Millions of viewers know by heart the familiar refrain that opens "Law & Order": "In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police, who investigate crime; and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories."
The stories "Law & Order" doesn't tell, though, could be affecting juries across the country, according to a new academic paper cited in The Wall Street Journal.
Adam B. Shniderman, a doctoral student at the University of California, Irvine, writes that NBC's legal drama (and its spin-offs) could create a distorted, unbalanced view of the justice system, in which law enforcement is always right.
As he says in the paper, "The police and prosecutors in this view are portrayed as the 'good guys' keeping the people safe from a dangerous world of criminals … On the other hand defense lawyers, the occasional by-the-book ADA, and even the Constitution are portrayed as impediments to justice."
As Shniderman noted, in the world of "Law & Order," if a suspect goes to trial, they're always guilty. And the show's penchant for ripping from the headlines lends an air of realism to the stories. Could the neat, "justice served" endings sway jurors in real trials?
"I do think 'Law and Order' and other media affect jurors," said Loni Coombs, a legal expert and Los Angeles prosecutor with 18 years experience. "We're not in a bubble; jurors are more than ever involved in media and watching shows. But I also think that in a way, it's become educational. Jurors are more sophisticated now than ever."
A similar question popped up a few years ago over the "'CSI' effect" — whether jurors held overly-high expectations for the kind of forensic evidence seen in the popular CBS drama.
As a prosecutor, Coombs told Yahoo TV she would further question potential jurors who were big "CSI" fans. She'd explain that on the show, "They turn around the DNA samples in half an hour, which usually takes months in real life. They tend to find evidence everywhere, whereas in real life, the prints and the blood — if they even get collected — are tainted or contaminated or so minimal … and many of them understand that it's just a show."
Both shows' impact on jurors is largely anecdotal, and even Shniderman conceded he had no empirical evidence to support his theory. And one study on the "'CSI' effect" found that while that viewers did have high expectations for scientific evidence, they were not any more or less likely to convict.
Still, Coombs — now a TV legal analyst on radio and TV, as well as the author of "You're Perfect … and Other Lies Parents Tell" — believes that fictional shows, as well as media coverage of real cases, does have an impact. And that's why jury questionnaires include inquiries about what newspapers we read, what magazines we flip through, and what TV series we watch.
"Potential jurors, ever since the OJ Simpson case, started watching real trials on TV as they started getting more media coverage. And they'd see that in real cases, not all of the evidence comes into court — sometimes it's kept out by the judge, sometimes it's tainted, sometimes there are issues," Coombs noted.
"And many times there just isn't the right kind of evidence, like everyone saw in the [George] Zimmerman case. Because they weren't able to prove exactly what happened when the two confronted each other, it ended up being not guilty because there just wasn't enough evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to show what really happened."
Watch an intense courtroom scene from "L&O":