As Americans, we rely a great deal on the entertainment industry to educate us about things we don’t understand. In many ways, we live vicariously through the experiences of fictional characters and believe they learn many things from those fictional characters. For example, many people have said they learned about forensic techniques by watching the “C. S. I. ” shows on television. They firmly believe that can assist in an actual criminal investigation 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, muddle or simply make-up to meet the needs of their fictional account. Because the intricacies of the legal profession are not well known or explained in school or by the media, people often only have these fantastic accounts of the law to educate them to how it works “in the real world”. Consequently, the result is that the majority of Americans have incorrect beliefs of the law, judges, courts, and the persons that comprise our system.
One of the main differences between fictional depictions of the court process and real thing is how a 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. Many things are said and many witnesses may be brought forth to make statements. It is only rarely during these proceedings that anything exciting actually happens. But, if one were to believe the portrayal in movies and on television, it seems as if every minute is interesting or exciting.
Trials presented in movies such as “Sleepers” or “To Kill a Mockingbird”, make it seem as if shocking facts are revealed, surprise witnesses are discovered and quick thinking attorneys make major differences in every trial outcome. This simply isn’t a regular occurrence. Old television shows like “Matlock” and “L. A. Law” misrepresent reality by having a cunning defense attorneys suddenly present a witness or evidence that instantly clears the defendant of guilt. In reality, this rarely happens. A trial is often long, drawn-out, tedious, and usually does not contain a bunch of surprises. Furthermore, they usually aren’t real 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. All witnesses are revealed. Interrogatories, subpoenas, and depositions would reveal any “secret information” or “hidden evidence we just found” either parties may have long before a trial begins. A trial is normally only a format for the parties to present evidence, cite legal precedent, make any pertinent arguments, and dispute the validity of certain evidence.
In short, they create a record of the proceedings so that the jury (assuming there is one) or the judge can come to a decision about the guilt or liability of the defendant. In most fictional accounts, a lot of focus is put on the opposing roles of the defense and the prosecution. Each side is usually cast as all good or all bad. For example, in Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird”, the defense attorney, Atticus Finch, was portrayed as what all me should strive to be.
He was fair, honorable, a wonderful father, and a man willing to do what was right regardless of the effect on his personal safety. Even though the prosecutor was never depicted as a bad person, the fact that a case where the defendant was so clearly innocent, was prosecuted by this man instantly meant he was part of the unfair, unethical southern system of overt racial discrimination. The same kind of good versus 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 conniving people who are gaming the justice system. The reality that attorneys are often on opposing sides of a case is that they can’t easily be labeled as “good” or “evil”. Just because they are working for the defense or for the prosecution doesn’t indicate the type of person they are.
Both are expected to act ethically and both are expected to perform despite the pressures put on them. As to how they try their cases, attorney ethical codes require attorneys to passionately pursue their case for the benefit of their client to the fullest extent that the law allows. 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. The opposite side of that argument is that 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 “A Time to Kill”, Samuel L. Jackson’s character is a father who executed his daughter’s rapists in full view of just about everyone in town. We know he is guilty; however he is portrayed as a victim (or, in this case, entirely in the right) because he’s poor and unable to afford a high-priced defense attorney.
In real life the victim and the defendant are not always so clearly identified in the “good” or “evil” role. Here is a prime example of the situation real life presents. It occurred in New York City in 1984 where a white man named Bernard Goetz shot several young black men on the subway, mainly because he feared they were trying to rob him. Goetz was a man who had been known to use racial epithets. The black youths had been known to commit crimes. In this case, as so often happens, neither the victim nor the defendant fits our traditional definitions of all good or all bad.
In all actuality, just about the only participants whose real functions seem to be properly portrayed are bailiffs, court clerks, and court reporters. Court reporters are traditionally almost never even seen or heard from in movies or television, even though their services are tremendously important to the legal system because they create the legal record of the proceedings. Court clerks, who normally operate and run much of the court procedures, are also largely ignored. Bailiffs normally are shown escorting violent offenders to and from court, controlling the jury and keeping general order, which is their true role.
Very little about the fictional portrayals of the American judicial system are accurate even though courtrooms are entirely open to the public. Furthermore, many people don’t really 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 they all work together. Although fictional representations of the justice system and its participants are inaccurate, they do attempt to educate the general public.
Most of us fail to comprehend the meaning of a court decision or understand how it may affect us at some point down the figurative line. Yet, as confused as we may be about practices and realities, we are aware that in America there is a court system they can rely upon to defend their rights or champion their causes. But, it isn’t going to look like what we’ve grown accustomed to seeing it in the big or little screens. In fact, chances are it will be much less dramatic and we won’t be munching popcorn while it happens.