Millions of Americans have formed an inaccurate impression of the criminal justice system by absorbing hour upon hour of “Law & Order” episodes over the years, alleges an academician who studied the situation.
As a result, the academician writes, the original “Law & Order” series and its various spinoffs have negatively influenced potential jurors, who now are prone to assume that criminal-trial defendants are most likely guilty.
The allegations are contained in a doctoral thesis by Ph.D. candidate Adam Shniderman of the department of criminology, law and society at the University of California at Irvine. Titled “Ripped from the Headlines: Juror Perceptions in the ‘Law & Order’ Era,” the paper is due to be published soon in a law journal called The Law and Psychology Review. The paper and its allegations are being reported here on the Wall Street Journal Web site.
“The impact of the ‘Law & Order’ franchise on society, and particularly on potential jurors, has been greatly understudied,” Shniderman writes. Shniderman’s thesis (which you can link to within the WSJ story) makes comparisons between the “Law & Order” franchise and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” which has also been found to have greatly influenced viewers’ impressions about the nature of criminal investigations — their intricacies and their success rate (which is something like 100 percent on TV, but not in real life).
Shniderman’s thesis avers that “Law & Order” exerts an even stronger influence than “CSI,” at least in part by virtue of its longevity (the whole “Law & Order” steamroller first got started way back in 1990).
One of Shniderman’s main points seems to be that the storylines on the “Law & Order” shows typically involve guilty parties who seem as if they’ll be “allowed” to get away with their crimes because of protections they are afforded under the United States Constitution.
"The narrative [in typical episodes] is carefully crafted to brush aside rights abuses, portray these abuses as an integral, routine part of the justice process, and ultimately demonstrate that these actions are justified," Shniderman writes. "Viewers are drawn to sympathize with the police and prosecutors who protect us, regardless of their misconduct and foibles, and loathe those that 'get in the way' of justice."
The shows, according to Shniderman, have left many viewers - and potential jurors - with the impression that defendants who make it all the way to trial are almost always guilty. The thesis suggests that the TV shows have led jurors to believe that suspects and defendants who are not guilty almost always succeed in avoiding trial, either by making some kind of deal or proving their innocence long before a trial is scheduled. As a result, jurors believe that defendants who go all the way to trial must be guilty.
Shniderman believes jurors who have been influenced by the “Law & Order” shows to assume a defendant’s guilt at the outset of a trial are not likely to come around to a not-guilty verdict no matter how compelling the evidence and testimony presented at trial.
The Wall Street Journal said producer Dick Wolf — overseer of the “Law & Order” shows — had not yet commented on the thesis.