Published 29 Jul 2016
The public and the entertainment industry have always been fascinated with the lives of lawyers, judges, defendants and victims. It is no wonder that since the beginning of the entertainment industry, they have always shown the drama that happens inside the courtroom. They have also shown the drama that happens before and after a courtroom trial.
Thus, people are already familiar with courtroom dramas as depicted by John Grisham in his novels like The Summons, the Street Lawyer, and The Client. In television series, the public has seen shows like Boston Legal, Law and Order, and Ally McBeal. Courtroom dramas have also been portrayed in the movies such as A Few Good Men, Erin Brockovich, and Runaway Jury. While it is true that only a few Americans have seen an actual trial, with the help of the entertainment media, many Americans have been exposed to courtroom dramas.
One point of concern is that if one’s knowledge of courtroom processes is limited on what is depicted in different forms of entertainment media, then one has a very unreliable knowledge of courtroom trials and the whole legal system. This is because the movies, television shows, and the novels do not aim to educate readers about the courtroom processes but they simply aim to entertain. One should not falsely assume that the courtroom processes they see in the different forms of entertainment media are accurate, reliable and realistic.
It is very noticeable that in most films and television courtroom dramas, they often show courtroom trials as if all cases go to trial. They also show scenes which involve the prosecutor and the defendant involved in a heated argument. Most of the time, lawyers are depicted to have successfully broken down a witness on a witness stand to the amazement of everybody in the courtroom. Moreover, the defendant is either found guilty or exonerated only after the lawyers have presented their evidence before the court and the jury.
Nothing can be farther from the truth. Firstly, the entertainment media is wrong in its assumption that all criminal cases go to trial and that all cases are decided by the jury. In fact, studies saw that a very high percentage of criminal cases are dropped even before they get to trial. Thus, not all criminal cases filed in court find their way in the hands of judges and juries.
Also, if ever a case is dismissed in the movies, they make it appear that it is because of some legal technicalities. Among these technicalities are cases of violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights such as when police officers search a suspect without a search warrant or when police officers arrest a suspect without a warrant of arrest. In the movie “Superman Returns, Lex Luthor, played by Kevin Spacey, told Lois Lane, played by Kate Bosworth, how inefficient Superman was in controlling crime as he had no legal knowledge of the Miranda rights of an accused which is why he was acquitted in his case.
Not all cases filed in court are dismissed because of legal technicalities. Dismissal due to legal technicalities constitutes only a small percentage of actual cases dismissed in court. The courtroom reality is that majority of the cases are dropped by the District Attorney’s Office even before they reach the trial stage due to lack of evidence or uncooperative witnesses. Lack of evidence was the reason why in 2006 rape charges against three Duke University athletes were dropped. According to Mike Nifong, Durham, North Carolina, District Attorney, since the alleged victim admitted that she was no longer certain whether there was sexual penetration the district attorney was forced to drop charges. Lack of cooperation by a witness can also lead to dropping of charges before trial. It can be remembered that in 2004, the rape case filed against Kobe Bryant was subsequently dropped in view of the reluctance of the victim, who is also the witness, to participate.
Secondly, it is erroneous to presume that defendants are either convicted or exonerated only during trials. The reality is that a great majority of cases end even during the state of plea bargaining. According to the Department of Justice Statistics, out of a total of 37,188 defendants who retained public counsel plea bargained. This was a total of 87.1% who plea bargained their case, while only 5.2% went to trial. On the other hand, out of 18,709 defendants who used private counsel 84.6% plea bargained, while 6.4% took their case to trial. This emphasizes that in reality now all cases reach the trial phase. This is confirmed by another study conducted by the same government agency which said that in 2003, about 95% of all convictions in the United States are secured with a guilty plea and most of them through plea bargaining. The courtroom reality is that trials, as much as possible, are disfavored because trials are time-consuming and clog the docket of the courts. If the evidence against the defendant is overwhelming or he has no alibi, the prosecutor offers him a deal and in exchange for his guilty plea he receives the lesser penalty.
Thirdly, in actual trials, dramatic revelations by witnesses or defendants seldom happen. It is also very seldom that lawyers get the chance to break down a witness while he is on the witness stand such as what happened in Tom Cruise’s movie “A Few Good Men.” The courtroom reality is that there are no spectacular revelations during trials. This is because lawyers do not want to be surprised during trials. They know what questions to ask and they would not dare to ask questions during trials that they do not already know the answers to. Moreover, the principle of fair play demands that lawyers cannot simply present evidence during the trial that was not made available during the preliminary hearings. Otherwise, the evidence may be excluded by the court.
Fourthly, the behaviors of litigants as portrayed in the films and television should not be thought of as a reflection of what really happens in the courtroom. A particular example is a movie “And Justice for All” by Al Pacino who was shown wildly screaming inside the courtroom and alleging that the trial was a travesty. In reality, no lawyers actually behave in a similar manner in actual trials for fear of being cited for contempt by the court. As officers of the court, lawyers are enjoined by their Code of Ethics to observe and maintain respect to the courts and to the judicial officers. They are also required to abstain from scandalous and offensive language before the courts.
Courtroom dramas in films, television shows, and novels should be watched and read with caution. One should always be guided by the thought that their purpose is primary to entertain and amuse the public. They only seek to arouse the public’s emotions. They do not seek to educate and improve the viewer’s knowledge of courtroom processes and the legal system. It is therefore suggested that viewers of courtroom dramas should not believe everything they see in films and televisions. If ever they get into trouble they cannot make decisions based on what they have seen in fictional courtroom dramas otherwise, they will get into real legal troubles.