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Land of good-guy prosecutors.

My son just finished law school and passed the bar. By all rights, I should be strutting around the neighborhood, regaling friends and strangers with proud tales of "my son, the lawyer." Guess again. You see, my son is a public defender. In his office, the staff attorneys wear buttons that read, "Don't tell my mother I'm a public defender; she thinks I play piano in a whorehouse."

I've come to understand such black humor very well. The attitude of most Americans toward defense attorneys is not good. "An eye for an eye" resonates deeply with public emotion these days. "The presumption of innocence," so dear to the hearts of the Founding Fathers, seems harder and harder for people to grasp. Clarence Darrow, much less Bill Kunstler, would have as bleak a chance of getting elected to public office in the current climate as Charles Manson.

The media have a lot to do with this. TV bombards us daily with images of slick defense attorneys using their wily ways to bamboozle unsuspecting jurors into letting "obviously guilty" persons - the Menendez brothers, O.J. Simpson, Lorena Bobbitt - go free. Never mind that in real life, where the Court TV cameras don't go, nine out of ten cases that actually go to trial result in convictions and imprisonment. Why else would our prisons be bursting at the seams, as the prison industry itself becomes big business? But forget common sense and hard figures. To the public, glued to the TV, things are clearly otherwise. Criminals are everywhere going free to rob and plunder, while their lying, scheming, amoral attorneys grow richer by the minute.

But it's not only - or even primarily - through Court TV and CNN that the media work to befuddle us about the true nature of the criminal-justice system, and whose interests it does and doesn't serve. It's actually fictional programs that give TV audiences the most dramatically distorted images of American law and lawyers.

Virtually every courtroom drama presents the most stereotypical images of defense attorneys and their clients. The lawyers are willing to say or do anything to get their invariably despicable clients off, while the prosecutors - usually cast regulars to whom we have developed a loyalty - are harried, overworked good guys trying valiantly, against super odds, to keep the streets safe for us upscale viewers of quality television."

It was not always thus. The tradition of TV courtroom drama in America has been in the liberal, Frank Capra-mode. It used to be that the little guy, falsely accused, was proven innocent by a heroic lawyer modeled after Clarence Darrow.

Raymond Burr, first as Perry Mason and then as Ironsides, still shows up in reruns. These are dated, to be sure. But they are worth looking at on occasion to get a sense of how different were the assumptions about the police, prosecutors, and defendants in those days. For Perry Mason, tough cases were the only ones worth taking, because they symbolized what the American legal system stood for: the right of private citizens, no matter how poor or powerless or socially insignificant, to the best possible defense against charges brought by the all-powerful state, as represented by the always slightly sinister D.A. Of course, Mason's defendants were always innocent - as innocent as the times themselves. Nonetheless, the bias toward the underdog, and against the state, was emphatic.

We still have a few relics of this corny, old tradition around. The Client, based on the John Grisham novel and movie, and seen at the 8 p.m. "family-viewing" hour, features a warm-hearted, decent female attorney who usually takes victimized kids and women for clients. The problem is that our heroine, Reggie Love, is more social worker than attorney. She never appears in court to try cases; she runs around finding solutions to her clients' personal problems and then sits down over coffee and croissants with her old friend the D.A. (whose heart and soul, in the 1996 version, are almost as pure as her own) to find a happy ending for all concerned.

There is no pretense whatever to social or political realism on this show. There is no sense that the criminal-justice system is indeed a system, or that economic, political, and social forces determine, to a significant extent, what happens to the hapless individuals who find themselves caught in its grip. Every story here is of individual souls whose problems the system, in the guise of two good-hearted, right-thinking lawyers, will solve.

But The Client is a relic of an earlier, more innocent time, watched mostly by an aging demographic: people who remember Frank Capra and miss him. And who could blame them?

What we have now in the way of serious legal dramas is a whole lot more cynical. Indeed, the two very best shows on the air - Law and Order and Murder One - are both trying to present courtroom drama in a realistic, sophisticated way. Both are alarmingly reactionary, for they feed the current rightwing stereotypes about crime, criminals, and the legal system. These stereotypes demonize those who defend the accused against the state, while they whitewash the state itself.

I confess to a love/hate relationship with both these shows. They are so well done, so smart, so beautifully produced and acted, so respectful of viewers' intellects and attention spans. Law and Order has long been one of the classiest shows on the air. It carefully presents social issues - straight out of yesterday's headlines - and refuses to titillate audiences with the personal or sexual dalliances of its principals. It's an updated "Just the facts, Ma'am" show, in which cops and lawyers do their jobs, and the writers do their legal homework.

The problem is that it presents every single issue from the point of view of the police and prosecutors, and then - to add insult to injury - puts a liberal spin on the package so that the D.A. invariably agonizes over justice and upholds progressive values while the defense attorney is pond scum.

All the vicious racists and sexists on Law and Order just happen to be defendants, not cops or prosecutors. On one recent episode, a white, rightwing, militia-type bomber killed a subway careful of African Americans in the Bronx. His attorney used every racist argument in the book to persuade the white, suburban jury that his client was a victim of anti-white-male "political correctness." But the liberal D.A. didn't let him get away with it. He got a conviction and struck a blow for racial justice.

"Well, good for him!" you say. Nobody likes a mad rightwing bomber, after all. Yes, this kind of case does happen sometimes, like in Oklahoma. But it doesn't happen every week. In fact, it happens about as often as famous football celebrities are accused of killing their wives, or Beverly Hills kids kill their parents, or women cut off their husbands' penises.

It's easy to give the impression that all prosecutors and cops are decent guys out to serve justice when you have defense attorneys representing rightwing fascists. But most defendants don't fit this description. Most are more likely to look like his victims, the fictionalized black subway riders. So things tend to get more complicated in real life than TV would have us believe. Even the Timothy McVeighs of the world have rights that it is in our own interests as citizens to protect. We don't need to like Randy Weaver or David Koresh to be concerned that someone defend their right to be free from invasion by the state. After all, the state did violence in those cases - a lot of violence for reasons that never quite added up to my satisfaction.

But you won't see that point of view on Law and Order. where the only good lawyers are prosecutors. Recently the D.A. hero was accused of planting evidence to win a case. Turned out, however, that he hadn't done it. He knew nothing about it. It was his ambitious then-assistant (a woman, no less), who had since gone into private practice as - wouldn't you know it? - a defense attorney.

Well, we all know that prosecutors never plant evidence, or look the other way when their police-witnesses do so. "That would be wrong," as Richard Nixon famously put it. And the more CNN and Court TV and the nightly news present evidence to the contrary (what about those Fuhrman tapes?), the harder TV fiction works to counteract it with versions of a much kinder, gentler, and more honest system.

When Law and Order presents a more typical case - a young black male accused of drug dealing, for instance - you can be sure that it's the defense attorney who will be sleazy or incompetent, while the D.A. will turn cartwheels trying to make sure justice is done and the kid gets a break. Give me a break.

Murder One is a whole different kettle of fish. This is a show in which everyone is awful, but some are more awful than others. No one on either side of the courtroom ever does the right thing, or even thinks about it.

Teddy Hoffman, the defense attorney-to-the-stars, rarely utters the phrase "presumption of innocence" unless it's with a sorrowful, but chillingly cynical look. He operates in the L.A. of the O.J. Simpson trial and Hard Copy - an L.A. stretching, more or less, from Brentwood to Melrose Place, but conveniently excluding South Central and any of the other twenty-some ethnic communities that make up the bulk of the city's population.

Everyone on this show is guilty of something - usually something awful. And everyone is filthy rich, very white, and if not powerful, then at least famous and/or gorgeous. This is the land of Kato Kaelin, Faye Resnick, and Dominick Dunne, not Rodney King. And the question of whether Hoffman's movie-star client - accused of murdering a fifteen-year-old girl in a particularly kinky way involving all manner of drugs, sex, and perversion - did it or not is irrelevant.

But the show's cynicism doesn't end there. Hoffman has recently taken to working with the D.A.'s office in an effort to find the person who kidnapped his daughter. He wants a stiff sentence, and cares nothing for the defendant's rights this time, because it's his kid, you see. When the prime suspect gets off, the D.A. actually gets to say to him, "Now you see how we feel," to which the even more glum than usual Hoffman nods assent.

It's worth noting - although the show itself does not take note of it - that the entire LAPD springs into action when Hoffman's child disappears because he is a prominent, powerful figure. This doesn't happen in South Central, but then there is no South Central in this L.A., so what does it matter?

The biggest TV drama of all time, of course, was the O.J. Simpson trial. This spectacle gave proof of how much we, as a society, are under the sway of these media images and stereotypes about criminal justice. I have no doubt - for what it's worth - that O.J. Simpson is a murdering, misogynist sociopath and a danger, still, to women everywhere. But that most white Americans seem to have been outraged by the verdict, while most blacks seemed gratified, strikes me as very much connected to the different views of criminal justice that the two groups have.

To most blacks, there is no doubt about the systemic nature of the law, about its tendency to act in accord with large racial and political principles by which some people get one kind of justice and others get another. Nor do most blacks have trouble with the idea - dear to the law and rightly so - that tainted evidence of any kind puts into question all evidence gathered. They know how things work. They have reason to believe in the principle of "reasonable doubt" and hang onto it for dear life.

White audiences tend to see each case as a little drama of right and wrong, in which "truth" is the issue, punishment the point. That is not, however, what the Founding Fathers had in mind. No, to the Founding Fathers - fresh from a monarchy with nonexistent individual rights - the most important principle of law was that it protect the innocent and the presumed innocent against the state's capacity to oppress and misuse power, not that it punish the guilty.

Even to write these words is to brand myself as a hopelessly out-of-date bleeding-heart liberal. Except that what passes for "liberalism" these days isn't doing much bleeding for the poor and oppressed, even rhetorically. Everywhere, we hear cries - from the right and what passes for the left on TV - for more prisons, more executions, fewer rights and privileges for "criminals," three-strike laws, and stiffer sentences even for children, whom we are now trying as adults in many places, although most have never had the chance to be children. In California, legislation is pending which would deny prisoners the right to speak to the media, lest they sully our ears and eyes with their side of their stories.

And if you are so sure you are safe, how about those new surveillance systems they are starting to put on public streets and shopping centers in your town? But don't worry. If you get arrested on television, you'll be in good hands. Don't even bother to ask for a lawyer; they'll give you a sleazeball. Just tell the nice D.A. everything he wants to know, and he'll take care of you. Trust me.
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Title Annotation:TV portrayals of defense attorneys
Author:Rapping, Elayne
Publication:The Progressive
Date:May 1, 1996
Previous Article:Leonard Weinglass.
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