Entertainment has long been a way of examining the criminal justice system from a distance. Many novels, movies, TV shows, plays, and other stories are clearly fiction. There are classic stories like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbir which raise serious questions about how fair trials are and whether the accused is being judged on what happened versus being judged on who he is. Many stories are based on seemingly true accounts.

Some of the questions that viewers often face when reading or viewing these stories are:

  • Will it affect the judgment of a potential juror if the creative version airs or is written before someone is tried in court?
  • Would the legal process really work that way? For example, would lawyers factually be able to confront witnesses in the way portrayed?
  • What effect do these stories have on the way people view the criminal justice system? Do views become numb or jaded or prejudiced after watching so many stories where the police always get their man or woman or crime syndicate?

The view of a 17 year-old

The New York Times engaged young readers to write their own editorials. One of the top 10 winning entries was titled “Is True Crime as Entertainment Morally Defensible?” The editorial was written by Rachel Chestnut. She raises many interesting questions about the true crime genre which airs on television. True crime stories profile crimes that have happened and the all those affected.

Rachel writes that there are some advantages to true crime stories – “such as re-evaluating botched or unjust criminal trials and allowing viewers to think critically.” She counters that “these advantages are outweighed by the genre’s tendency to exploit suffering, lean toward a preconceived narrative, prioritize ratings over morality and manipulate public opinion.”

She raises these additional concerns:

  • The privacy of the victims and families is lost because public videos and footage don’t require their consent.
  • The effect of the crimes on the victims is often forgotten or minimized to engage the viewer in the story.
  • True crime stories are not as objective as them seem.  She writes:

“Additionally, the true crime genre is inescapably prone to subjectivity. ‘If you start out with a presumption of [an individual’s] guilt, you read the documents one way, and another way if you presume his innocence,’ according to Janet Malcolm, an acclaimed author. Producers often have their own theories prior to investigation, and thus consciously or unconsciously shape their entire narrative around proving themselves right. To support these preconceived notions, creators can even manipulate evidence by omitting, under analyzing or changing inconvenient yet crucial facts.”

  • Ethics can be compromised when creators of these shows withhold information the police should have in order to entice more viewers to watch.

Ms. Chestnut adds that some stories are so subjective they force conclusions that aren’t accurate. The net effect of these inaccuracies is that some individuals portrayed in the crime stories receive waves of hate-mail. She encourages producers to “abandon the sensationalisation of tragedy for entertainment’s sake,” and encourages viewers to question whether the story they are seeing is accurate.

In many ways, the challenges of a defense trial are similar to those raised by the young editorial writer. Juries need to understand that while the prosecution may create a good story in order to get the “bad guy,” the facts are often much different. While it’s important for victims to get justice, that justice should not come at the expense of innocent defendants. Many defendants are good people.

At Drew Cochran, Attorney at Law, we fight for the accused. Since 1998, I’ve demanded that the juries and judges hear the true story – not what the prosecution wants to sell. For help with your criminal case, call 410.777.8103, or use my contact form to set up an appointment at my Annapolis office.