Monday, April 13, 2009

Fact-Checking Legal Shows

I sometimes wonder if the reason people have such misinformed views of lawyers and how the law works because of how inaccurately it is portrayed in movies and in TV shows.

Of course, this probably isn't the whole picture because there is a deliberate misinformation campaign out there about the law put in place by the right-wing, but that aside, I do still wonder about the influence of "Hollywood", to use a shorthand for the entertainment industry.

During the elections, there were web pages, such as, that you could check to see if the latest campaign ad was full of shit. That has now given me the idea about fact-checking other things, such as, say, the law as portrayed in a movie or on TV.

I'm sure this could go beyond the law, but I want to focus on the law in particular, because that is something that is probably easier to research than other, more esoteric things that might come up in a show.

I often see things on Law and Order, for instance, that I think deserve immediate disbarrment. But then they are also done by prosecutors, so maybe it is realistic that they do this and get away with it. So perhaps the research needs to include not just the law, but how it actually is implemented in practice. For example, you often see the most damning evidence in a case kept out by some "liberal" judge, forcing the prosecutors to get creative to prove the case (and also giving a wink to the audience that hey, these people are "really guilty" so don't feel so bad about the unethical things you will see the prosecutors do next. It also probably makes for better drama that way). But realistically, I wonder these days how much damning evidence is really kept out. It is probably much more common that damning evidence that is illegally seized will be allowed in anyway, and then the conviction will be upheld on appeal as the mistakenly-admitted evidence is found to be "harmless."

Maybe a show-by show analysis would be more trouble than just going back and looking at a show statistically - see how many episodes has such and such happened compared to how often it happens in real life.

I'd have an easier time with doing it on the fly if I knew New York law, which I really don't, living in Michigan and all. Still, I suppose I could look it up. Not that I'm volunteering to create such a site. I'd much rather someone else do it so I could read it. Maybe someone already has and I just don't know about it. Anyone know?

In any case, it would be nice to have something to dispell the false notions about the law generated by Hollywood (and the right wing for that matter). Something for the lay public. Information is power. Maybe I'll work on this further.


hedera said...

The other shows that need to be fact checked (if not reality checked) are the CSI shows. In the last year or so, as secretary of the local Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council (think community policing), I've become better acquainted with policemen. Universally they complain about the impression the CSI shows give the public about what you can prove in court, and how easily. Not.

DBB said...

Yes, CSI definitely needs a fact-check too. Though I still enjoy watching the show.

My favorite CSI-ish moment was on the Simpsons, when there was a crime and someone was asking the forensics lab to process something - they said it would take six months (wink wink). Then they bribe the tech, and he does it instantly, like on CSI...

C Woods said...

We've been watching TV lawyers since Perry Mason. I was always amazed at how often a photograph just happened to turn up with the damning evidence right there in black and white. At least that seemed unrealistic until everyone had a camera phone. I doubt that most police stations have big screen computers that can track someone from security camera to security camera. And, of course, DNA results aren't available in 24 hours. So we should expect the fictional lawyers to "use" the system to manipulate the facts. I've been on jury duty several times and never saw a prosecutor that clever ---in fact they mostly seemed to be overworked and annoyed that the defendant didn't accept a plea bargain like the 50 other cases on the docket for that week.

One other thing that always bothers me is that the police always have clear full-face photos of suspects & victims ---in some cases they might come from driver's licenses, but in NY City, many people don't drive. They'd have to get a family snapshot or a high school yearbook photo that would look nothing like what they pin up on their bulletin boards.

There are a couple of writers (like Grisham) who were lawyers and their books seem to be more realistic than TV dramas. First they have time and many pages to develop characters and great plots---and because they were once lawyers, they have some credibility.

On the other hand, TV dramas must have lawyers as consultants to the writers. And, at least on L&O, the prosecutors don't win all of their cases.

For more realistic lawyers, Dateline and 48 Hours often tell the stories of real cases that are never as one-sided or dramatic as the fictional dramas. In some cases, all parties concerned seem like total scum.

hedera said...

One of my most interesting (if annoying) experiences was the 3 weeks I spent, some years ago, as the 3rd alternate juror on a murder trial in Oakland, California. As the 3rd alternate, I never got to DO anything, but I had to sit through all the testimony.

It was quite sad. The only people not testifying in jail orange were the police officers and technicians. The trial was almost canceled on the first day because the star witness didn't show up; but they caught him (on another warrant). There wouldn't have been a trial at all if this guy hadn't recorded a statement at a police station saying he had seen the defendant shoot the victim; but when they got him on the stand, he wouldn't repeat the story under oath. The jury acquitted because of a total lack of evidence; the prosecution put in the tape but of course it wasn't under oath. And that, folks, is how it works in the real world. Sigh.

DBB said...

CWoods - Perry Mason - didn't he always get the real murderer to confess on the stand? Rather an impossible thing, I would think...

I like realistic tales that are well written. True crime and even true civil cases have made for interesting reading - like a Civil Action - that was a good read.

Hedera - It is surprising (or rather not surprising) that they even got the tape in - that should have been inadmissible hearsay. And with no witnesses or evidence, the prosecutor really should not ethically have brought charges at all. But sounds like they did anyway and go the inadmissible evidence in, which is not surprising to me. Prosecutors tend to do that.