Below the Fold: Learning about Our Rights, or Lack of Them, on TV

CSI, Law and Order, 24, Cold Case Files, Without a Trace, Criminal Minds, The Shield, Crossing Jordan, The Wire. I learn a lot about life. For instance, there is evil, sometimes petty, sometimes monstrous, but always deadly. There is good: the police, the prosecutors, and their beleaguered, but heroic witnesses. Of course, there are the squealers, the snitches, the sleazeballs, or simply the entrapped that help get some portion of evil greater than their own off the street. Defense attorneys have pride of place in the evil paragon. They are sort of the Beelzebubs of the evil operations, scheming, unscrupulous, tricksters that made it so difficult for the do-gooders to defeat evil.

Sebastian Shark of CBS’ Shark, for example, is the most dangerous trickster of all, for he now applies his incomparable skills with the tools of evil to serve the good. He now puts evildoers, sometimes even his ex-clients, in jail. Once evil, he has morphed into someone good. The moral of his story is that the good must learn, or stronger still, must be a little evil to get evil off the streets. Justice is a result, not a process, for Shark. His young and beautiful lawyer posse is often revolted by his tactics, but the lesson they are taught by Shark is that evil must be used to ensure that good will triumph.

I prefer Orson Wells in Touch of Evil. Now there was evil incarnate, three hundred ugly pounds of it. Chomping a wet cigar, unshaven, clearly getting the better of his opponent, the goody-goody cop Charlton Heston whom he transforms into someone evil. Only Marlene Dietrich, the borderlands madam, took pity on Welles’ Hank Quinlan. Dietrich as Tanya was not exactly the hooker with a heart of gold. Instead she was the weary, cynical stable keeper for men like Wells whose peccadillos were her bread and butter. As Wells framed hundreds of suspects throughout his career, he had also hooked up with a sneaky, violent, dark-faced, Spanglish-speaking criminal Mexican gang, that he uses to break the mestizo and obviously uppity Heston, the proud husband of the blond-haired Janet Leigh whom the Mexicans kidnap and torture for good measure. Except for Leigh’s Susie, the damsel in distress, everyone else gets more evil, and some of the worst of them kill, die, or in Heston’s case sober up to the need to do evil in order to do good.

Well, that is the big lie – to do evil in order to do good – that TV tells us is the moral of our version of Crime and Punishment. The good must do evil so that the bad are caught, murdered, jailed, and/or sometimes executed.

What do we learn about our civil rights, good or evil as we are? What does TV tell us about the practice of criminal justice in the United States? More accurately, what does TV portray as everyday practice in our daily battle against crime?

The first lesson is that everyone is a suspect and their rights an impediment to uncovering evil. Your are supposed guilty until you prove yourself innocent, and every attempt you make to clear yourself or help the police out will be turned against you. You can be “liked” for a crime, not a compliment on your character or good looks, and become a suspect without knowing it. If and until you are arrested, they do not need to tell you that their “liking” you makes you a suspect in their book, until they find someone better.

So the second lesson is that it is better to remain silent. Cooperation is a mistake. Request a lawyer. If you have no lawyer (woe betide you if you are poor or like most people in America consider lawyers potential road kill), then ask to go home. Whatever you do, seek to avoid staying at the station house because that is where the tricks often occur.

At home, answer the door cautiously, as guns may be drawn, and never, never invite police into your house. If you do, you have invited them to grab up whatever they need for their case against you.

Suppose you are transformed from witness, to person of interest, to suspect. You are arrested. Take the warning seriously and say nothing once more. Ask immediately for a lawyer. Don’t cop an attitude, or they will clock you. A whack on the head or anywhere else on your body, so long as it leaves no bruises, is practically the duty of a morally outraged cop. It seems that the good cop is never quick enough to restrain the bad cop. Ask for aspirin as soon as you can, as you will bruise more easily, and perhaps shorten the beat down.

The good cop, bad cop routine is still the order of the day, and amazing grace at least on TV, seems to work. The good cop is constantly asking you to help them out, or suggesting you help yourself by getting the evil off your chest. It will go easier if you confess now or if you give up your partner in crime. Beware the prisoner’s dilemma: it works too.

I personally can’t understand how cooperating and confessing makes things easier. The image of the prison with which they threaten the accused is an inferno. Sweet young things, male or female, are threatened with gang rape or being sold as sex slaves for a pack of cigarettes. HIV infection lurks in every sex act. The middle-aged are told they will die miserably in jail.

Most criminal indictments end in plea bargains – 85% of them. You may be surrendering your right to self-defense, but your odds don’t improve through jury trials, which for murder suspects ends 85% of the time in conviction.(If you are African-American, please note that you are three and a half times more likely to be convicted of murder through trial by jury than your white counterparts.) But Law and Order’s “Maximum Sam” Waterson’s .750 batting average does represent reality: crime usually leads to punishment. Much of the success, for better or worse, owes to being incriminated before you are arrested, and according to TV, way before you even know you’re “liked” for the crime.

But who knows about innocence? Northwestern University’s Center for Wrongful Convictions found in 2001 that of 86 persons wrongfully convicted and exonerated, 53% were convicted on the basis of mistaken or perjured eyewitness testimony; 20% were convicted regardless of police and prosecutorial misconduct; another 12% were convicted with jailhouse informant testimony; another 9% on the basis of coerced or false confessions; and finally (take that CSI!), another 11% were convicted with what the center calls false or misleading “junk” science. Illinois in 2003 found so many wrongful murder convictions in their midst that the 17 defendants on death row were exonerated, and then Governor Ryan commuted the death sentences of 160 others. The wrongful conviction movement has spread throughout the country and the convicted in many cases exonerated, but this is seldom seen on TV. Instead, alla Cold Case Files, the past offers up its old murderers for the convicting.

This brings us back to what we learn on TV. It is not the truth of the matter, but a rather well-set and coherent collection of ideas about crime and punishment in America. It is rather like the old westerns with good and evil starkly portrayed, and the Indians vested with few, if any rights. This is no Dirty Harry syndrome any more, as in cops hampered by court decisions, and the guilty escaping because of our fecklessness in the face of evil. No, the cops usually catch the culprit under circumstances of their choosing, rather than those once prescribed by the Constitution. If they get it wrong, there is little recourse. Old Gil Grissom, in the recollection of this CSI-addicted writer, has only once worked to exonerate someone whom his office has wrongly convicted.

Outside of the tube and bumping around the everyday world, people are wrongly convicted through abuse, sloppiness, or the rush to judgment. If you are a person of color, watch out especially. All of you whose income falls beneath that of the well-heeled won’t get a snide, slick, and successful defense lawyer. There is no Shark in your future. Instead, you may get an over-worked and under-paid public defender, or a lawyer whom you cannot pay enough to do a really thorough job, given the endless complications of justice in America. Public advocates can only save the few and the really endangered.

An occasional jury will jump the rails and find for a defendant believed to have been treated badly or wrongly, or who they believe to be innocent. In Boston last year, several juries in a row refused to believe police testimony and found defendants not guilty.

But if the TV is about our beliefs, then it seems that we believe that evil is back big time, and evil criminals are caught and punished, even if by hook or crook, and this is really okay. And most of us, me included when I leave my rational world and head into the realms of American authoritarian fantasies, really enjoy it.

… Did I forget your favorite crime show? I confess. Sometimes during a Thursday night seminar, my mind wanders to the question: Will I get home in time for CSI, the real one in Nevada with Gil Grissom and the rest of the gang? Sometimes, I have to content myself with a killing in Miami or New York.