Monday, March 16, 2009

Tidy Guilty Verdicts on Law and Order

I watched Law and Order from this past week just now. On DVR, as I watch almost all of my television. The show ended with something it almost never does - a not guilty verdict.

Law and Order almost always ties things up with a neat, tidy guilty verdict, or a neat, tidy (if strong-armed) guilty plea. That always bothers me. Not just for the legal ramifications or fairness ramifications, but even from a purely television enjoyment perspective. What's the fun if they always win? What fun is it to wait for the verdict if you always know what it will be in advance, and you pretty much always do.

It also bothers me that you never see them display any bit of doubt about the guilty verdicts at the end of the show. Sure, they've changed their minds about guilty verdicts halfway through the show (or even at the beginning of the show) only to then nail someone else with a guilty verdict by the end, but you never see doubt at the end of the show. Now maybe this isn't entirely unreasonable, as that seems to often be the attitude expressed by prosecutors and maybe there is a certain need to feel that way to be able to continue to do that job. But this week, when there was an actual not guilty verdict, and there was clear room for reasonable doubt, you'd have thought at least someone could entertain the possibility that maybe they were wrong and the jury got it right. Even better, from my perspective, would be if they admitted that they thought the defendant did the crime while at the same time conceding that the evidence did not support it beyond a reasonable doubt so, in the end, the jury verdict was right and they agreed with it. Because that would be a great way to really show the standard in action.

You aren't supposed to acquit someone based on finding them innocent. You are supposed to acquit someone because the state did not meet its (on paper) very heavy burden to show beyond all reasonable doubt that they are guilty. I wonder how many juries actually take that to heart and conclude that someone very likely did the crime but that, because of reasonable doubt, vote not guilty. I suspect it is very few, but then I'm just guessing, based on my understanding of human nature. I suspect a jury that would actually be willing to do that would be a jury no prosecutor would ever want to face. But these are just suspicions. It would be interesting if there was actual research on this question. And maybe there is something - if anyone knows of it, I'd be glad to read it.

I enjoy Law and Order. I've watched the show probably since its inception in 1990. I've watched it on reruns. I've watched so many episodes (and there are so many) that I've probably watched many more than once, each time seeing them as if it was the first time due to my lack of memory about the details of the show.

But what I like about the early segments of the show is totally absent from the later ones. In the early segments, you see cops arguing about who might have done the crime, and they disagree. By the end, you see the prosecutors and cops all in agreement, along with the judge and jury. As if they really can know. On top of that, you often see prosecutors doing all sorts of unethical and potentially illegal machinations to get their guilty verdict. For once, I'd like to see them disciplined and the conviction reversed based on that, but then again, maybe it is realistic that this never happens, just like it pretty much never happens in real life.

It would be nice if they showed unethical behavior by police (like testilying) and prosecutors (overcharging and cutting deals that basically deprive a defendant of a trial for nothing) or just the system itself crushing poor defendants, just like in the real world. But I guess it isn't that kind of show. I am thankful that there is such a show out there, Raising the Bar, which just had its first season. That was excellent, though it only began to scratch the surface, and it seemed to pull its punches a lot. Still, it was a great start and it is still on the air for a second season (so I understand), so maybe there is hope for it to pull less punches for season two.


S said...

I have refused to watch L&O since an episode several years ago in which Jack McCoy prosecuted a defense attorney as accessory to murder for refusing to tell Jack where the bodies were buried. When the guy was sentenced to 20 years, I vowed never to watch another episode again. I have never been so upset by an hour of television as I was by that episode.

Raising the Bar is much better suited to me. I am the main character. Like him, I can't just go hang out for drinks after work with prosecutors without stating (strongly) how I feel about certain bad prosecutions or tactics.

DBB said...

I think I vaguely remember that episode - or maybe they've gone after defense attorneys more than once. That upsets me too. What is even more outrageous is that real prosecutors do that sort of thing now too - federal prosecutors go after defense attorneys. I remember one famous mob lawyer was taken out that way. Prosecutors just have way too much power. I don't know if you've read my prosecutor rants here, but I have all sorts of ideas for how to level the playing field. I'm sure none of them would actually get implemented.

As for LO - I freely admit I'm addicted to Law and Order as a TV show, despite how often I want to scream at the screen how unethical the prosecutor's conduct is.

C Woods said...

Do you remember the old Perry Mason shows? Perry Mason never lost a case. At least on L&O there is an occasional loss. And there was one several years ago which ended when the foreman stood up to give the verdict. I can't remember exactly what the case was, but it was one in which I kept going back and forth between believing the defendant was guilty or not guilty. So, at the end, the audience didn't know the outcome.

I've been on jury duty several times. In one civil case, the jury unanimously thought the lawyer should never have let his client file a claim. There was clearly no case. The other time (criminal case) it seemed like everyone involved (on both sides including the witnesses) was guilty of something ---lying, if nothing else. Even physical evidence is not always as clear cut as it appears to be on CSI. Some people may enjoy the power they have to hold someone's future in their hands, but I don't like it at all.

DBB said...

Perry Mason was a bit before my time, though I probably saw bits in reruns. I have read about it in law writings, and there is a general consensus that it was totally bogus, because (and I only know this from reading about it, not watching it) each case they'd get the real perp to get on the stand and confess, or something like that. (This is usually mentioned in classes on direct and cross examination). The reality is, no one confesses on the stand. And odds are, even if someone else did do it, the guy on trial will be the one convicted. The deck is stacked.

I may get the opportunity to be on a jury. I've been called to go in for tomorrow. It will be interesting to see if anyone wants to put a lawyer in the box.

armagh444 said...

Now maybe this isn't entirely unreasonable, as that seems to often be the attitude expressed by prosecutors and maybe there is a certain need to feel that way to be able to continue to do that job.

In my experience, that is how prosecutors think. They have to be utterly convinced of the guilt of the accused. It's a survival mechanism for them. The good ones . . . well, that's how you get things dismissed . . . by getting them to doubt.

I wonder how many juries actually take that to heart and conclude that someone very likely did the crime but that, because of reasonable doubt, vote not guilty.

Very, very few.

If any.