Courts: Fiction vs. Reality

Americans depend a great deal on entertainment to educate them about life. In several ways Americans live vicariously through the actors and actresses on television and believe themselves to learn many things from those actors and actresses. For example, many people have said they learned medical techniques by watching medical shows on television or believe they would know what to do in a medical emergency because they have seen it done on television. The same goes for Americans’ knowledge about Court hearings and the judicial system.

Many things are done on television by actors playing lawyers or judges that are done just for the purpose of entertainment. “Reality-based” Court shows such as Judge Judy, People’s Court and Divorce Court dominate television ratings every day. Because the judicial system is not well understood by most people or learned in school or explained by the media, people often only have television accounts of the judicial process to educate them. This has resulted in the majority of Americans having distorted beliefs about law, courts, and the trial process.

One of the major differences between fictional portrayals of the court process and reality is how the trial process is portrayed. In reality, trials are not fast-paced, exciting procedures. They are long and boring procedures. Attorneys debate for hours, present their evidence, and ask questions that only make sense to the judge or other attorneys. Many things are said and many witnesses may be brought in to testify. It is very rare that anything exciting actually happens.

Trials portrayed in movies such as A Time to Kill or Runaway Jury, have us believe that shocking facts are discovered and quick thinking attorneys make major differences in trial outcomes. They misrepresent reality by showing crafty defense attorneys suddenly calling a witness or presenting evidence that instantly Fiction 3 proves the defendant is innocent. In reality, trials do not contain surprises. The discovery process assures that both the defense and the prosecution know every detail of what the opposing party will do at trial.

All witnesses are disclosed. Subpoenas and depositions make sure there is no secret information being withheld long before a trial ever begins. A trial is normally only a proceeding for the parties to present evidence, so that the jury, or the judge in some cases, can come to a decision about the guilt or innocence of the defendant. In many television portrayals the story line revolves around the opposing roles of the defense and the prosecution. One side is usually portrayed as bad.

For example, on television shows such as Law and Order, the defense attorney is usually portrayed as a smug, dishonest person, taking advantage of the law and getting defendants off on technicalities. They are viewed as the bad guy because they are “cheating” justice. In reality, attorneys for both sides are often overworked and just doing their job. They rarely have any personal vendetta against the other side, regardless of which side they are arguing for. Both attorneys are there to act legally and both have different factors that contribute to their work and the kind of people they are.

Simply being on one side or the other does not dictate the kind of person they are. As to how they try their cases, attorneys have an ethical obligation to vigorously argue their case for the benefit of their client. This means that if a defense attorney comes across an opportunity for his client to be set free, he or she must use it, regardless of his or her personal feelings about the client because that is the job. It is the same with the prosecuting attorney, he or she must make sure that the defense does not come up with that opportunity or evidence that would get Fiction 4 the defendant off, regardless of his or her own feelings.

This is the nature of their jobs. The same thing can also be said about the defendant and the victim in a case. On television one will often see a victim who is perfectly innocent and a defendant who is entirely guilty. That is not always the case in real life. A classic example of this occurred in New York in 1984 where a white man named Bernard Goetz shot four young, black men on the New York City subway because, according to him, they were trying to rob him (History. com, 2008).

Goetz claimed to be acting in self-defense, but shot one boy twice, severing his spinal cord the second time. That seemed a bit more than self-defense to some. The youths, however, were found to have been carrying screwdrivers in their pockets at the time of the incident, which, to some people, proved they were up to no good. In that case, as so often happens, neither the victim nor the defendant seems perfectly innocent or entirely guilty. That is very often the case in real life situations. Sometimes there is just no clear cut right or wrong.

About the only trial participants whose roles are properly portrayed by television court shows are those of court reporters, bailiffs and court clerks. Court reporters are traditionally almost never seen or heard from in movies or on television shows, even though their roles are extremely important to the legal process because they create the legal record of proceedings. Court clerks, who normally operate and run much of the court procedures and behind the scenes work, are also not usually seen or heard from in the courtroom, in television shows or real life.

Only bailiffs, due to their ability to carry a gun in the court room, are often portrayed as having any role. Bailiffs normally are shown as controlling the jury and keeping order in the court, which is their true role. Fiction 5 Not much about the television portrayals of the judicial system are correct, even though most trials are entirely open to the public. Part of the reason may be that, as Abraham Lincoln said, a “lawyer’s time and advice are his stock and trade,” and attorneys, judges and others players in the legal system do not often discuss the realities of their jobs and the work they do.

Further, most people do not understand how the court process works because of so many confusing aspects of the law. Although television representations of the justice system and its participants are inaccurate, they do play a part in educating the public. Many people fail to comprehend the meaning of a court decision or understand how it may affect them. Many people do not understand their full rights in civil or criminal trials, and what an attorney, judge, jury, or others in the system can do for them or where to go for help.

Yet, as confused as they may be about fictions and realities, they at least are aware that in America there is a court system they can rely upon to defend their rights. That at least, is a good start. References TruTV. Crime Library. 2008. Retrieved February 26, 3009 from http://www. trutv. com/index. html#link=splash History. Bernard Goetz Goes on the Lam. 2008. Retrieved February 27, 2009 from http://www. history. com/this-day-in-history. do? action=Article&id=1227 Meyer, J. and Grant, D. Pearson Education. The Courts in our Criminal Justice System. Chapters 1-15. 2003.