Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

I support Law and Order!

We watched a really cool and creepy episode of Law and Order the other night. Guest villain was Ellen Pompeo, now of Grey's Anatomy. We've been L & O fans since we lived in Warsaw and Saturday was Law and Order and CSI night. We also like the spinoff Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, but we never got into Criminal Intent.

God I miss Lenny (Jerry Orbach) but Dennis Farina is a great replacement for the streetwise, wise cracking elder cop. Sam Waterston is now I think, the longest running chief ADA with a succession of lovely assistants, of whom Angie Harmon and Annie Parisse stand out. I was devastated when they killed off Annie this season.

What I really like is the legal maneuvering they go through to get someone behind bars - or occasionally results in someone slipping through the cracks. I think it's engrossing and informative.

It occurred to me some years back that the realistic law shows (like L.A. law) may have resulted in a public that is increasingly sophisticated in American law. In the early nineties I had a friend who worked at a law office in Warsaw ask me to help with the English-language version of a legal contract to bring World on Ice to Poland. I drew up the contract using a bunch of legal buzzwords such as "party of the first part, hereafter refered to as ..." etc, and in the middle of it all the absurdity of it really struck me. Here I was, a layman with no legal training but what I got watching TV, writing a contract involving millions of dollars!

I've seen Law and Order criticized on the Right, because they show most villains as white and middle to upper class, rather than following the real demographics of crime, i.e. overwhelmingly minority - both perps and victims. Well, maybe so but this is a TV show after all. Most crime is sordid, predictable and boring (once you're past the disgust and revulsion). It's the odd, atypical crime that is interesting to the public, look at any tabloid. (I've known cops who held that "high-society murder is boring" though.) And it's the atypical crime that makes for the most interesting law.

The show has also been criticized as being anti-capital punishment propaganda. I don't see it. The characters are diverse in their opinions and there is a definite lock-'em-up slant to the show. You can't research crime for script ideas and not get that way.

But it occurs to me that it is Law and Order that moved me from a lukewarm opponent of the death penalty to a reluctant supporter.

Let me explain, I've been a lukewarm opponent of capital punishment because, though I don't think there is anything sacred about the lives of really heinous murderers, I'm really frightened by the possibility of mistakes - and evidently there have been quite a few. DNA evidence has freed an uncomfortable number of people doing hard time, and even from Death Row. I am also uncomfortable with the possibilty of it being used for judicial murder.

For those of you who think that life is sacred therefore we shouldn't take it, I'll ask for a definition of "sacred". I know what I mean by it - but I'm not sure I could tell you. The point is not to make fun of the concept of the sacred, quite the contrary, it's to point out that a concept which is this hard to reach a consensus definition of makes for bad law. And secondly, the sacredness of life is also the basis of arguments for capital punishment, that violating something sacred should incur the ultimate sanction.

For those of you who support the death penalty, consider that if you make a mistake, the parties to that mistake are guilty of, at the very least, manslaughter. Would you accept capital punishment if the prosecutor, sentencing judge and jury members were all liable for punishment if a mistake were made?

After watching a lot of Law and Order, I noticed that an awful lot of the resolutions involved plea bargains. I got curious and asked around about how many criminal cases are resolved this way in the real world. According to one D.A., it's about 90% (!!!!!).

That's when I realized what the point of a lot of episodes was. If we really want to keep someone in jail for the rest of his life, we have to have something on the table higher than life. Otherwise it's in the interest of the perp and his lawyer to fight it out in the courts, because they have nothing to lose. If the prosecution can put death on the table (and that very expression was used in the episode) they can let themselves be bargained down to life.


  • At 10:59 AM, Blogger The hooded thug on the corner said…

    Good post. I used to be against capital punishment until I read about the Laurence Bittaker murders, where it was the threat of the death penalty that forced his partner in crime to confess and show the authorities to the victims' bodies.

    Some people, unfortunately, only respect one thing.


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