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Law And Order- The Art Of Television On Public Perception

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Humanities and the Arts

February 5, 2007

Law and Order

Dick Wolfe created a television phenomenon when he created the series Law and Order. The series which proclaims "storylines ripped from the headlines" has generated three other sister series all resembling the latest and most notorious criminal cases to grace the pages of the NY Post. Although the fourth series Trial by Jury was cancelled, the original Law and Order, Law and Order SVU and Law and Order Criminal Intent all continue to pull in the viewers and the ratings. The draw of viewers to the Law and Order Series demonstrates the American public's fascination with criminal cases and procedures as well as society's need to witness the closing of cases in a manner that punishes the criminal and protects the victim and the public.

Law and Order offers the viewer the opportunity to see the case unfold from start to finish a tactic that many earlier police shows did not offer. The curious side of human nature draws many people into the weekly Law and Order shows by starting with a glimpse of the crime as it takes place. Human curiosities naturally want to know more about what happened, why it happened and who the perpetrator was. As reporters such as Mark Jurkowitz of the Boston Globe point out, "[American society] has a strange mix of voyeurism and compassion that coexist in American culture and that drive public and media interest in sordid and sad stories" (2003). In the article Mr. Jurkowitz discusses the strange fascination with the Laci Peterson disappearance, the O.J. Simpson Murder case, the murder of Jon Bonnet Ramsey, and the rescue mission for Jessica Lynch from her captures in Iraq. These stories remained front page news for weeks and/or months. The O.J. Simpson case drew the attention of the country from the beginning of the hour long car chase to the reading of the verdict. The fascination was so great that today many people can tell you where they were and what they were doing when the verdict was read. The writers of Law and Order take this compulsive need to follow cases such as these and turn the stories into successful shows building on the need of the viewer to know more about the details of the case, more about the fate of the victim, and the reason that the defendant committed such a heinous act.

The storylines are opportunities for the viewer to see the crime through the eyes of detectives, feel sorrow for the victims without the personal connection, hunger for justice and yet accept a possible defeat in the courtroom because the viewer knows that this is only a television program where the actors go home and live out their lives. The show uses this fascination to draw viewers in and yet offer the viewer the opportunity to learn about the intricacies of our legal system with its requirements and loopholes that benefit the police, the people, and the defendants. The show helps the viewer have a better understanding of the legal system without the requirement of sitting in an actual courtroom or attending law school.

The shows writers take the viewer deeper into the storyline through the process of police investigations and the questioning of possible suspects. The writers offer the public a safe view into the cryptic world of the murder, rape, street gangs, deceit, poverty, and the even the mob. The stories are based on real life headlines with some changes to the actual motives and methods of the crime. The second half of the show takes the viewer into the court room to follow the case through the legal system towards the verdict of guilty or not guilty, punishment or freedom, and closure for the victims or an open wound left by a system that does not guarantee justice for all.

The writers maintain much of the authenticity of actual court room procedures but without the time lag that occurs in the real courtroom and trial process. Real cases in the criminal court start with the crime and the police investigation and move into the courts with arraignment of the defendant. The arraignment process is very similar to that of the arraignments on the show. The process begins with the Judge reading the charges that the defendant is accused of committing. The Judge then proceeds to reiterate the rights of the defendant and permits the District Attorney to speak to the nature of the crime and the facts that may warrant the necessity of bail being set for the defendant. The one fact that is often taken out of context in the Law and Order series is the need or requirement for bail. In a real court case, bail is meant to ensure the presence of the defendant at the next court date. Bail is not about locking the defendant in a cell so that he/she cannot commit another crime. Law and Order often does not clarify the legal reasoning for bail.

Recent cases in the Albany City Criminal Court have exemplified the confusion of public perception on bail. Recent police sting operations have resulted in many first time and second time offenders whose track record of not appearing for court dictated that bail was set and the defendants were sent to the county jail. One observer announced that he was going to use the media to counter the District Attorney's and Judges unfair treatment of defendants and the high bail requirement by accusing the court of illegal procedures that would never be used by the lawyers on Law and Order. This incident was a clear example of the blur between the fictitious courts on Law and Order and the actual legal procedures in a real courtroom.

Although there are other small discrepancies on the show, such as the issue on the purpose of bail, the trial process on Law and Order closely follows the main procedures and stages that a real case goes through. Procedures such as the filing of Demands to produce and motions to suppress evidence or testimony are covered in much the same way in both the real court and on the show. The fast pace of the show from one court date to the next speeds the story along to its conclusion. However, the length of time in a real case can often drag on for months while motions are filed and responses are received. Albany City Court follows a standard two week lapse between motion and response dates. The lapse in time is essential for the attorney to research precedents, case facts, and write the appropriate arguments for each motion or response. This process helps to ensure a fair trial. Although Law and Order gives viewers the perception of a quick time frame from start to finish, the depiction is close enough to fact and teaches the court process to the viewer in a format that appeals and intrigues him and her enough to follow the story through to the end.

In addition, to teaching

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