The actor who has played Perry Mason on...

RAYMOND BURR,

September 16, 1993|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

RAYMOND BURR, the actor who has played Perry Mason on television for the past 36 years and will continue to for another 36 in re-runs even though he just died, said once that he thought he had helped Americans understand their criminal justice system.

Your honor, I object!

Plenty of judges and prosecutors will tell you that the Perry Mason series has had a harmful impact on a key element of the system -- jurors. There are jurors who because of the series figure that if a criminal case presented to them is not absolutely, positively, unequivocally proven, the defendant is innocent. Call it the Perry Mason Syndrome.

Some defense lawyers will tell you that this is good, that it reinforces the "presumption of innocence" on the part of jurors. In fact, it often exaggerates this presumption, and that is not good. The overwhelming majority of people charged with crimes are guilty.

The law enforcement community knows this. Harvard professor Henry Hart once quoted a federal judge this way, "The truth of the matter is, I never see a defendant in a crime case without assuming he's guilty."

F. Lee Bailey, the Boston-based criminal defense lawyer, once said, "I don't believe that there are more than two or three persons in Massachusetts state prisons who are innocent." (He represented Dr. Sam Sheppard, whose murder trial inspired the old television series and current hit movie "The Fugitive.")

Over 80 percent of felony indictments result in deserved convictions. Many of those who are tried and found not guilty probably are guilty but get off because of the Perry Mason Syndrome.

It is funny that Burr, who had a long and successful acting career before and after Perry Mason, will always be remembered as the lawyer. It is also funny that he is the first real person most people think of when they hear "Perry Mason." The real creator of Perry Mason was the novelist Erle Stanley Gardner.

Gardner was a lawyer and compulsive writer who created Mason in 1931, then featured him in 80 courtroom dramas over the years. When he died in 1970, those books plus 60 others without Perry Mason in them had sold 170 million copies. And they're still selling.

Some may think Gardner is more responsible for the Perry Mason Syndrome than Burr. I don't. People who read can tell the difference between entertainment and reality.

The television shows are pretty faithful to the original Gardner formula. Except for one thing. Mason was never described in the pre-1957 books. Or so my memory tells me. I was tall and thin when I read them and always thought of Mason that way. (What syndrome is that?)

I haven't read any of the books written after the TV series came along with the heavy-set Burr as Mason. Gardner said after the show became a success, "From now on Mason is going to look like Burr in the books." I'll have to check that out. No problem. Almost all the books are still in print.

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