Roughing it in Chicago

Roughing it in Chicago

With opening arguments from Jeffrey Cramer and Eddie Genson delayed until tomorrow and former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka out of the picture, we lead our coverage with an exclusive look inside the daily grind at the United States district court for the northern district of Illinois; Case No. 05 CR 727 USA vs. Black et al.

A friend known only as The Courtstalker reports:

A lot of reporters chose to cover the Black trial from the “overflow” courtroom, where the proceedings are carried via closed-circuit TV and projected on a large screen. Sound blares at you from one overpowering speaker. On Wednesday and Thursday of last week, there was just one camera shot: the Black spread. The defence table, with Conrad at the head like a paterfamilias and seven lawyers seated along both sides. The two Eddies (Greenspan and Genson) are on his left, with the Canadian Eddie close enough for a huddle, which happens frequently. There are three other defendants, along with four prosecutors and a judge, but the Black spread was the only image carried on CCTV. We didn’t get to see one prospective juror.

As it turned out, this was the best way to keep an eye on Black during jury selection. Reporters sitting in the main courtroom saw only the back of his head, while those in the overflow room could watch the expressions on his face and his general demeanour. Most of the time, it seemed pretty obvious Black would have preferred to be anywhere else but there. He scrawled. He squinted. He looked bored. He slumped in his seat. He put on glasses and, at times, read intently from papers laid out in front of him (The indictment? The jury questionnaire? Redrafts of Nixon? A map of the Cayman Islands?).

Along with the one camera, there is a lone microphone picking up audio in the main courtroom, and it’s planted right in front of Amy St. Eve. The poor judge has a cold or a dry throat, and she hacked for two days straight. Upstairs in the overflow room, it sounded like a small cannon going off. At one point, someone suggested taking up a collection to buy her some lozenges.

There were heating problems in the overflow room this week, which is a problem when Chicago cools down. At one point, everybody was bundled up in winter wear. Across the room I spotted James Bone, correspondent for the Times of London, with his big, brown wool coat all buttoned up and a dorky-looking hat planted on his head with the sides pulled down over his ears. A few days earlier I’d seen Canadian Bacon on TV, and there was John Candy wearing exactly the same kind of hat.

The rules are a little looser in the overflow room—you can use your cellphone and laptop, but for God’s sake, don’t try to plug anything in! I made that mistake and a great ox of a man—the court minder—who looked like he’d been there since Reconstruction, came over and told me it wasn’t allowed. You can sit in their courts and shiver through their CCTV shows, but you better not try to grab any free electricity from the government of the United States of America. On Friday, the clerk of the court sent an e-mail to the scribes noting that some camera crews were plugging their lights into power outlets outside the building and reminding us that this is not allowed. Billions go unaccounted for in Iraq, but in Chicago they’re saving taxpayers a bundle on electricity.

I rode in an elevator with the Black brood on Wednesday. Just me, Conrad, Barbara, the fetching Alana, and about 15 other scribes who jammed in hoping to catch a pregnant word or two. The tone was different in the confines of the elevator. Questions were whispered, not shouted. Conrad snorted once but said nothing. The colour seemed drained from his face. Maybe it was being stuck with a pack of loathsome journalists. Maybe he was thinking, “This is what it would be like at shower time in Sing Sing.” Barbara was the only one to utter a word. Asked if she’ll be in court every day, she whispered, “Some days.”