"Convictions" carries a double meaning in the title of John Kroger's new book (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 466 pages, $27). The first refers to Kroger's successful prosecution of more than 200 Mafia kingpins, drug traffickers and currency smugglers as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York. The second describes how Kroger's experiences as a federal prosecutor collided with the personal ethics and utilitarian principles he learned as a philosophy major at Yale. The result is not as priggish as it might sound but a thoughtful, compulsively readable assessment of the American justice system's struggles with the greatest social evils of our time: illegal drug trafficking, terrorism and white-collar crime.
"Serious" readers tend to dismiss true crime as the tabloid trash of American book publishing. It is the only major genre of nonfiction (other than war memoirs and celebrity biographies) still published as pocket-sized, mass-market paperbacks sold in grocery stores and at airport newsstands. And yet Kroger, a law professor at Lewis & Clark College and candidate for Oregon attorney general, accomplishes more in a few hundred pages than many professional journalists and legal scholars achieve in a thousand. In addition to taking readers inside the interrogation rooms of a federal Mafia investigation, Kroger explains how sweeping social changes like easy consumer credit and state lotteries have doomed the Mob to extinction. He reveals his personal techniques for "flipping" Mafia defendants to testify against their masters and agonizes over the deception and manipulation that are often required to obtain guilty verdicts. He leads federal agents in seizing millions of dollars in drug proceeds as well as truckloads of heroin, marijuana and cocaine but recognizes America's war on drugs can never be won until political leaders address the overwhelming demand (i.e., U.S. drug users) that drives the world drug trade.
In less than a hundred pages, Kroger untangles the Enron debacle in terms any reader (or juror) could understand but then shows how preferential treatment and almost limitless legal resources make wealthy white-collar defendants so much more difficult to convict than street-level dope dealers or even lawyered-up Mafia dons. Kroger faces a politically experienced, well-qualified opponent in next week's election for state attorney general, but win or lose he may be the publishing industry's next Vincent Bugliosi.
READ: John Kroger appears at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Wednesday, May 14. Free.