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Perry mason effect.

Lawyers everywhere, regardless of area of practice, owe a debt of gratitude to lawyer-turned-author Erle Stanley Gardner. From the mid-1930s until his death in 1970, Gardner was a tireless advocate for the legal profession, particularly criminal defense lawyers. Gardner's greatest contribution to the practice was his creation of fictional criminal defense lawyer Perry Mason.

During the last 50 years (interestingly, exactly how many years it's been since CBS aired the final episode of "Perry Mason"), new lows in public respect for attorneys have been plumbed. It wasn't always that way. From the release of Gardner's first Perry Mason novel in 1933, The Case of the Velvet Claws, the American public was captivated with the courtroom dramas of the Mason novels, especially the flair, wit, and surprise successful acquittals Mason managed to engineer over and again.

In all 81 Perry Mason novels, Gardner drove deep a portrayal of criminal defense lawyers as ethical, hardworking, and dedicated to the cause of justice. As a result, the public grew to understand and appreciate the sacrifices made by those defending citizens accused of a crime. Gardner's Mason novels sold more than 185 million copies.

Gardner and Perry Mason soon found themselves in Hollywood, where during the 1930s and 1940s, a variety of films featured the crafty trial lawyer. Gardner, however, dissatisfied with Hollywood's portrayal of Mason, canceled his approval of the Warner Bros. film franchise. A more satisfying medium proved to be the coast-to-coast national radio show "Perry Mason," premiering in 1943 and broadcast five days a week for 12 years. Gardner's contractual agreement for script approval helped guarantee that Perry Mason and the legal profession received fair and proper characterization.

Transitioning from radio to television in 1957 brought Perry Mason his greatest courtroom triumphs and acclaim. For nine years and approximately 300 episodes, Americans watched transfixed as Raymond Burr channeled Perry Mason exactly as Gardner envisioned. Though at times predictable, the formulaic plots' surprise endings and Mason's deft courtroom strategies amazed and entertained millions. The final episode of the CBS series, aptly titled "The Case of the Final Fadeout," featured Gardner in his first and only appearance on the show acting as the trial judge. Dick Clark played the murder suspect.

Gardner's continuous insistence that criminal defense lawyers be characterized in an ethical manner reflected his own deep-seated feelings about the legal profession and particularly criminal defense lawyers. He held the highest respect for those who dedicated their professional life to defending the criminally accused. To Gardner, criminal defense lawyers stood watch over precious constitutional rights.

Gardner's personal feelings on criminal defense lawyers were captured in the Perry Mason novel The Case of the Drowsy Mosquito, in which Mason answers criticism that he "sticks up" for criminals: "I have never stuck up for any criminal. I have merely asked for the orderly administration of an impartial justice. Due legal process is my own safeguard against being convicted unjustly. To my mind, that's government. That's law and order."

CBS canceled the series in 1966. It lives on in syndication with hundreds of stations nationwide still airing reruns. Between 1985 and 1995, 30 Perry Mason made-for-TV shows were broadcast.

Gardner's commitment to protecting the innocent and promoting the cause of justice went beyond "Perry Mason." In the 1950s, he helped start "The Court of Last Resort," uniting top investigators, lawyers, and forensic scientists to review, and where needed, try to reverse, wrong convictions. Of particular interest to Gardner's group were convictions due to inadequate legal representation, wrongful prosecutions, or misapplication of forensic science. Gardner's book on The Court of Last Resort earned him the prestigious Edgar Award in 1952.

Gardner passed away in 1970, but his impact on America's legal profession remains. During her Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Justice Sonia Sotomayor cited the strong, positive impressions that "Perry Mason" played in shaping her desire to become an attorney.

Richard Kibbey

Joshua Deckard

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Title Annotation:Letters
Author:Kibbey, Richard
Publication:Florida Bar News
Article Type:Letter to the editor
Date:Apr 1, 2013
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