts. . . . Therefore, the court having said that, the defendant is not guilty.”
“Thank you, Mr. Locallo,” Pouncy says meekly. He confers briefly with Conniff, then takes a seat in the empty gallery. He’ll have to wait while Conniff prepares a court order for Locallo to sign explaining to the home-monitoring officials why he wasn’t home today. His acquittal ought to make that point moot, but Pouncy can imagine some sheriff mistakenly hauling him back down to 26th Street for violating his bond.
Once Pouncy’s in the gallery Dalkin approaches the bench, shaking his head. He asks Locallo if the microphone is off, and the judge leans forward and cuts the sound to the gallery.
“It just strikes me as odd,” Dalkin says, “that when a person gets found not guilty of a residential burglary, that he shows no emotion.”
Conniff, who’s writing the court order for Pouncy at the defense table, springs to his feet. “You know why that is, don’t you?” he says.
“Yeah, I know why–because he’s guilty,” Dalkin says.
Conniff glares at the prosecutor. “Your office has that rare myopia, that even when the evidence doesn’t support the charge you still believe the guy’s guilty.”
Ostrowski comes to Dalkin’s aid, reminding Conniff of the difference between not guilty and innocent. “We just didn’t have the evidence,” he says.
“I think you had a witness who took the stand and lied,” Conniff replies. “I’d worry more about that part than about, ‘Well, he must have been guilty of something.'”
“We can continue this philosophical discussion another time, John,” Locallo says. “You’re gonna be late for your game.”
“I feel very strongly about this,” Conniff says.
Locallo, passing through the gallery on his way out of the courtroom, tells Pouncy, “Stay out of trouble. You go down on another burglary, you’re looking at 6 to 30. Get a degree. Get a job. Be productive.”
“You wouldn’t think a judge would come to your neighborhood like that,” Pouncy says after Locallo leaves. “I appreciate that. Like they say, he’s a law judge. That’s why he found me not guilty, because he went by the law. I have did some bad things, and at some point you got to be punished. But not for a crime you ain’t did.” He says he does indeed plan to return to school and to find work, but that first he needs surgery on his arm. He says he’s had little feeling in the first three fingers of his right hand and trouble moving his arm since he was shot by Demus.
Conniff is still steaming about Dalkin’s reaction when the PD gives Pouncy his court order in the gallery a few minutes later. “These people on the other side–they read everything as evidence of guilt,” he tells his client. He cautions Pouncy to watch his step back in his neighborhood, warning him that the police will be “looking to put a case on you. Whenever you win one you better stay out of sight for a long time.”
Pouncy thanks Conniff, then pays him the highest compliment a PD can get. “Hey, you good,” he says. “Why ain’t you become a real lawyer?”
Conniff had gotten surprisingly worked up about the Pouncy case considering that he believes lawyers should remain detached. But his concern wouldn’t last. “I subscribe to the bathtub theory of litigation,” he says a few weeks later when he’s asked something about the Pouncy trial. “You have to bathe in the waters of the case. But after it’s over you pull the plug and let out the water. Mr. Pouncy is now down the drain.”
Excerpted from Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse by Steve Bogira. Copyright 2005 by Steve Bogira. Published this month by Alfred A Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.