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Law and Order Spinoff: Let's Bash the Defense Some More

Why are all criminal defense lawyers depicted on Law & Order shows as being "ethically challenged?" The creators of the new Law & Order spin-off, the one that begins with the late (and great) Jerry Orbach, have announced that this depiction not only will continue, it will be a plot point specifically written into the formula for the show.

But for all that is new - including early guest appearances by Annabella Sciorra, Lorraine Bracco and Peter Coyote, each playing ethically challenged defense lawyers - there will be much that viewers will recognize after Briscoe has passed.

The reason, I suspect, is because that is how the series creator, Dick Wolf, thinks of us. Comments like this tell the story:

Mr. Wolf, speaking by phone last week from California, said that "one of the things both Walon and I hope to accomplish with this is to demolish the shibboleths that have grown up around criminal law, namely that a defense attorney will never ask their client if they did the crime."

"All defense attorneys, if you give them three drinks and a good steak, will say that of course they've had clients who confessed to them and who they know to be guilty."

I've taken Mr. Wolf to task before on TalkLeft for his comments about defense lawyers.

"Any of the people you see" working as assistant DAs in "Crime & Punishment" "could clean out their desks on a Friday afternoon and double or triple their salary on Monday morning" by going to work in a law firm, Wolf said recently. "They really do think they're doing God's work."

"Moreover, he said...I don't hold criminal defense attorneys in very high regard, based on what they do for a living, which is basically getting guilty people off."

My response:

Now come on, Mr. Wolf. You don't think public defenders believe they're doing God's work? You don't think they couldn't get a job in a corporate firm earning twice or three times as much?

The lawyers who dedicate themselves to freeing the innocent, that's not God's work to them?

The lawyers who make a career of trying to save a life in a death penalty trial, while underfunded, understaffed and underpaid, you don't think they believe they're doing God's work?

Prosecutors and Public Defenders have a few things in common: Both groups have chosen public service, and in so doing, they have sacrificed more financially rewarding opportunities to become overworked and often under-appreciated public servants. Prosecutors have no leg up on defenders in terms of doing God's work.

Mr. Wolf replied in the comments section to the post:

My name is spelled without an "e."

I believe you do a grave disservice to the men and women who toil in often underpaid and seriously underappreciated jobs in all aspects of Law Enforcement.

I still think he's wrong. Consider, as I said in the earlier post,

The majority of prosecutors don't stay in it for the length of their careers. They leave and become....private criminal defense lawyers. Look into the background of the lawyers for the Enron and WorldCom and other high-level corporate crime defendants, and more often than not they will have "former U.S. Attorney" in their bios. What happened to their belief in "God's work?" But how many criminal defense lawyers can you name who left the practice to become prosecutors? Which stay truer to their beliefs? Or put another way, whose beliefs were truer in the first place?

It's probably a hopeless case, but I'd still like to convince Mr. Wolf to do a show that included honorable criminal defense lawyers. "Justice is a three-legged stool," as the saying goes. Take one leg away and the system falls down. The court, the defense and the prosecution often need to work together, particularly when the integrity of the system is at issue. Surely Mr. Wolf can see the benefit of presenting the justice system in this light.

I'd even offer to provide technical assistance for free.

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  • Re: Law and Order Spinoff: Let's Bash the Defense (none / 0) (#1)
    by Johnny on Tue Feb 22, 2005 at 08:18:35 PM EST
    And of course all prosecutors are paragons of virtue...

    Re: Law and Order Spinoff: Let's Bash the Defense (none / 0) (#2)
    by Adept Havelock on Tue Feb 22, 2005 at 08:41:17 PM EST
    Yes, that's sad. Law & Order's not the only one though. Try to look on the bright side. In time, the pendulum will swing back, and it'll be Perry Mason for the defense again.

    Re: Law and Order Spinoff: Let's Bash the Defense (none / 0) (#3)
    by ras on Tue Feb 22, 2005 at 08:42:07 PM EST
    Johnny, The show hardly depicts them as such. Jack, for ex. Or a few others on verious episodes. Personally, I find the show's politics a little liberal. Ever noticed how every time a piece of evidence is suppressed on a really insignificant technicality, the suppression itself doesn't prevent a proper prosecution? In fact, my wife & I use it as a rule: if evidence is suppressed in a manner that would make the man in the street roll his eyes in disbelief ... well, I can nod off on the couch after that. The defendant will be convicted.

    It's this kind of "guilty before proven innocent thinking" that has corrupted and sickened our perspective of the legal system. It's why we now have seriously misguided "victims rights" legislation that will essentially make it such that the accussed are essentially treated like they're guilty. One's defense is a constitutionally protected right, regardless of whom you are and what you allegedly did. You are innocent till proven otherwise.

    Re: Law and Order Spinoff: Let's Bash the Defense (none / 0) (#5)
    by Patrick on Tue Feb 22, 2005 at 09:11:30 PM EST
    Ladies and Gentlemen, It's TV, get over it.

    I, for one, can't wait for the new series! I love all of Dick Wolf's shows.

    Re: Law and Order Spinoff: Let's Bash the Defense (none / 0) (#7)
    by Johnny on Tue Feb 22, 2005 at 09:52:46 PM EST
    I was referring to the comments by Mr. Wolf, not his show. I do not watch the show, get enough real life drama without relying on TV to get my fix.

    Re: Law and Order Spinoff: Let's Bash the Defense (none / 0) (#8)
    by ras on Tue Feb 22, 2005 at 10:09:00 PM EST
    Johnny, Fair enough. We watch the show late at nite, ourselves, on video (we set the VCR to record it during the day). We don't watch much tv overall, but L & O is pretty good. Interesting, too. I can't recall another show where the producers are willing or able to replace every major character so regularly. Truly a writer's show.

    The original Law & Order used to consistently show a balanced approach. In recent years, it has diverted from that course, depicting the police as the saviors of society. Let's keep the perspective though, NYPD was FAR FAR worse in that regard. Law & Order Special Victims Unit and CSI are both doing a very good job demonizing attorneys and removing "innocent until proven guilty" from the minds of our citizens in the name of entertainment. CSI especially...as if our local police followed such a scientific (even-handed) approach to evidence collection. Who are the "editors" who determine the nature of our entertainment? Oh yes, the ultra-consolidated media corporations who own news, sports, and entertainment. The last thing our society needs is any further convincing that the judgement of the police/military should be absolute and unquestioned. Whenever anyone with enough money is targeted by an opportunistic investigation, we just convict them in the media and, consequentially, the civil system. I will admit, its pretty hard to feel sorry for some of the individuals in those high profile cases - marginal decadence is on a tear in America. Nevertheless, the media has turned our criminal courts into massive stages for morality plays. We even have 24 hour Court TV to enhance the "Drama" for us. The signal being sent is unmistakable - trust the police implicitly & even worse: trust that the corporate media gives you all of the information necessary to make an informed judgement. As a society, we are a nation of train wreck gawkers. Sorry Jeralyn, I know this statement will apply to you, but I really feel this way. Wouldn't it be "retro" if our newscasters were to give the daily description of a trial and then SKIP the following statement,"Now, let's turn to our panel of legal experts (biased opinion makers with financial incentives and political agendas). How about allowing us to determine our opinions from our life experiences rather than narrowing our options to two polarized positions? There is an answer to that question - because it is a contrived circumstance. It is the editorial focus and weighting of "news" (i.e. celebrity show trials, Bill Clinton's bedroom, Ward Churchill, Kobe Bryant "guilty until proven innocent" etc.) that is the proof in the pudding. Polarization, conservative social engineering. Media Reform is not only called for, it is urgently needed. Corporatists have declared war on social freedoms in the name of short term capitalization and ideology -- and all anyone is talking about is whether Michael Jackson abuses children or not. We're on the road to fascism - and we're all distracted by side shows. Fictional or not.

    Ladies and Gentlemen, It's TV, get over it. Go into any public waiting room where a large percentage of those waiting are underprivileged. Watch their faces transfixed to the Television to the point they forget to watch their children wandering out into the street. Then tell me that TV has no societal effect on American opinions.

    A few years ago, we had a plethora of shows portraying defense attorneys, Perry Mason, Madlock just to name two. Both of those shows were quite kind to the prosecutors and police even though they were losing every case. Except for the fact that the cases involved murder, there were positive depictions of all involved save the murderers themselves. Sometime since then, it was decided to step away from truth and justice.

    Re: Law and Order Spinoff: Let's Bash the Defense (none / 0) (#12)
    by scarshapedstar on Wed Feb 23, 2005 at 02:01:32 AM EST
    "Ladies and Gentlemen, It's TV, get over it." Hey, is that Janet Jackson's nipple?

    Re: Law and Order Spinoff: Let's Bash the Defense (none / 0) (#13)
    by scarshapedstar on Wed Feb 23, 2005 at 02:04:03 AM EST
    I'll refrain from commenting further, though, being the son of a public defender and a resident of a community with a particularly sleazy DA (who literally let his son get away with murder a year or two ago)...

    If the comments from Mr. Wolf "tell the story", isn't the story one of defense lawyers doing their jobs? I know that we are all supposed to believe that lawyers never ask their clients whether they are guilty, but wouldn't the knowledge that the client (1) is guilty and (2) is willing to admit it, improve the lawyer's ability to mount "the best defense possible"? Counsel then knows what it is dealing with and has a better idea of how things may go in trial, especially if they intend to put their client on the stand. But in regard to the general gist of this new show: So what? The public has made Law and Order one of the highest rated TV franchises in history. How many other shows have not only has 10+ year runs, but have seen both the original and the spin-offs become syndicated gold mines? These producers are simply giving the public what it wants. One might also note that such liberal TV lions as "The West Wing" and the old "L.A. Law" did very much the same thing. It is entertainment after all.

    Just wanted to say that this wing-nut agrees with you. The right to a fair trial and a vigorous defense are two of the liberties worth conserving.

    Thanks, Craig. Glad to have you on our side on this one.

    I've decided to spell it with an "e."

    I gave up on L&O when surprise twist endings became a regular feature of each episode. In the earlier years of the original show, the scripts often explored difficult issues of law and showed both sides equally. I miss that.

    Why does Dick Wolf hate criminal defense lawyers? Because that's the current zeitgeist! L & O is one of the most ubiquitous shows on TV now. Celebrity trials and L & O are now the places most of our potential jurors get their sense of the criminal justice system and what do they see? Every Friday night at 10 they now get to see lying, cheating criminal defense lawyers, "ethically challenged" apparently simply because upon learning their client is guilty, they nonetheless have the gall to persist in their defense. The horror. Where are the Perry Masons, Mattlock's and even the idealistic Harry Hamelin's of LA Law, all the crusading individualists who overcome the odds to protect their innocent clients from the power of the State and from overzealous, cynical, careerist prosecutors notching convictions in their belts? All gone from the TV screens now. In this age of "security Moms" and Pioneer Youth high school students who all think we have too much constitutional freedom, the heroic, lone wolf, criminal defense lawyer is a scary anti-government metaphor. We just can't have that. Lynne Stewart gets convicted because the power of the 9/11 narrative is stronger than the reality of the defense lawyer's role in society. People are inured to the many exonerations of death row inmates after lifetimes of imprisonment. They shrug, and maybe they feel a little guilty, but ultimately they convince themselves that the defendant has only himself to blame because he "must've been in the wrong place at the wrong time." Nobody is clamoring for a TV series with crusading investigative defense lawyers where the wrongfully convicted go free--that would be admitting mistakes and well, these days we don't make mistakes, not any we can think of. Remember it's all only the "work of a few bad apples", and oh, yeah, "support the troops."

    Re: Law and Order Spinoff: Let's Bash the Defense (none / 0) (#20)
    by Repack Rider on Wed Feb 23, 2005 at 08:23:16 AM EST
    I have to say that I find virtually every defense attorney on the show incompetent. How can anyone not notice that the defendant always takes the stand? Where McCoy crucifies him on cross? How often does that happen in a real trial?

    I think Wolf has even more disdain for public defenders than for high-priced "free world" criminal defense lawyers. A year or so ago, they had an entire show that completely smeared a public defender. The "free world" lawyer refused to defend the evil kidnapper-murderer, so the judge suggested giving it to a public defender, making some comment about how he couldn't afford to have any ethics. Then, when the public defender went to some warehouse to verify info his client had given him that the kidnapping victim was dead, they prosecuted him for murder (some crazy accessory theory) in an effort to force him to divulge the privileged information about where the body was. And, of course, he was convicted. Afterwards, McCoy gloated about how the kid wouldn't be in prison long before he would rat out his client. As a public defender, it made me sick. And I have refused to watch another damn episode.

    Where is Perry Mason when you need him?

    One might also note that such liberal TV lions as "The West Wing" and the old "L.A. Law" did very much the same thing.
    Except that "The West Wing" doesn't do that at all; there have been very many sympathetic portrayals of Republicans on "The West Wing", even when they were at odds with the main Democratic characters. There have even been sympathetic Republican recurring characters.

    Re: Law and Order Spinoff: Let's Bash the Defense (none / 0) (#24)
    by Che's Lounge on Wed Feb 23, 2005 at 09:10:25 AM EST
    As a medico, I have never watched a complete episode of ER. But I know for a fact, by the questions I've been asked about that show, that many people actually believe in the reality of these portrayals. So Patrick, maybe you can see through the haze, but I believe millions of others base many of their opinions and realities on what they see on the TV. And if you want a REAL one sided slant on a complete fanatasy, try watching "24". Holy s**t!

    It's TV, get over it. Yeah. TV that's poisoning our jury pool.

    And, of course the result is that the person in the dock is the ultimate recipient of the consequences of these fantasies. CSI always has incontrovertable scientific proof, the prosecutor never goes after an innocent guy, all defendants must recieve life terms, and all defense lawyers are unethical and/or incompetent. But it's not about defense lawyers or who wins. It's about the guy in the dock.

    "Yes, that's sad. Law & Order's not the only one though. Try to look on the bright side. In time, the pendulum will swing back, and it'll be Perry Mason for the defense again." Notice that Perry Mason only helped innocent people to get acquitted and uncover the real guilty party. He does NOT try to help guilt criminals to escape punishment.

    For what it's worth, Wolf's 'defense lawyers are in it for the money' meme saturates L&O. Next time you watch it, notice the differences in the costuming between Jack & new sidekick and the defense attorneys, and note the set choice differences between the places the DA's office lawyers go out to eat and the restaurants where the defense att. picks up the check. I'm racking my brains to think of one instance where the defense can't get a scary top lawyer & has to stick with someone from the Public defenders' office, but I can't remember any.

    "Yes, that's sad. Law & Order's not the only one though. Try to look on the bright side. In time, the pendulum will swing back, and it'll be Perry Mason for the defense again." Notice that Perry Mason only helped innocent people to get acquitted and uncover the real guilty party. He does NOT try to help guilt criminals to escape punishment.
    No, but the Perry Mason structure was one that acknowledged that innocent people do get accused of crimes; L&O's approach confirms the opposite mentality: that the existence of an accusation is a component of the proof of the accusation's verity. Where there is no vigorous defense there is no trial, and all that's left is the show of one.

    I am all for a vigorous defense to get to the bottom of the truth. If the prosecuter makes a mistake and get the wrong person, the defense lawyer *should* fight as hard as possible to expose the mistake. If there is DNA evidence, use it. However, I am against defense lawyers making all sort of excuse once it is beyond a reasonable doubt of WHO is the culprit. You have heard all these excuses before. "I am retarded so I should get a out-of-jail free card.", "My parents abuse me so I kill someone else", "The medicine makes me do it.", "God makes me do it.", "Little voices in my head makes me do it." If you legitimize excuses, then you may as well free all the criminals and have anarchy.

    Yep, Lord knows I wouldn't want crooks running the country..............

    Where there is no vigorous defense there is no trial, and all that's left is the show of one.
    if not there, were well on the trail to it. plea bargining should be scrapped with mandatories, if accused go to trail with no extra penalties for not caving to the DA's political aspirations. excuses i think lawyers call those extenuating and mitigating circumstances. us lay people just call them that.

    Why are all criminal defense lawyers depicted on Law & Order shows as being "ethically challenged?" And why are they all depicted as being as dumb as a box of rocks? They just sit there haplessly while Vincent D'Onofrio breaks down their clients. Puh-lease . . .

    "I don't hold criminal defense attorneys in very high regard, based on what they do for a living, which is basically getting guilty people off." The series creator said that? That's it. I'm never watching that show (or any of its spin-offs) again. It's been pretty stale for a while now, anyway.

    Re: Law and Order Spinoff: Let's Bash the Defense (none / 0) (#35)
    by Richard Aubrey on Thu Feb 24, 2005 at 04:49:01 AM EST
    When a crime is committed, there's usually a perp. As a matter of statistical probability, the cops will probably catch the perp once in a while. Therefore, the guy on the stand may really be guilty. The presumption of innocence is limited to the structure of the trial and the "not guilty" verdict, which is different from "innocent". It means the prosecutor didn't prove anything, but neither did the defense attorney. We are allowed to believe anything we want, even that OJ is guilty. Barry Scheck, who's now franchised DNA, convinced a dozen meatheads that DNA was white man's mumbo-jumbo. And Lynne Stewart had no defense lawyer's privileges. The sheik wasn't an accused. He was a convict. He had lost his appeal. He was well and truly past any trial. She was not defending him. Actually, she was, and for the very reason that she knew him to be guilty and of what (she approved and so do other lefties which is why they lie about it), but not in the legal sense. There was no trial going on or in prospect. You figure nobody noticed that, didn't you?

    So, Aubrey, only people who are on trial have lawyers? I feel comforted

    Now is timely, I figure, to remind you commercial entertainment users of a notorious remark once made about the entertainment industry: "...a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs." - Hunter S. Thompson

    Re: Law and Order Spinoff: Let's Bash the Defense (none / 0) (#38)
    by cp on Thu Feb 24, 2005 at 11:19:05 AM EST
    richard aubrey, as usual, your ignorance of the most basic constitutional facts is on display for all to see. the defense doesn't have to prove anything. nada, nothing, zero. idiot. it is solely the job of the state to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, the guilt of the accused. period. end of discussion. i've enjoyed L & O since its inception. the writing is first rate, for tv. the acting has, with very rare exception, also been first rate. i thought ada stone was a much more compelling character, but that's just my opinion. do i take as fact what goes on, on any of the shows? no, don't be ridiculous, it's a tv show, fiction. yes, there are factual statements made, along with factual cites of case law and precedent. that's nice, it adds to the drama. however, the bottom line is, it's fiction. it doesn't lay claim to be anything more than that. does it matter what mr. wolf thinks of criminal defense attorneys? nope, not really, other than for himself. anyone so stupid as to take an avowedly fictional tv show seriously, deserves whatever they get, i have no sympathy for them. last time i checked, ignorance of the law is no excuse. so, TL, if you insist on getting your panties in a twist, use that time constructively, on something that actually matters, not a fictional tv show, with equally fictional characters.

    Re: Law and Order Spinoff: Let's Bash the Defense (none / 0) (#39)
    by Richard Aubrey on Thu Feb 24, 2005 at 03:57:27 PM EST
    ytterby. Get a clue. The point is you guys have been lying about Stewart being hammered for too vigorous defense. The guy was not being defended. He was done. She was doing nothing more than facilitating his communication with terrorists. Since you can't actually say out loud that you approve of such things, you have to lie about the circumstances. cp. Are you a conservative? I heard on this board, so I know it's true, that only conservatives call names. The point I was making, that you figured you needed to cover by name-calling, is that being acquitted does not mean you didn't do it. It merely means the state didn't convince the jury you merit state punishment. Like OJ. The defense doesn't have to "prove" anything, but it has to "show" a hole in the prosecution's case and the difference is effectively zero. You get reasonable doubt not from a wild-ass theory about Satanic cults killing Laci Peterson, but from rigorous proof that there is a hole in the prosecution's case. A jury isn't going to take your word for anything. You need to prove your assertion. The difference is that your proof is about the prosecution's shortcomings, not about the case itself. Try not proving that the prosecution has a problem and see where you get. BTW. A guy named Vachss has written some hard-boiled crime novels. In one of them, his character makes a bit on the side by buying out-of-date blood from blood banks. Robbers take a small bag of the stuff into a crime, hidden in their hand, pretend to have cut themselves in the process, leaving a smear of somebody else's blood on the scene, thereby using DNA to skate. Do you tell your clients to do this next time? Does Barry help coordinate this?