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How many movies or television shows have you seen about the legal industry? How many inaccurate courtroom depictions have you noticed? If you are a lawyer, then the answer is surely many! Check out this post for some of the most common errors in legal cinema and television.
In previous Justia Onward posts, we presented you with films and TV shows that showcase the world of law. These movies and series have become well-liked, entertainment icons watched over and over by many people.
In the eyes of the general public, the onscreen situations presented in legal television are real. The law is not alone in this. The same phenomenon occurs in productions about espionage, medicine, and the police. Therefore, it is not uncommon to hear a young person who wants to pursue one of these professions due to what they’ve seen on screen, only to later realize that they have been exposed to an inaccurate, romanticized version of these careers.
In contrast, every time a lawyer watches a movie or television show where legal issues are depicted, she likely detects countless errors and inconsistencies. These mistakes will raise your eyebrows, and make lawyers sigh while saying, “Bah, that doesn’t happen in real life.” Because you know how the legal system works, it can be difficult to “trick” you.
As you detect these errors and inaccuracies, you may question the script you are watching. Are the scriptwriters and producers simply ignorant of the law? Perhaps. But it is just as likely that these errors are simply the product of creative license taken to inject drama and entertainment into the scenes on the screen. Not even shows that are based on real events claim to be an entirely accurate reflection of the real world. Instead, there will always be altered details, intentionally or inadvertently that helps entertainment content become just that: more entertaining.
The list of errors or creative licenses, whichever you want to call it, in legal television is practically endless. However, we are here to present you with six of the most common, recurring inaccuracies in legal programming that appear in most of the content depicting lawyers, courtrooms, and the law.
1. Objections Without Support
You have seen this scene countless times. The prosecutor is questioning a witness or the accused. During the process, he throws out a series of questions, rapidly, one after another. Suddenly, the defense attorney shouts, “Objection!” And then he says nothing else. Without further ado, the judge accepts or denies this objection immediately, and the prosecutor maintains or withdraws his question.
In practice, when an attorney raises an objection, he must at least give a reason that he is objecting. The objection must be supported by legal grounds. That is, the lawyer must clearly explain the legal basis for which he is objecting.
Sometimes this is a brief word or two. Sometimes it is a few sentences. Regardless, in actual practice, attorneys rarely just shout the word “objection” and wait for a decision to be made.
Without a doubt, there are many movies and television series that come to your mind where all of the lawyers object without a fundamental reason.
2. Surprise Witnesses and Evidence
The trial is about to end. The prosecution has finished his questioning, all of the evidence has been presented, and the jury is about to hear a closing that convinces them of the defendant’s guilt. Everything is against the defendant.
At that very moment, the defense attorney calls a surprise witness and whips out new, shocking evidence in a surprising way. All look at each other in amazement. The defendant smiles in relief and is immediately acquitted. The judge tells him that he is free to go.
The element of surprise, especially at the end of a trial, certainly adds drama and tension to the plot of the movie or television series, but the element of surprise is far from what happens in court.
In reality, these dramatic twists rarely occur. Evidence and witness lists are collected and disclosed well before the trial begins. Both parties are generally aware of everything that will be presented. The prosecution even has a legal obligation to disclose evidence that is favorable to the accused.
Plus, even if the defense calls a surprise witness at the end of a trial, it would not be surprising for a judge to delay this testimony in order to offer the prosecution a brief time to prepare.
3. Wandering Around in Court
Picture this scene: the judge is allowing a lawyer to question the witness. The lawyer does not say anything, gathers his papers, and meanders around the courtroom while asking questions. He approaches the jury several times. He approaches the witness. He leans into the witness stand to intimidate the witness. He approaches the judge on the bench to make a point. It seems that a courtroom is a place where advocates can walk freely and make a point to anyone while asking questions and presenting the arguments.
However, this does not happen in an actual courtroom. During a trial, attorneys may stand at their assigned desk or take their place at the assigned podium for questioning and presenting evidence. They generally do not wander around the courtroom, much less approach the witness, the jury, or the judge, without first requesting permission. In fact, a judge could admonish a lawyer who tries to engage in any of this behavior without asking first.
Let’s face it, though. Not being able to get close to the stand has a much less dramatic effect for the purposes of a movie or television show.
4. Harassing The Witness
The accused is calmly on the stand. He looks unconcerned and responds calmly to each of the lawyer’s questions on duty. The prosecutor begins to worry, especially when the accused smiles at him with confidence. The case seems to be lost. And then, the lawyer decides to modify his tactics. He walks to the stand and begins to ask questions, one after another raising his voice higher and higher. The lawyer ignores the objections of the defendant’s lawyer and even the judge’s warnings. The pressure is mounting and the accused loses his calm, despairs, and responds in such a way that he admits guilt, much to everyone’s surprise.
Court would be so much less dramatic without these theatrics by lawyers seeking justice! The truth is, however, that despite the tension you may feel at a trial, lawyers are required to maintain good behavior. They must respect other lawyers, the witnesses, and the authority of the judge on the bench. Badgering witnesses is grounds for an objection. Harassment, losing control, and ignoring a judge’s instructions can have negative consequences for a lawyer…and may even land him in contempt of court.
5. Defendants in Prison Clothes
The courtroom is full of people. Lawyers are preparing their last notes to start the trial. The people of the jury are looking at each other. The judge hits the gavel and asks that the defendant be brought in. There is silence as the doors open, and we see the accused enter handcuffed in a prison jumpsuit.
Immediately, people look at him with contempt and begin to pass judgment. And so, the judicial process begins with everyone already biased, whether consciously or not, simply due to the defendant’s attire.
In reality, defendants may sometimes appear in a prison jumpsuit for some preliminary matters. However, at trial, defendants normally wear street clothes, to avoid bias. After all, the accused are innocent until proven guilty.
6. Immediate Release of the Acquitted
The trial is at its climax. The jury is about to read the verdict. Everyone is paying attention to the final decision. “Not guilty” is heard and the courtroom explodes in applause on one side and discontent on the other. The judge asks for order in the court and then proceeds to tell the defendant, “You are free to go.”
Just like that, the former defendant walks out of the courthouse to enjoy his freedom. Everyone smiles because justice has triumphed.
While it is important that the drama maintained throughout a film culminates with the resolution (an innocent man leaving the courthouse), this is not always how things go in real life. Once a defendant has been acquitted, he may not go free at that precise moment. There may be a bit more processing and paperwork that has to occur and takes some time.
Final Thoughts: Why Do You Care?
As mentioned in our previous posts on movies and TV shows, taking time to put your work aside is good. This space allows you to recharge yourself with energy, forget about stress, and refocus on your daily tasks with a fresh perspective. And, believe it or not, noticing the mistakes while enjoying a legal drama may just be helping keep your legal knowledge and skills in shape!