Speaking of Crime: The Language of Criminal Justice (Chicago Series in Law and Society)


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Article excerpt

Given a powerful media industry, a complex and sometimes controversial justice system, and a long history of severe, often particularly violent crime, the criminal justice system in the United States, moreover, its fictionalization, forms the pattern that is followed by many products around the globe. The United States has a rich cultural repertoire of crime legends. Printed media in the 19th century was already sensationalizing violent events taking place in the West during the territorial expansion of the nation.

When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. Moreover, famous lawyer figures, even those who went into politics like the abovementioned Abraham Lincoln and Daniel Webster, became film heroes. In parts of the United States, crime is a real threat to citizens, as evidenced by the number Lubkin, of gun-related deaths. The system of self-censorship developing in the s and s Springhall, , as a side-effect made sure that films were palatable for the widest possible, indeed a world, audience.

Its provisions Motion Picture Association of America, obliged filmmakers to present the law as victorious in the end, and required that legal institutions and officers of the law be portrayed in a positive light. For dramaturgical reasons, there were villains and injustice had to threaten, but the final message was to be a reassuring one. There were other kinds of tales occasionally, and with the cultural turn of the s, more critical films were made Chase, In And Justice for All USA, the protagonist learns that moral corruption has become a prerequisite of being able to serve as lawyer or judge.

Yet large parts of the audience at the time, in countries like France and Germany, were being affected by the same currents, and thus the films had their markets. Later cultural changes were equally successfully mastered by the U.


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For example, female characters are since at least the s more frequently seen in powerful positions and more often favorably portrayed, or, what is perhaps the true test, feature as formidable villains. In addition, some aspects of U. In some Latin American countries, a trial often is conducted through paperwork; in many European countries, the trial is conducted in open court but with a judge taking the evidence and only complementary action by lawyers; and in totalitarian states, the court hearing just enacts a foregone conclusion.

By contrast, the U. In German courts, the leading idea is that judge and lawyers act as a kind of team to establish what the case is Machura, b ; in a U.

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Despite that in reality the jury is used only rarely and most cases are decided through plea bargaining by the prosecution and the defense or dealt with swiftly by a single judge, most U. Again, these have specific theatrical qualities that are not found in other jury countries. Already in the process of jury selection, the inbuilt tension between the ideal of the unbiased jury, on the one hand, and lawyer strategies to get a sympathetic jury, makes for entertainment. The election of judges and prosecutors, common in the United States but not known to most other parts of the world, is a double-edged sword and can play out in very different ways Machura, Punishment can be draconian in the United States.

The death penalty is imposed and carried out in some states. Accordingly, the stakes can be high, making good material for news, fiction, and documentaries. And these are only some of the features that lend themselves to tales of pop culture. The legal profession is one of the defining ingredients of U. Again, the peculiarities that make it worth depicting in films and television become clear from an international comparison.


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  • This is less so in, for example, England and Wales, where lawyers receive their final preparation in the Inns of Court and it seems to matter less where they studied. In countries like Germany, all future lawyers, judges, and prosecutors go through a common apprenticeship and only then specialize. The key differences have to do with personal achievement in rigorous final exams. Rich lawyers seem suspect to Americans Pfau et al. It is legal for lawyers to advertise their services in the United States, even in television spots, but advertising is closely controlled in other countries, where the size of his or her shingle may be about everything a lawyer has to compete with.

    Stefan Machura

    However, frequent dealings with lawyers can also contribute to negative stereotypes Macaulay, , p. People in the United States have a peculiar relation to lawyers, they elect them to high public office on the one hand, and on the other, make them objects of public ridicule on lawyer jokes, see Galanter, In contrast, lawyers are a less prominent profession in other countries, and in some, such as Germany, for example, they fare comparatively well in trust surveys Machura, ; with a recent dip, Zitka, , p.

    Having a rich variety of lawyer stereotypes in the public conscience allows the telling of lots of stories in an easy-to-follow fashion. To these aspects, the more active role of lawyers in U. They are the movers and shakers, and if the ethics of some is perceived as dubious, news and entertainment are nonetheless guaranteed.

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    The dominant pattern of storytelling, however, requires that bad and failing lawyers are pushed aside by heroes who set things right. But what is the function of lawyers in the justice system? They reconstruct interests in terms of rights and raise them. Films and, increasingly, TV series related to law inform the public about rights, including human rights, and the procedures to uphold and defend them.

    Law-related films and series are among the most popular media genres. In addition, they attract some of the most creative filmmakers and tend to involve legal experts. In many cases, those expert lawyers like the film industry professionalsstrive to make a political point.

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    In the tradition of Hollywood cinema, they construct powerful stories around the travails of their main characters. The audience is invited to sympathize with victims of rights abuse and to identify with the lawyers who are struggling to achieve justice. Patterns vary, from the lawyer defending an innocent client unsuccessfully e. Lincoln , USA, to the victorious victim who was defending his right not to be discriminated against Philadelphia , USA, to jurors protecting an innocent person 12 Angry Men , USA, to the righteous officer of the law defeated by corrupt machinations e.

    This configuration effectively prepares the audience for a rights discourse.

    Genre-specific dramatization requirements expose viewers to a variety of tropes. These include examples of what can be perceived as rights abuses. Nevertheless, here, films and television series often suggest that having legal safeguards in place is more important than their occasional utilization for disagreeable ends. The overall main message of law-related films and television series amounts to an endorsement of the law as social mechanism to regulate behavior, with an inbuilt liberal agenda. There have been press campaigns to alert the public to the plight of innocents suffering at the hands of a misguided justice system.

    The most notable example is the case of Alfred Dreyfus, who was falsely convicted as a spy, but eventually released from prison and rehabilitated. Personalization of public legal topics is a major trait of those media and so attention is shifted from abstract legal rules to single cases, in which the needs of individuals often stand against abstract rules Chase, In other instances, the rules have been distorted by corrupt individuals, and that is why there is suffering.

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    Speaking of Crime: The Language of Criminal Justice

    The moral limits of behavior and what constitutes justice can be discussed. The workings of the justice institutions can be questioned, as can who is entrusted with power. Occasionally, as in To Kill a Mockingbird , a tale of deep-rooted racism, society looks at its own shortcomings and injustices. Figures 1 and 2. The motion picture as medium lends itself to the depiction of emotions. In Lucia de B. Later, the devastated assistant prosecutor Judith Jensen confesses to Lucia in prison Figure 2. Lucia de B.

    She has a criminal record for prostitution. The audience learns that as a defenseless child she was rented out to men by her own mother—and this is now turned against her as evidence of bad character. Even after Jansen demonstrates Lucias innocence, her boss declines to drop charges. The press creates a public climate of enmity, turning the nurse into a folk devil. The appeals court reinstates the original verdict. Only much later is her name cleared and she begins to educate the public about criminal justice. The most pitiful figure, however, is cut by Judith Jansen, when she visits Lucia de B.

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    Figure 3. In Amistad USA, , numerous parties line up in court to raise legal causes.

    Speaking of Crime: The Language of Criminal Justice (Chicago Series in Law and Society) Speaking of Crime: The Language of Criminal Justice (Chicago Series in Law and Society)
    Speaking of Crime: The Language of Criminal Justice (Chicago Series in Law and Society) Speaking of Crime: The Language of Criminal Justice (Chicago Series in Law and Society)
    Speaking of Crime: The Language of Criminal Justice (Chicago Series in Law and Society) Speaking of Crime: The Language of Criminal Justice (Chicago Series in Law and Society)
    Speaking of Crime: The Language of Criminal Justice (Chicago Series in Law and Society) Speaking of Crime: The Language of Criminal Justice (Chicago Series in Law and Society)
    Speaking of Crime: The Language of Criminal Justice (Chicago Series in Law and Society) Speaking of Crime: The Language of Criminal Justice (Chicago Series in Law and Society)

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