How TV Courtrooms Influence Public Perception

Television does a reasonably good job of entertaining us with crime/drama and lawyer (mostly prosecutor) shows. But it is a poor educator of how the system actually works.

There is one producer who decided some 20 plus years ago to make the prosecution of cases the “go to” format for lawyer shows. Gone were the days of Perry Mason, Owen Marshall and The Defenders. From the early 1990’s on the only good lawyers were prosecutors. While television may not be a good educator, it can frequently be a formidable influencer. If the only defendants shown are universally guilty then only one perspective is being depicted. This “conditioning” to believe the television portrayal of the system as reality results in a belief that all who are charged must by inference be guilty in real life. To be sure many people charged are, in fact, guilty. But be just as sure that not all people who are charged are guilty. This, to borrow from William Shakespeare, is the rub. We have recently been inundated with calls for believing “a person is innocent until proven guilty”. As a colleague recently noted that is not the correct admonition. Actually, it should be “presumed innocent unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt”.

The depiction of criminal defense lawyers today is less than accurate also. In the Perry Mason, and others, day such people were depicted as performing a valuable service in protection of the liberty and rights of the accused. Today, the general depiction is much less noble and certainly a barrier to the prosecutor’s goal of gaining a conviction. The Innocence Project reports more than 360 DNA exonerations, that is people convicted but were arguably factually innocent. How does this happen? What of the “proof beyond a reasonable doubt?” Has our society so conditioned the public to belief the prosecutor is good and the defense is bad; that juries are willing to find innocent people guilty even if the proof is less than necessary? I have asked jurors during selection, how they would vote at that very moment. The most common response is they don’t know because they have not heard any evidence. Yet, it is because they have not heard any evidence that the only vote must be Not Guilty, this is the essence of the “presumption of innocence”. How can a principle so clear in its concept and so direct in its assertion be so difficult to apply in real life? People’s lives, their families and their freedom are destroyed because of a failure to understand these fundamental aspects of criminal prosecutions. Next time I will discuss the balance of power in a criminal prosecution.

Until then, as always: These are your rights, use them or lose them.