Most Americans know little about the work of assistant United States attorneys, the federal prosecutors who possess sweeping authority to investigate and prosecute the nation's most dangerous criminals. As a federal prosecutor for the U.S. government, John Kroger pursued high-profile cases against Mafia killers, drug kingpins, and Enron executives. Starting from his time as a green recruit and concluding at the peak of his career, he steers readers through the complexities of life as a prosecutor, where the battle fought within the courtroom is only the culmination of long and intricate investigative work and hard-fought negotiations. He reveals the strategies he has used to "flip" a perpetrator into confessing, to conduct a cross-examination, to work with an informant, to placate a hostile judge.
Kroger relates it all with a novelist's eye for detail and a powerful sense of the ethical conflicts he faces. Often dissatisfied with the judicial system, he explains why law enforcement policies frequently fail in critical areas like drug enforcement and white-collar crime. He proposes new ways in which the U.S. can fight crime more effectively, encouraging citizens to pressure their lawmakers to adopt more productive policies. This is an unflinching portrait of a crucial but little-understood part of the American justice system, and Kroger is an eloquent guide.
"Convictions: A Prosecutor's Battles Against Mafia Killers, Drug Kingpins, and Enron Thieves, John Kroger's excellent book on his life as a federal prosecutor, is actually three books in one. The first is a series of classic prosecutor war stories. Every litigator has them, and prosecutors have them in spades. Every prosecutor I've ever met tells them and they are always fascinating. The second is a meditation on the ethical issues of being a prosecutor. Kroger describes his personal ethical development (bound up in his journey from a reckless teen to a workaholic, immensely disciplined prosecutor) and his desire for a unified theory of morality that would help him understand the ethical issues that confront prosecutors. The final book is a policy statement, with arguments about the war on drugs and terrorism, and better ways to fight both. Each book would stand well on its own. Together, they present a thoughtful, compelling, multi-layered work that is both entertaining and enlightening. The title, after all, is meant to evoke not just criminal convictions, but also the development of his beliefs—both moral principles and policy ideas. Kroger, a criminal law professor at Lewis and Clark University in Portland, Ore., and that state's newly elected attorney general, once served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of New York. Coincidentally, I was a summer intern in the Eastern District's organized crime division after my first year of law school. While my experiences there were obviously much more limited than Kroger's, some of what he recounts is familiar: the sense of fascination with working on Mafia cases and meeting agents, informants and convicted felons. More interestingly, Kroger explicates some of the moral and ethical issues surrounding criminal law, matters that rung dimly in my head back then. I remember in particular having lunch one day with a law school friend who was spending her summer interning with public defenders. She commented that it was much easier for prosecutors to be idealistic: They can tell themselves that they are always on the side of 'the people,' prosecuting 'bad guys.' Defense lawyers, however, have to make an extra ethical step: Their individual clients may be guilty, yet they are performing a higher good by keeping the government honest, and making sure the government follows the rules in obtaining justice. They are upholding an abstraction: 'the system.' Although it never seemed to me that many prosecutors were interested in thinking about those kinds of issues, Kroger certainly is, and his careful analysis of the ethical dilemmas he faced is fascinating. Kroger, who worked on the Enron litigation, describes his struggle over the question of whether to indict Enron's CFO Andy Fastow's wife. Although she would normally not have been indicted for her crimes, the Enron team decided to indict her largely to pressure Andrew Fastow to cooperate. In essence, Kroger writes, they were using Fastow's wife and their young children—who faced the prospect of having both parents in prison—as hostages in order to get to the CFO. Kroger finds this deeply troubling, though he says that many prosecutors would not see it as even a close call. Another ethical dilemma faced by Kroger was posed by the actions of a group of federal customs agents. The agents had a major money-laundering operation for drug traffickers under surveillance, but rather than make arrests, the agents developed a practice of simply seizing an occasional shipment of cash on its way back to Colombia. According to Kroger, the seizures amounted to 10 percent to 15 percent of the total cash the agents believed was shipped. Kroger was troubled by the fact that no arrests were made and that the seizures, in effect, merely amounted to a tax on the drug profits of the cartel. A tax, Kroger notes, that the drug dealers could easily afford. He pressured the agents to make arrests and bring the investigation to a close. The agents refused, according to Kroger, because the regular and sizable seizures improved their 'stats' and were good for the agency. Kroger's supervisor also declined to stop the practice. Kroger ultimately asked simply to be transferred off the case. He writes that as far as he knows, 'the scheme continued for years.' I found the story shocking. It has long been a fringe belief in some communities that the government tacitly (if not actively) supports drug trafficking. Here, however, a federal prosecutor is essentially charging that government agents, with the support of their supervisors, were not interested in law enforcement—catching and stopping criminals—but were only concerned with getting their 'cut.' This seems to me much worse than a case of rogue agents succumbing to corruption. The agents were not taking the money for personal use (although their seizure records were indeed good for their careers); this, apparently, was officially sanctioned conduct. Kroger also provides an interesting analysis of the government's success in beating the Mafia. He notes that the government prosecutions against mob bosses have been extremely successful, and weakened the mob greatly over the last 20 years. He attributes the success to a number of new investigative and prosecutorial techniques, but also says the effect of societal changes played a significant role. Profitable Mafia businesses were replaced by legal businesses, and the Mafia failed to adapt. Numbers running, for example, was replaced by state lotteries, cutting a chunk out of mob profits. Likewise, the rise of cheap and easy consumer credit wiped out once-profitable loan sharking. (One wonders whether the recent credit crisis will herald a rise in loan sharking. How are you going to finance your next car purchase?) Kroger's policy argument is related to that analysis. He notes that the government's efforts to interdict drug shipments and arrest and prosecute drug dealers has been largely ineffective in reducing drug availability and use in the United States. He argues that widely available drug treatment will have a much greater impact on the drug trade. While he acknowledges that drug addicts often relapse after treatment, he says it is still much more effective and cheaper than the alternatives. As attorney general of Oregon, Kroger will likely have the chance to test his 'convictions' on criminal justice and public policy. He should share his results with the rest of us in his next book."—Fabio Bertoni, New York Law Journal
"John Kroger's Convictions is the best book about being a federal prosecutor since Jeffrey Toobin's Opening Arguments. It is an engrossing look at how some of the most famous criminal cases of our era were built and won, and probably the frankest discussion ever of the extraordinary ethical dilemmas that go with wielding the government's crushing power over lives."—Scott Turow, author of Limitations
"I have read dozens of books by and about prosecutors. Kroger's is one of the best."—Steve Weinberg, The Oregonian
"A thoughtful, compulsively readable assessment of the American justice system's struggles with the greatest social evils of our time . . . [Kroger] accomplishes more in a few hundred pages than many professional journalists and legal scholars achieve in a thousand."—Matt Buckingham, Willamette Week
"Convictions is many things at once, all brilliantly: a mob story, a drug kingpin story, a white-collar corruption story. But at its heart and most profoundly it is the coming-of-age story of a young man who has everything it takes to be great at his job, only to discover this isn't enough to do good in the world. Kroger wins here as he did in the courtroom—with simplicity and candor, passion and integrity, and a ferocious, persuasive intelligence."—Susan Choi, author of American Woman
"As a former assistant district attorney, I can identify with John Kroger's Convictions. It is straightforward and truthful, and it shows life as it really is in the 'pit.' This searching memoir is a suspenseful and enlightening reading for lay people and members of the legal profession alike."—Joe Jamail, author of Lawyer: My Trials and Jubilations
"Convictions is the extraordinarily intimate account of a prosecutor's coming of age. John Kroger takes readers by the hand and invites us to boldly face, along with him, the thriving parallel dystopia of the world's most dangerous criminals. Replete with fascinating detail that illuminated for me a maze of law enforcement issues that I'd never grasped before, this book is essential reading for an informed citizenry."—Terri Jentz, author of Strange Piece of Paradise
"Convictions is a mesmerizing account of federal criminal prosecution from the inside. John Kroger has been there, fighting the good fight against drug dealers, Mafia kingpins, and corporate sleazes. But the good fighter does not always win, and winning sometimes requires compromises along the way. For anyone interested in true crime and criminal justice, this is a must read."—Peter Charles Hoffer, author of The Supreme Court: An Essential History and Distinguished Research Professor, University of Georgia
"A star federal prosecutor spills the dirt about the tough moral compromises his job required. If Kroger's life were a film, it would seem almost ridiculous: Rambunctious teen from the Houston suburbs signs up with the Marines for lack of anything better to do and ends up distinguishing himself in an elite Recon unit; graduates from Yale in philosophy, works as deputy policy director for Clinton's 1992 campaign, then gets a degree from Harvard Law; winds up a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn chasing down counterfeiters, putting mob assassins behind bars and helping dismantle what was left of New York's Five Families. A tough guy with a scalpel-like intellect and a streak of humility, Kroger tells his life story like it was no big deal. He truly doesn't seem to mind that 'federal prosecutors toil in obscurity.' Exhaustive and fair-minded accounts of several major trials he led show that those philosophy classes did not go to waste; Kroger constantly weighed the utilitarian needs of his job against Immanuel Kant's directive to treat every human being with complete respect. A later stint in narcotics (he states quite plainly that the government's drug policy is an abject failure) heightened his belief that no matter how good he was at his job, 'sometimes it is impossible to be both a great prosecutor and a good human being.' By the time Kroger found himself prosecuting one corner of the sprawling Enron case, he had come close to complete burnout . . . Kroger's assessment of the federal prosecutor's problematic, overly powerful role in the legal system is well-rendered and crisply delivered."—Kirkus Reviews
Reviews from Goodreads
Sal "The Hammerhead" Cardaci was a small-time Brooklyn car thief. Back in the 1980s, his head was blown off by a .357 fired at point-blank range. Years later we dug up his bones in a Brooklyn basement, where they had been buried...