TV district attorneys have their day in court

Simpson case, 9/11 may have turned viewers sympathies

August 23, 2002|By Ellen Gray | Ellen Gray,KNIGHT RIDDER TRIBUNE

It's taken decades, but Hamilton Burger finally has his revenge.

The district attorney who lost to Perry Mason week after hopeless week, year after excruciating year -- could, if he were alive today, see prosecutors celebrated by the same medium that once treated them like so many crash dummies, foils for flamboyant defense lawyers with right on their side.

As Law & Order producer Dick Wolf is fond of reminding people, TV-watchers are seldom more than a click away from one of his cops-and-prosecutors shows. Every week in May, it's estimated that 95.8 million "unduplicated viewers" saw episodes of either the original Law & Order -- No. 7 in the Nielsens last season -- or one of its spin-offs, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Law & Order: Criminal Intent on NBC, A&E, TNT or USA, Wolf told reporters last month.

And this summer, Wolf's unscripted series, Crime & Punishment, which focuses on the San Diego DA's office, is averaging nearly 9 million viewers a week on NBC, a respectable-for-summer number that's been enough most weeks to win its 10 p.m. Sunday time slot.

Meanwhile, TV's defense lawyers -- once the glamourpusses of shows like L.A. Law -- have fallen on hard times.

ABC's The Practice? Out of Nielsen's Top 10, having fallen from an average 18.2 million viewers in 2000-2001 to 12.9 million last season.

Fox's Ally McBeal and ABC's Philly and CBS' Family Law? Canceled.

David E. Kelley, a lawyer and L.A. Law veteran who went on to create both Ally McBeal and The Practice, will be back with another legal show this fall, Fox's girls club, one that's not likely to be showcasing any crusades against prosecutors.

"We're not asking the audiences to care about the cases at all," Kelley said last month, adding they "only exist insofar as they inform on the three women and how these cases and events are happening to the women."

Wolf, meanwhile, is famous for caring more about the cases his lawyers prosecute than the lawyers themselves -- certainly the actors who play them seem infinitely replaceable -- but he's a huge fan of the real-life variety.

"Any of the people you see" working as assistant DAs in Crime & Punishment "could clean out their desks on a Friday afternoon and double or triple their salary on Monday morning" by going to work in a law firm, Wolf said recently.

"They really do think they're doing God's work."

Asked why Crime & Punishment, which shows both the DA's office strategy sessions and the ensuing courtroom action, doesn't focus equally on the defense, Wolf noted there were access issues:

"There aren't very many defense attorneys who would want anyone to listen in on what they're telling their clients most of the time."

Moreover, he said, "with defense attorneys, you'd be essentially turning over rocks ... I don't hold criminal defense attorneys in very high regard, based on what they do for a living, which is basically getting guilty people off."

Tariq El-Shabazz, a Philadelphia defense attorney who began his career as a prosecutor, said attitudes like Wolf's, and shows like Law & Order, perpetuate an attitude that's hurting the justice system.

"It's to the point now where people are guilty until proven innocent," he said, complaining that "These prosecutor shows are never fairly done" because "everyone is guilty" and shown to be so, so that "the defense attorney is looking like a lying sack of crap.

"Some of has to do with Sept. 11, some of it is the economic climate and some of it has to do with the warped Hollywood version of Law & Order, he said. "Unfortunately, the pendulum of justice isn't in the middle if it ever was. It definitely is swinging in favor of the prosecution."

Catherine LePard, creator of Lifetime's new prosecutor series, For the People, doesn't necessarily go as far as Wolf, but she does see the people who represent "the people" against, well, those other people as "heroic."

These are men and women "who are also defending the ideal, that the system matters, and that the integrity of the system matters, and that if I have to disclose some information, or if I have to do whatever it may be that will jeopardize my conviction, but will maintain the integrity of the system," then it's worth it. "I really like that," said LePard, who describes O.J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark as "a dear friend."

Clark, of course, parlayed the loss of her most famous case into a multimillion-dollar book deal, TV gigs and, most recently, a job as a consultant on For the People.

Could the Simpson case have fueled America's interest in prosecutors?

Joe McGettigan, a former Philadelphia-area prosecutor who was the legal consultant to Philly, in which Kim Delaney played a criminal defense lawyer, thinks the coverage of Simpson's trial tarnished the public's image of defense lawyers more than it boosted their opinion of prosecutors.

"If you remember Barry Scheck" and his "insulting and snide approach to cross-examination," and the antics of F. Lee Bailey and Johnnie Cochran, it's easy to imagine viewers coming away thinking less of defense lawyers, he said. "I think they're themselves negative portrayals of human beings, much less professionals."

But then, "I obviously have a bias," said McGettigan.

In fact, one of the first things he asked Philly co-creator Steven Bochco about Delaney's character, McGettigan said, was, "Wouldn't you like to make her a prosecutor instead?"

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