Only on TV are detectives the stars of the trial

March 06, 1995|By Walter Goodman | Walter Goodman,New York Times News Service

What really spooks the honest, hard-working, likable, routinely successful detectives on "NYPD Blue" is the prospect of a suspect "lawyering up." The detectives cajole and threaten to keep the probable perp from exercising his right to counsel, because once a sharp lawyer appears the client will say nothing and the audience will be deprived of the confession that climaxes so many episodes. Then, who knows what a trial will bring?

See what it has brought in Los Angeles: the highest-rated case of lawyering-up in television history. Lawyer-police skirmishes have been occupying Court TV and CNN for days, and the "NYPD Blue" detectives' worst fears are being realized.

O. J. Simpson's lawyers, the home team in the courtroom, are treating the law men in ways that would drive Detective Andy Sipowicz back to drink.

Whatever the jurors make of these encounters, they must come as something of a jolt around the country in this season of the police officer ascendant.

Although "Perry Mason" reruns will doubtless continue unto many generations, the defense lawyer is no national hero just now, being associated not with the salvation of the unjustly jailed but with the liberation of the justly jailed.

In the real world, despite the periodic embarrassments of police brutality or corruption, President Clinton finds it politically safe to ask for more officers on the streets, not more money for defense of the indigent, and legislators are scoring points by weakening the rules on search and seizure and restricting the number of appeals available to convicted murderers.

As everybody keeps saying, the big problem is crime, and the criminal lawyer is widely seen as being part of it. In the custom of popular entertainment, television has picked up on the general anxiety and is feeding it with fiction like "NYPD Blue" and "Homicide" and a steady rat-a-tat of pseudo-news programs.

In such an atmosphere, Mr. Simpson's dream team becomes an element of the national nightmare. Here for everybody to watch are smart, smooth, tailored lawyers, some already famous, others who have had fame thrust upon them by this trial, bearing down on Marcia Clark, almost single-handedly defending the Los Angeles Police Department.

A special attraction of "NYPD Blue" is the ordinary-guy appeal of detectives like James Martinez and Greg Medavoy.

In the courtroom, too, everybody wants to be an ordinary guy. Christopher Darden, Ms. Clark's colleague, made the point early that by way of contrast with the stars at the defense table, he was just a working stiff, a hint of how much less the state's XTC servants pull down than the free-lancers.

Johnnie Cochran countered that he, too, was a working stiff, but his reputation and the fit of his jacket testified against him.

Now in Los Angeles, real-life ordinary-guy policemen (some of whom, it has been revealed from the witness stand, moonlight to supplement their pay) are being assailed by legal celebrities for not having done more on the night of the murder and done it faster, or for having done the wrong things.

The rules of the courtroom are lawyers' rules, not Sipowicz's. Here the public's protectors, not as camera-friendly as Medavoy, are on the other end of the third degree.

With the famous American skepticism about authority in collision with the demand for a crackdown on crime, does it seem to the audience that is keeping Court TV and CNN on prolonged highs that the much-soiled Los Angeles Police Department is only getting what it deserves? Or does it seem that the defense is trying to turn the case into a trial of the prosecution? Did Detective Mark Fuhrman do it?

In a recent poll of lawyers, fewer than a third said they thought Mr. Simpson would be convicted. If he gets off, some of the credit or responsibility must go to his defense line.

But those fellows look so formidable on screen that their opponents, the prosecutors and police officers, may well draw the sympathy that comes with being underdogs.

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