Law & Order: What Crime TV Teaches Us About Justice

Law & Order

American television audiences can’t get enough of drama series that focus on the criminal justice system; case in point: the award-winning Law & Order and its various offshoots, which aim to inject a certain sense of realism for the purpose of stirring interest, evoking conversation, and even providing education.

Here is a glance at three television series that portray the criminal justice system in different ways:

How to Get Away With Murder

Clearly influenced by Law & Order, this ABC legal drama and mystery series presented audiences with an irresistible proposition: a brilliant criminal defense attorney who also happens to teach law at an Ivy League school. It so happens that Professor Keating also offers internships at her law firm, and they are far more instructional than what prospective students would get at the prosecutor’s office.

What is refreshing about this series is that combining the academic and professional worlds of criminal defense gives viewers a glimpse at how defendants can feel cornered by pushy and zealous prosecutors, and how defense attorneys must work cleverly to defeat the resource-laden prosecution.

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit

This offshoot of the original Law & Order is interesting insofar as its appropriate portrayal of how sexual assault offenses are handled in the American legal system. Prosecutors are heroes in this series, but they are not always perfect. The show sometimes features a criminal defense law firm that is simply no match for the prosecution, and the judge sometimes admonishes prosecutors for being outfoxed and failing to deliver justice to vulnerable victims.

Perry Mason

This classic courtroom drama may have been formulaic and melodramatic, but it had a serious cultural impact that has outlasted the series’ original nine-year run. In the Perry Mason fictional universe, Los Angeles is a very dangerous city where murder has become a societal problem that must be dealt with in Superior Court.

The Perry Mason series prompted the criminal justice system to take a hard look at how cases are deliberated before juries. In the common law system of the United States, the burden of proof is on the prosecution, particularly with regard to murder cases. Perry Mason was such a skilled litigator that he would carry the burden of proof, find the real murderer, put him or her on the stand, and extract a tearful or angry confession. Prospective jurors watching Perry Mason may be disappointed to learn that such moments are rare in the courtroom.

Television court dramas have come a long way since Perry Mason, and they are getting better at showing how the American criminal justice really works. Keep in mind, though, that firms like Mesenbourg & Sarratori Law Offices don’t always defend and prosecute the most heinous of crimes that we constantly see on television. Criminal law isn’t always about the sexual assaults and murders. It has to do with theft, armed robbery, fraud, drug crimes and, even, DUI’s as well.

Whether or not these shows bring up those “lesser” crimes or the major societal issues that Law & Order brings up, there are certain shows that can teach us a lot about justice. What is your favorite crime TV show and what has it taught you?

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