Swenson has produced a compelling, beautifully written book that goes well beyond that initial journalistic probe into a grave injustice. Good Kids, Bad City is a powerful addition to the growing literature on the failures of America’s criminal justice system, particularly in dealing with African American men. But it is also a gripping, novelistic account of what happened to the three defendants and their lone accuser after the convictions, a frank confession of the methods and emotions of an obsessed reporter, and a poignant meditation on the dark side of Cleveland and what became of that once-proud embodiment of Midwestern virtues that allowed this travesty to happen.
Swenson sketches the rise of tough-on-crime policing in the 1970s that formed the backdrop of the officers’ actions, but they are individuals, like Vernon and the defendants, whose motives and moral agency could have used more expansive treatment. Swenson’s account of the War on Crime context also elides the role that was played by demands from within the black community to take on drug dealers. Another shortcoming is one of excess, not absence. Swenson has a predilection for figurative language that occasionally hits the lyrical mark but more often distracts ... It’s almost as if Swenson doesn’t entirely trust his material to carry a book without his stylistic embellishment. But it does. It’s the story of a grave injustice, whose long-overdue correction delivers a strong emotional punch when it finally arrives.
Told with profound empathy and deeply researched history ... Swenson expertly unravels two connected stories: the personal histories of three innocent black men who were sent to prison for almost four decades for a murder they didn’t commit; and the history of Cleveland, a city embedded in an unmovable, corrupt system that allowed gross injustice to thrive ... ith dramatic, cinematic detail, Swenson connects this to a larger problem by showing how federal policies on both the war on drugs and the war on crime have devastated targeted communities in Cleveland and across the country, and have resulted in one of the most overburdened and draconian justice systems in the western world ... Though small reforms and cosmetic changes may be slowly lifting the burden of history, this book questions the very nature of the justice system—and whom it benefits.