I wonder how different the real life justice system would be if it played out like it does on television.
Let’s say that we were watching an episode of Law and Order (not the spin-off but the original one) and Det. Lennie Briscoe and Det. Mike Logan are heading up the 32-year old cold case of five Newark, NJ teens found dead and locked inside of a closet in a burning abandoned apartment. Would Briscoe, the seasoned detective that he is, take seriously the fuzzy memories of witnesses, who said they saw the young men with Lee Evans, a lonely 25-year-old mason and handyman? Or would Logan, the more cocky and short tempered of the two, blow a fuse when he realizes that there are various inconsistencies among witnesses as to where, when and what time the young men were last seen that unfaithful night?
How would Briscoe and Logan deal with the questionable confession from Philander Hampton, Evans’ cousin and a career criminal who said that he and Evans killed the boys in retaliation for a drug theft? How would they handle the lie detector, which Evans passes with flying colors, and a lack of DNA evidence?
With the case filled with so many holes and uncertainties, would our beloved TV heroes even think they have enough to pass it on to McCoy for prosecution?
Unfortunately, legal drama on television is nothing like real life law and order – if they were, Mr. Evan’s real life hell might have been over by the next episode. On television, detectives rely on a combination of brainpower, a sense of duty and when needed, brute force to get to the truth. The lawyers, who often serve as our lone heroes, have to overcome legal challenges and puzzles to ensure that the right criminal is convicted for his or her crime. Usually our television cops and prosecutors can do this in less than an hour – possibly two if a serial killer is involved.
Let me state that I have nothing but respect for all of the good men and women who risk their lives every day wearing a badge. They are all heroes—real heroes. And I do understand that police officers do not have big TV budgets and fancy lighting to get the job done.
However, when it comes to law and order in reality, police work can be very messy and a lot more subjective. Mistakes are made and prosecutions are rushed, especially if it’s a high profiled case. Sometimes, the mistakes are due to being overworked and underpaid. Other times, shoddy police work, internal prejudices and fanatical prosecution are to blame. Whatever the case, there are some folks who have the misfortune of being on the short end of the stick when it comes to justice, like Mr. Evans, the real life plumber in Newark, who is facing a lifetime in prison based off of very little evidence.
Cases like Evans’ are not isolated events: Cornelius Dupree Jr., a Texas man, who spent 30 years of his life in prison for rape and robbery, was released earlier this week after DNA testing cleared him of any wrongdoing. And according to the Innocence Project, there have been 265 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States.
The average length of time served by exonerees is 13 years and the total number of years served collectively is approximately 3,433. The leading causes of wrongful convictions include eyewitness misidentification testimony, invalidated or improper forensic science, false confessions and incriminating statements, as well as the over-reliance on snitches or paid informants.
Could you image watching a cop or legal drama TV show where the officers and lawyers bungle a case every other episode? On television, instances like these would never happen and if they do, the detectives and attorneys work together to make sure that they rectified their mistakes by the next commercial break. But in real life, the vast majority of cases are resolved through plea bargains, which mean that the vast majority of defendants never get to plea their cases in front of a jury of their peers.
The odds are that there are a lot more innocent people in prison for crimes they didn’t commit and many of them will rot in jail, even if there is evidence which might expunge them of their convictions. Now I know it sounds naive to suggest that real life imitate television, but at the least shouldn’t our real life justice system take as much pride in knowing that the people they put in prisons are suppose to be there like they do on the small screen? That ego or prejudices shouldn’t triumph over facts? And that if mistakes are made, innocent folks, as well as the families of the said victims, don’t have to wait 15 plus years for a just resolution?
Charing Ball is the author of the blog People, Places & Things.