Premeditated: Pop Culture & the Perception of Justice


I’m not sure I know any lawyer who isn’t familiar with the work of David E. Kelley and Jonathan Shapiro. They’re the producers who brought us shows like “Ally McBeal,” “The Practice” and “Boston Legal.” So when I saw they were speaking at the ABA Annual Meeting on a panel moderated by NPR’s Renee Montagne, I obviously had to go.

The Friday morning talk spanned a wide range of topics, including the civil and criminal justice systems. Let’s focus on the criminal discussion:

Montagne asked about how perceptions of the legal system have changed over the years, using the O.J. Simpson trial as a reference point. Back then, she said, polls showed that a majority of white Americans watching the trial thought Simpson was definitely guilty whereas black Americans watching thought he was definitely framed.Shatner Boston Legal

Shapiro talked about his experience as a U.S. attorney trying police brutality cases. In his experience, he said, most of the victims of police shootings came from poor communities with under-funded police departments. He said while the Black Lives Matter movement started an important conversation about the role of police, and the use of force, in America, he said it needed to open the door to conversations about the role poverty plays when it comes to unfair police practices.

What I found most interesting was probably their thoughts on the “CSI effect”—the idea that jurors expect advanced forensic evidence featured on TV that most real-life cases don’t have.

Kelley said he believes legal dramas have had a new effect on jurors, which he called the “What the fuck” effect. Because streaming services typically release entire seasons of original shows at a time, it’s created an incentive for screenwriters to end each episode  on a suspenseful cliffhanger to encourage binge-watching the whole season. Jurors have come to expect that level of suspense and surprise in actual trials, he said.

Shapiro agreed, saying if he were a prosecutor now, he would be constantly worried about how to structure a  narrative to keep people entertained during a long trial.

“The more TV elevates ‘What the fuck’ moments, I think it has an effect on how witnesses and jurors form their perceptions of justice,” he said.

A former circuit court judge in the audience supported his theory during the Q&A portion of the panel, saying that he routinely had jurors ask whether a murder trial would last longer than about an hour. Kelley said it wasn’t the first time he heard that criticism.

“I’ve had many judges and lawyers tell me we’ve done a disservice to the profession,” he said.

He explained that because TV skips over so many parts of a trial, it isn’t always an accurate portrayal of legal practice.

“I’m always tempted to beg forgiveness when I hear that someone decided to go to law school based on one of our shows,” he said. “It’s a grinding process and we put it into the speed warp machine. I feel and hear your pain.”

Get more criminal law news and analysis with a free trial to Criminal Law Reporter.