Earlier in the week, I watched a TV program I wish I could un-watch. I fought watching it at the beginning. I made fun of it once it started. I even shielded my eyes and covered my ears when I couldn’t handle the stupidity any longer. For most of it, I was so uncomfortable I didn’t know if I could make it through the whole thing. I could feel my IQ dropping, but I couldn’t leave. Oh, the things we do for love!
The show was Harry’s Law. The entire thing was terrible, but one part went beyond normal bad TV. The part that transcended the average prime time schlock in awfulness, unfortunately, was the primary storyline itself. The main character, a lawyer, represented a client in an drug case with no defense. In terribly-written courtroom scenes that could be remarketed as a primer on how to get a judicial bar complaint, the main character argued nullification to the jury. The jury rejected it, perhaps the only realistic part of the show, but in the end, the judge suspended the prison sentence. It ended with the main character saying something to the effect of, “we only had to convince one, and it turned out the one we convinced was the judge.” I may have thrown up a little in my mouth.
I’m embarrassed I suffered through the whole show, but I’m also angry it ever got made. Its general terribleness aside, it sends the worst possible message to the public. Its message is far more harmful than the typical good-versus-evil, prosecution-versus-defense message sent by similar shows. Showing the system from the perspective of the defense lawyer and humanizing the people we represent is good. Making it look like everything is okay and telling the public things turn out right in the end is most certainly not good. It isn’t just bad TV; it’s probably representative of a big part of the reason why people in this country couldn’t care less about the injustice of mandatory sentencing provisions and other unfair features of our criminal justice system. They don’t know it exists.
In the real world, a defense might be tailored to encourage jurors to nullify, but the blatant presentation of a nullification defense is a surefire way to violate a slew of ethics rules. Telling the jury about the punishment, which the lady in the show did over and over again, is expressly prohibited. The jurors don’t get to know what they’re actually doing to the poor souls whom they judge. With blinders on, they decide if certain elements have been proven. To them, it at all times remains unknown whether their fact decision merely puts another man on probation, or if it makes them killers handing down a sentence of death by prison.
The main character’s tirades about fairness and justice would not only invite discipline from the judge and perhaps the bar, but would likely be precluded as irrelevant before the commentary even got off the ground. The jury considers the facts. The law isn’t on trial, the defendant is. Fairness and justice have absolutely no place before a jury. Did the defendant possess drugs? Look no further.
When the blind jury hands down its verdict, it doesn’t go to a judge who can disregard the sentencing laws and grant probation. Judges can see what’s going on, but they are largely powerless. With only that power to see and enough discretion to add or subtract a few years here and there, if at all, they are not as limited as a jury. They’re one-eyed men presiding over a trial whose outcome is determined by a jury of the blind. Their power goes no further than the numerous boundaries they must obey, boundaries set by people with little if any familiarity with the system and whose only qualification is having won a popularity contest.
Talk to a defense lawyer who’s been around for a little while, and you’ll hear stories about clients trusting God or fairness or justice all the way to a life sentence for a nonviolent offense. “I can’t go away for that, God wouldn’t let it happen.” “I have faith,” they say. People have what seems to be an infinite capacity for
maintaining a state of denial faith. I know one lawyer who, when confronted with the old God-wouldn’t-do-this-to-me argument, responds with this: God sacrificed his own son to help the people of the world, so why wouldn’t He sacrifice you to teach people not to take bad cases to trial?
Except in those extraordinarily rare cases where subtle nullification works and the defendant walks, there’s no happy ending to a case like the one portrayed in the show. A wise and caring jurist doesn’t make right every wrong from a bench far above the fray. In the real world, the jury decides if the shoe fits and the judge does what the law requires the judge must do. A person anguishes behind bars as everyone else returns to life exactly like it was for them before.
I can only hope that everyone else found the show as worthless as I did. Even better, perhaps the public will assume that the show isn’t just bad, but also inaccurate. Maybe they’ll see our system needs to change. The worst thing that could happen would be if people saw it, believed its outcome was possible, and remained content in their lives thinking the system can get it right.