Confessions From the Stand

I like forensic shows (CSI, Criminal Minds, House), but I don't much care for court room dramas. I'm excepting Law & Order here; I haven't watched L&O in a long time but from what I remember, it was more law and less drama, which I prefer.

The reason I don't care for court room dramas, in general, is that inevitably there is this big confrontational scene where the hero(ine) lawyer confronts a recalcitrant witness and, whilst ignoring about twenty-billion procedural and lawyery rules, breaks the witness down.

I don't buy it. I don't buy it even a teeny, weeny bit. I think criminals or liars or whatever are much more likely to behave on the stand the way they do on CSI and People's Court--that is, they are far more likely to justify themselves and argue and become defensive or just go on shrugging their shoulders and protecting themselves.

After all, once a case reaches trial, the supposed criminal has already been questioned and requestioned and probably deposed. If there is any lingering sense of guilt, it has had many, many chances to come out. This struck me recently when I watched the HBO movie Mrs. Harris, based on the real-life murder of the Scarsdale doctor. Like many made-for-television-real-life-cases movies, it was kind of a nothing, but afterwards, I watched some of the interviews with the real-life people. They had an interview with Mrs. Harris (post-trial). "It was both our faults," she said about the murder, and then, "I guess the mistake was going to see [the doctor] that night."

Ya think? Ya think that maybe if you hadn't driven five hours with a gun to see a guy you were angry at, he might not be dead? It may have been an accident. It may have been murder. But I'm not sure Mrs. Harris woman ever realized or accepted, no matter how much she claimed to love the guy, that her actions, her choices, led to another human being no longer existing in mortality. Don't give me that extenuating circumstances stuff. She drove five hours with a gun, and the guy died! And it was both their faults?

But I think Harris's type of reaction is much more likely in a court room than sudden tearful confessions. Alan Tudyk's masterly portrayal of the murdering pedophile on CSI:LV is another case in point. The character keeps making excuses without realizing that to normal people, the excuses are as bad, if not worse, than the crime. But he has a moral hole in his conscience. (Which still does not, in my opinion, justify witch-hunting pedophiles.)

I'm not saying that all people who commit criminal acts and all people who go to jail are like this, but in a court-room, the attorney, judge, and jury are dealing with a person who is either innocent (and shouldn't be confessing all over the place) or is guilty and has already run the gauntlet of guilt-inducements and, whatdayaknow!, still hasn't confessed. So the idea that suddenly, miraculously said party will suddenly, miraculously break down and confess from the stand is very, very unlikely.

In sum, I don't believe that people can be broken down by having other people yell THE TRUTH at them. Anne Perry uses this technique in a number of her mysteries, and Orson Scott Card uses it in Speaker for the Dead. It seems to me that most people, even people without moral holes in their consciences, get rather tired of being yelled at and, since most things in life are rather complicated, find plenty of ways to pick apart the yeller's statements without taking them to heart.

Watching People's Court, I've been struck by how human people are, how much they rely on impressions, tones of voices, imagined scenarios, expectations when making decisions and how much they think their actions are justified by impressions, tones of voices, imagined scenarios, expectations.

All in all, real court room dramas are mostly sad, not triumphant. I prefer forensics, those tiny bits of test-tube triumph.

[Note: I do enjoy Matlock, but Matlock's courtrooms aren't real courtrooms--just settings for Shakespearean  drama. And even Matlock's reliance on sudden confessions gets tiresome after awhile. I prefer Columbo's reliance on little clues, like fingerprints in the right place for the wrong reason.]

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