Reality and Fiction: the True View 1 Reality and Fiction: the True View Americans rely a great deal on their entertainment to educate them about life. In many ways Americans live vicariously through the experiences of fictional characters and believe themselves to learn many things from fictional characters. For example, many persons have said they learned CPR by watching medical shows on television or believe they can assist in a medical emergency because they have seen “experts” on television handle similar situations.
This same belief extends to Americans’ knowledge about the law and the judicial system of the nation. There are many things that fictional accounts of lawyers, judges, and courts confuse or create simply to meet the needs of the fiction or make a specific point. Because the intricacies of the legal profession are not well known or explained in school or by the media, unfortunately, people often only have fictional accounts of the law to educate them.
The result, unfortunately, is that the majority of Americans have incorrect beliefs of the law, judges, courts, and the persons that interact with them. One of the main differences between fictional portrayals of the court process and real court processes is how the trial is portrayed. In reality, trials are long, boring procedures where attorneys debate, present evidence, and ask questions that have legal value for the judge or jury to arrive at a decision (CA).
Many things are said and many witnesses may be brought in to make statements (CA). Only rarely in that process will anything exciting happen. If one were to believe the portrayal of the trial sequence, however, seems as if every minute is interesting or exciting. Trials presented in movies such as My Cousin Vinny or To Kill a Mockingbird, although one is a comedy and one a drama, represent trials as a place where shocking facts are discovered and quick thinking attorneys make major differences in trial outcomes.
Perry Mason and Legally Blonde misrepresent reality by showing brilliant defense attorneys suddenly presenting a witness Reality and Fiction: the True View 2 or evidence that instantly clears the defendant of guilt. In reality, a trial is often long, involved, does not contain surprises and is not entertaining. The discovery process assures that both the defense and the prosecution know every detail of what the opposing party will do and argue at trial (Steinberg). All witnesses are revealed. Interrogatories, subpoenas, and depositions reveal any “secret information” or “secret eapons” the parties may have long before a trial begins.
A trial is normally only a format for the parties to present evidence, make their arguments, make legal arguments, dispute statements or the validity of certain evidence, and, in short, create a record of the proceedings so that the jury, if there is one, or the judge, can come to a decision about the guilt or liability of the defendant and, if either party believes a legal error occurred, for there to be a legal basis for an appeal to be filed (CA). In many fictional portrayals much is made about the opposing roles of the defense and the prosecution.
Each side is usually portrayed as all good or all bad. For example, in To Kill a Mockingbird the defense attorney, Atticus Finch, was portrayed as the perfect man. He was fair, honorable, a good father, a good neighbor, and a man willing to do what was right even when his personal safety was threatened. Although the prosecutor in that movie was never said to be a bad person, the fact that a case so obviously wrong, where the defendant was so clearly innocent, was prosecuted by this man instantly meant the prosecutor was a part of the unfair, unethical southern system of discrimination.
The same kind of good evil scenario between the defense attorney and prosecutor’s office is also evident in the television show Law & Order. Although that show does not often portray one side as only good or only bad, there have been times when it has created defense attorney characters who have taken advantage of the law to force the system to completely exonerate their clients, which makes them appear to be evil people who are “cheating” justice.
Reality and Fiction: the True View 3 The reality of attorneys on opposing sides of a case is that they are seldom easily identified as good or evil persons and just because they are working for the defense or the prosecution does not indicate the type of person they are (Steinberg). Both are expected to act legally and both have pressures on them that affect their work and who they are. Simply the side they represent does not alone affect the kind of person they are.
As to how they try their cases, attorney ethical codes require attorneys to “zealously” pursue their case for the benefit of their client to the extent the law allows (ABA). This means that if a defense attorney sees an opportunity for his client to be set free then he or she must use it because that is their job. It is the job of the prosecutor to assure the defense does not have those opportunities. Again, this does not reflect on the quality of their character. The same thing can also be said about the defendant and the victim in a case.
Fictional portrayals often paint the victim and the defendant as being entirely innocent or entirely bad. In The Accused, although Jodie Foster’s character was not a perfect person, it was obvious that what had happened to her was horrible and that the college students who raped her were trying to get away with their actions due to their family’s money and standing in the community. In real life the victim and the defendant are not always so clearly identified as good or bad people.
A classic example of this occurred in New York in 1984 where a white man named Bernard Goetz shot several black men on the New York City subway because he feared they were trying to rob him (Nossiter). Goetz was a man who had been known to utter racist slurs and the youths had been known to commit illegal actions. In that case, as so often happens, neither the victim nor the defendant seems perfectly good or altogether bad. That, often, is the situation real life presents. About the only trial participants whose roles fiction seems to properly portray are those of bailiffs, court clerks, and court reporters.
Court reporters are traditionally almost never even Reality and Fiction: the True View 4 seem or heard from in movies or television, even though their services are so important to the legal system because they create the legal record of proceedings (AZ Sup. Ct. ). Court clerks, who normally operate and run much of the court procedures and processes, are also normally ignored. Only the bailiff, due to their ability to carry a gun in the court room are often portrayed as having any role (AZ Sup. Ct. ).
Bailiffs normally, as in Twelve Angry Men, are shown as controlling the jury and keeping order in the court, which is their true role (AZ Sup. Ct. ). Very little about the fictional portrayals of the American judicial system are accurate even though courtrooms 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 in the legal system may not often discuss the realities of their jobs and their work they do (PA Bar).
Further, many persons do not easily understand how the court process works because they are confused between the distinction of state versus federal courts, statutory laws versus the common law, and which apply in what situations and how all work together (Gibson & Caldeira). Although ictional representations of the justice system and its participants are inaccurate, they do education the general public.
Many easily fail to comprehend the meaning of a court decision or understand how it may affect them (Gibson & Caldeira). Many fail to understand their full rights in civil or criminal proceedings and what an attorney, judge, jury, or others in the system can do for them or where to go for help (Gibson & Caldeira). Yet, as confused as they may be about practices and realities, they at least are aware that in America there is a court system they can rely upon to defend their rights or champion their causes.