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The prosecutor playwright, James Lynch

A Cook County State’s Attorney moonlights as a playwright.

Photograph: Max Herman
James Lynch outside the Honorable George N. Leighton Criminal Court Building

“There’s this thing that happens when you’re interviewing a suspect that’s very exciting: You learn to recognize in his face that he’s about to tell you he killed somebody,” Jim Lynch says. “Something breaks behind his eyes. His head falls and he leans back and goes, ‘All right, all right. Gimme a cigarette.’ You give him a cigarette and then he tells you terrible things. And then he falls asleep.”

In his 16 years as a Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney, Lynch has interviewed and prosecuted countless murderers. The 42-year-old is currently a member of the Special Prosecutions Bureau. “I help investigate financial and public integrity crimes—CEOs or public officials who embezzle money—and take those cases to trial,” he says. “But there was a long time where I was assigned to a felony courtroom trying everything from DUIs to homicides to your regular old horrifying street crime, day in and day out.”

Ten years ago, Lynch got involved in local theater as a playwright. His turn-of-the-century Irish yarn The Tallest Man—staged at the Artistic Home, where Lynch is head of play development—was nominated for a 2009–10 Jeff Equity Award for Best New Work. In his latest play, the crime drama CCX, Lynch draws directly from his experiences as a county prosecutor, particularly time spent doing felony review. “In felony review, you speak to guys who’ve killed people or done some unspeakable crimes,” he says. “You work 12-hour shifts and wait till the police call you to the station to interview defendants and witnesses and help decide whether a case should be approved for felony charges.”

The one-act—its title short for “clear, closed, exceptional,” police code for cases that are resolved through unconventional means or the death of a suspect—is set in a West Side police station during a blizzard on Christmas Eve. A pair of Chicago detectives splits time between a young murder suspect in an interrogation room and a witness in a neighboring room.

Lynch says he wants to “re-create the feeling of what it’s like to be in an interrogation room when certain things happen: how a criminal works his way through the system, how a case gets to court.” He adds, “Sometimes you feel elated that you helped a guy confess and make his case better. Sometimes it’s horrifying and you leave feeling sick. You’re disgusted having spent time with someone who could do something so terrible.”

Before he started writing CCX, the Jefferson Park native tapped a cop friend to write mock police reports for the play’s crimes as a “developmental tool.” “As a State’s Attorney, I’m used to getting raw data and creating a story out of it for court. You read the police reports and start organizing evidence and creating the narrative of the case.”

Lynch says years spent questioning suspects gave him a keen sense for the play’s dialogue. “I’d come out of interviews with a kid that hadn’t even been to high school, and he’d have scars from 11 gunshot wounds on his chest, and I’d go, ‘That kid is a genius with the way he talks.’ He’s speaking rough, coarse, urban language, but expressing himself in a way that’s poetic and beautiful.”

Lynch’s theater experience in turn improved his courtroom presence: “When I started writing plays, I took a lot of acting training, which helped me stop acting in court. It taught me to not be afraid to expose myself in front of a jury and to use my emotions,” he says. “The county courthouse at 26th and California is human theater every day.”

CCX opens Monday 25 at Rivendell Theatre.

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