How Courtrooms in Movies and on TV Compare to Reality. By Franke Wallace.
Crime shows have always been big hits in Hollywood, with everything from shows like Suits and Rizzoli and Isles, to movies like A Few Good Men, and even documentaries like Abducted in Plain Sight and The Ted Bundy Tapes streaming to audiences worldwide. It’s no secret that courtroom movies and TV shows are some of our guiltiest pleasures. Give us cheesy detective stories, poorly done re-enactments, and raging judges and we’ll happily spend hours in front of our TVs.
But are these movies and TV shows actually showing what a real courtroom is like? Does the judge really bang his gavel and call for “order in the court!” on a regular basis? Do the lawyers regularly scream out, “I object!”? We hate to be the bearer of bad news, but courtrooms are rarely as exciting as Hollywood would like us to believe. Let’s take a look at some of the differences between courtrooms in reality versus what the movies and TV shows depict them to be.
Right Into the Action
As exciting as TV and movie producers want courtroom dramas to be, there’s actually quite a bit that happens before we get to an actual trial in a court of law. But those parts of the process wouldn’t exactly make for the most exciting TV, now would they? In reality, before we get to those heated moments with Jack Nicholson screaming, “You can’t handle the truth!” and Joe Pesci stringing measuring tape across the courtroom to prove a point, you have something called an arraignment.
An arraignment is the first step in any type of criminal proceeding. This is when the judge reads the defendant their rights and gives them all of the information they need to decide how they want to plead. It happens relatively soon after the criminal files are charged, and sometimes the arraignment date is determined by the judge for those who are already in custody.
Don’t expect to see very many arraignment scenes in crime thrillers, though. It’s a pretty basic run-through, and other than the defendant pleading guilty or not guilty, that’s about all the action you’ll see. For entertainment value, arraignments aren’t worth much and it seems like filmmakers got it right when deciding to leave this particular step out of their movies.
Attorneys Crossing the Line
Monk, starring Tony Shaloub, was a long-running TV show in the early 2000s that focused on a brilliant detective struggling with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. His ailment, which included several phobias — one of which was constantly washing his hands or using hand sanitizer, often got in the way of him solving crimes. However, in one particular episode, Monk himself was on the stand and the defense attorney began using his many phobias against him. It was enough to get him rattled and it’s enough to almost completely undermine the entire murder case Monk has been working on.
Whether it’s a murder trial or a child custody case, it’s no surprise that in almost every movie or TV show set in a courtroom an attorney is often either the hero or the villain. They make grand gestures to save their client or punish someone who’s wrongfully accused. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), if you’ve ever had the pleasure of heeding the call of jury duty, this almost never happens in real life. Before any questioning ever got to the point of badgering the witness like in Monk, the witness’s attorney would immediately object. There are rules and guidelines about behavior that all attorneys are expected to follow and while it might be exciting to see on our TVs, it isn’t going to happen the next time you’re stuck on jury duty.
Surprise Evidence? No Surprise Here
Any courtroom drama worth its weight in gold knows that one of the keys to an exciting courtroom scene is the tried-and-true surprise evidence. What’s more exciting than blindsiding a lying criminal on the witness stand with a secret stash of evidence in order to serve justice to the main character? Not much.
Truthfully though, this isn’t allowed in any courtroom. All evidence that is to be used in a trial has to be presented to the opposing side before the trial even begins. This means that all the attorneys involved know what the opposing side is going to use and this helps them build their case more. Unfortunately, starting a scene by saying, “And here’s some evidence you approved last week” just doesn’t have nearly as much dramatic effect.
While real-life courtrooms might not be as exciting as the ones we see on our screens, it’s comforting to know that there are rules and regulations everyone has to follow. We’ll keep the drama in our movies and TV shows and pass on it in real life for the time being.
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