11 Ways Real Court Is Different from TV

Many new court interpreters have trepidation to work in court; they feel intimidated by the setting and the protocol. Unfortunately, some of the fears new interpreters have are caused by the media and its depiction of court.

Shows like CSI or Law and Order are sometimes the only interactions a lay person has with the court system. As a result, people have many misconceptions about court and the legal system.

I would like to point out some of these misconceptions.

1. Police officers and detectives are routinely shot at, kidnapped or injured on the job.

The truth is, sustaining some of the injuries that TV characters suffer would be the end of their police career. One such injury that I remember is Detective Eliot Stabler from Law and Order SVU is when he was shot at and blinded, but of course he bounced back very quickly and regained his sight. If this happened in real life, most likely he would not regain his sight and would go on Workman’s Compensation.

Another incident was the kidnapping and near rape of Detective Olivia Benson from Law and Order SVU. According to the storyline, she is kidnapped by a serial killer and rapist that had been stalking her. Again, something that traumatic would likely spell the end of any police career.

2. Police officers and other court officials speak a multitude of languages and serve as interpreters.

To mention Olivia Benson again, during the show she is shown to be proficient in Spanish, Italian, Russian and French. This is completely unrealistic, and the show doesn’t even address how she learned those languages. During the show other staff members serve as interpreters as needed. One episode featured a court psychologist interpreting for a victim in court. In real life, court interpreters are required to be neutral and impartial. It would be a conflict of interest for a court psychologist to also be an interpreter, and he or she would not be a neutral party. The reality is that court systems across the country require the use of certified interpreters; this is a regular occurrence in metropolitan areas. The crime shows, except for the above cases, hardly ever showcase the use of the interpreter in court. Considering that these shows are based in highly populated cities, it would be reasonable to assume that they would periodically need the services of an interpreter. But somehow, all of the victims and defendants on the witness stand speak English, some with a heavy accent, but with perfect grammar. Totally unrealistic.

3. The DA talks to defendants in the jail with or without their attorneys to cut deals.

In reality, the DA’s only speak to lawyers; that’s the lawyer’s job, to try to get a deal for their client. I have never seen a case where the DA goes to speak to the defendant in jail.

4. Opposing attorneys, DA’s and police officers are fierce enemies.

In the crime shows, the defense attorneys usually sweep in mid-interrogation and say, “This interview is over.”  Then there is a snarky conversation between the police and the attorney.  But in truth, most defendants don’t seek the services of an attorney until they go to court. Also, attorneys are for the most part civil and don’t take things so personally. They have to work with the same people every day. It would be difficult to maintain a good working relationship with your peers and court officials if you have a rotten attitude.

Also, in the courtroom scenes, opposing attorneys argue their cases before the judge and speak to each other instead of the judge. A judge would never allow this. Attorneys must speak to the judge directly. They can’t argue the case’s merits with each other.

Another thing courtroom drama television series depict is attorneys sneering at each other and loudly yelling, “Objection!” every chance they get. In reality, they must state the basis of the objection. They can’t just arbitrarily bark “Objection!”

The shows also depict the attorneys and the DA’s as bitter enemies. In reality, both the attorneys and the DA’s deal with hundreds if not thousands of cases together and like I said before, usually maintain a working relationship with each other. If an attorney is notoriously difficult to deal with, the DA is less likely to bend backwards for them, and vice-versa.

Only the most what I would call “eccentric” attorneys show the amount of drama (huffing, chuckling, making faces) depicted in the shows. Usually everyone maintains the sense of decorum that the courtroom setting requires.

5. The depiction of the judge is a tough no-nonsense person who barks orders and keeps the attorneys in line.

It is true that the judge is the be all and end all in court. Some judges let that go to their head and are, shall we say, more vocal or proactive than others.  But in the shows, they always show the judge only saying a few lines such as, “Enough, counsel!” “Watch your step, counsel.” “The jury will disregard the witness’s last statement.” They also threaten to find the attorneys in contempt.

In reality, to find an attorney in contempt, it would have to be for egregious conduct, not simply for disagreeing with opposing counsel.

I have found that most judges keep order in the courtroom without having to bang the gavel. I have rarely seen judges utilize the gavel anyway.

5. Cases take weeks to resolve, instead of months or even years.

A simple traffic ticket might be scheduled a month after receiving the ticket. The case may be continued a few times. But usually, the cases are disposed of rather quickly. In real life, felonies are cases that may be pending for years, especially for drug trafficking, rape, and murder. There are several steps that take time. There has to be an indictment by the grand jury. They have to determine probable cause, appoint attorneys (if needed), run forensics, get reports from the coroner, medical examiner, crime lab, psychologists, etc. The case also needs to be docketed for trial. This can take several months, even a few years. The cogs of the justice system for felony cases are notoriously thorough and slow.

6. Detectives go and check out dead bodies at the coroner’s and they stop by the crime lab, where they are briefed on the results.

First of all, all of the forensic workup will be provided to the court, DA’s, and attorneys via written documents. Anything that requires testing is usually sent to the crime lab. In some states, they have a state-run lab. Many times, the reports take several weeks or even months to do. Not because they are so difficult to run, but because usually crime labs are severely back-logged.

Also, some of the technology depicted in crime shows doesn’t even exist. Or it does exist, but is prohibitively expensive and out of the reach of real investigators, or is unrealistic with regards to the time frame.  For example, for TV, according to John Kiesewetter from the Enquirer, “a DNA report ready in 15 minutes on CSI: Miami takes 12 hours in real life.” Technical consultant Elizabeth Devine says, “We cheat time on our show. We do DNA in 15 minutes…It’s not accurate, but it’s a television show, and we have to do it.”

7. Defendants appear in court well-dressed and neatly groomed.

If this were the case, the court wouldn’t have to post the dress code on the entrance to the courtroom. Frequent offenders: saggy pants, visible bras or underwear, shorts, untucked shirts, tank-tops, hats.

You would be surprised how some defendants show up in court. I once saw a woman charged with prostitution come to court in a cat-suit. A cat-suit! I can’t believe this helped her case any.  Another favorite is when the guy charged with drug trafficking shows up with a marijuana logo on his hat or shirt.

8. Omissions of court protocol.

DA’s and attorneys are shown in court, sashaying up to the defendant at will, addressing the jury during cross-examination. In reality, the only time the attorneys are allowed to approach the witness would be in order to show the witness a document or other piece of evidence. Attorneys must ask permission to approach the witness, and the judge must approve or deny the request.

The only times the attorneys may address the jury directly is during opening statements, where they will tell the jury what they hope to prove, and in the closing argument, where they argue what the evidence shows and what the verdict should be.

Also, no one enters the galley (the space between the defense and prosecutor tables and the judge’s bench) without permission from the judge.

9. Confessions on the witness stand.

Sometimes I have seen witnesses caught in a lie. But I have never seen a witness break down and confess a crime for which he/she has not been previously accused of. It’s possible that it does happen, I just have never seen it myself, and the shows depict that it happens in almost all the cases. Remember Perry Mason? He would always get the “real” bad guy to confess, and always on the witness stand.

10. The attorneys cross examine the witness in a short period of time, and when they get to a crucial point, leave it hanging and conclude with “Nothing further,” at which point they stare down opposing counsel with a haughty look on their face.

The reality is that for the serious cases depicted on the shows, a cross examination of a witness may take several hours, days and with high-stakes and high-profile cases, weeks. They are detailed to a fault, and the proceedings are much slower than depicted in those shows. As for “nothing further”, it’s not used the same way as shown in the shows. They simply use the phrase to indicate they have exhausted all of their questions and can’t think of anything else to ask.

11. (Now this is getting nit-picky, but it really annoys me). The foreman of the jury recites the crimes and decision without reading or looking at the verdict form.

The jury foreman can’t remember all of those details. At least the ones I’ve seen.

Do you have any pet peeves regarding the depiction of court? Let me know!