6 Myths Hollywood Has You Believing About Jury Trials
Hollywood is such a great entity. It can convince us that Armageddon is something that can be averted in 90 minutes, a family crisis can be solved in 22 minutes, or a yeast infection can be cured in 30 seconds.
It's Hollywood's business to alter reality because that's what TV and movies are: escapism. That being said, when it comes to jury trials, Hollywood has done a masterful job of making sure to provide absolutely no accuracy in what transpires. It's pretty shameful, but we wouldn't have it any other way.
1. Anything Can Be Admitted Into Evidence
Anyone that has ever watched a courtroom drama is familiar with the phrase, "Your honor, I would like this marked as Defense Exhibit A and entered into evidence." Sometimes this is predicated by some ridiculous question such as, "Is this note in your handwriting?" Or not. The lawyers just stand up and proclaim that whatever is in their hand is being admitted into evidence. Or even worse.
Sometimes they just mark something as an exhibit but don't even bother introducing it as evidence. In the real world that would be like the biggest jerk move ever: "See this document in my hand? Like OMG it is soooo important to this case. But I'm not going to admit it as evidence or let anyone see it. Watch me as I set it on fire." The jury's only job is to evaluate the evidence. As if juries aren't already challenged enough, it makes their job that much harder to do when no one actually gives them any evidence to evaluate.
During this mockery of evidentiary procedure, lawyer's hands seem to have magical powers that can turn pure crap into gold, and anything and everything can be evidence without any veracity at all. It just shows that, in Hollywood, determining the validity of evidence falls somewhere between irrelevant and definitely irrelevant. It doesn't bother anyone that the attorney could have forged the document before trial, or the gun was purchased that morning at a pawn shop, or the picture absolving their client was photoshopped the night before...
The thoughts going through opposing counsel's mind must go something like... What are we supposed to do? He said he was marking it as an exhibit and entering it into evidence. That's so iron-clad. Damn that guy is good.
It's not that simple. Not even close. All physical items introduced at trial will only be admitted into evidence if they satisfy the requirements outlined in the Rules of Evidence-- a complicated and lengthy set of rules that even seasoned attorneys botch from time to time, the summary of which is only a confusing 25 pages long. To get evidence admitted a witness has to testify to its veracity, demonstrate a chain of custody to rule out tampering, pass any objections by opposing counsel, and ultimately be accepted by the judge.
Numerous trials hinge on one side's ability, or inability, to get their evidence admitted. What's that? You have a confession written by someone else that exonerates your client? Awesome. Oh, the person that wrote it doesn't want to testify and admit to writing it? Too bad. It's not getting in. Oh you're going to talk about it in front of the jury anyway? Oops, mistrial and possible punishment by the Bar Association of your state. And you might also lose your license. And you'll probably be sued by your client for ineffective assistance of counsel.
High-profile cases resulting in questionable verdicts were decided, ultimately, because there was not enough evidence admitted during trial (Casey Anthony), or the veracity of the evidence was seriously questioned due to human error and/or tampering (O.J. Simpson). Why do we have to work so hard to prove the guilty people guilty?
2. Objections Don't Require Any Legal Justification
We've seen it time and time again in courtroom dramas. An attorney doesn't like something during witness testimony, jumps out of his seat, and shouts "Objection your Honor!" Then the judge says one of 3 things-- sustained, overruled, or the always popular "Let's see where this is going," only rivaled by "Make your point counselor" or "I'll allow it... for now."
What the hell does that even mean? If the writers want to add some credibility they'll have the attorney give a reason for their objection, but they usually don't. Hollywood would have us believe that an attorney can stand up and say objection and the judge will rule on the objection.
They can make up any ridiculous reason they want for why they are objecting and it's ok so long as they sound convincing. Not a single objection in the movie Philadelphia provides any legal grounds for raising the objection. They just say objection throughout the entire movie. Are you kidding me?
If you just say "Objection your Honor" and nothing else the judge is just going to stare at you blankly, possibly wondering whether you are strung out on drugs. If you sit there stupidly long enough they will ask you under what grounds you are objecting. It all goes back to those pesky Rules of Evidence that require you to object for a specific reason.
There are specific legal grounds upon which any objection must be based. The attorney is basically saying they have a problem with what opposing counsel is doing and wants them to stop. Doesn't it make sense that they need a valid reason? Would it be too much to ask Hollywood to add one extra line in the script to justify their random objection? In the words of Jim Carrey in Liar, Liar: an objection on the grounds that the testimony is "devastating to my case" is not an accepted legal foundation.
3. Attorneys and Witnesses Are Allowed to Make Long-Winded Speeches
One of the worst atrocities Hollywood makes deals with the dialogue between lawyer and witness. We constantly see attorneys respond to answers with ridiculous statements such as "So are we to believe blah blah blah." and then ramble on before finally getting to their next question-- adding opinion and even including testimony of their own. Oftentimes they talk about the law or facts not admitted into evidence or just ramble on about who knows what in an effort to confuse or trick the witness into saying something.
Other times it is the witness that is all over the place. They may be asked a simple yes or no question and then go into some come-to-Jesus speech about something completely unrelated. Or they attempt to justify a yes-or-no question by rambling on with excuses that could only be rivaled by a child trying to get out of a grounding. About 95% of the following clip would not be allowed at trial. Also notice the use of the groundless objections.
None of these practices could be further from the truth. Preaching questions and adding personal opinion is a quick way to get a mistrial from the judge and/or sanctions from the bar association. When examining a witness for your side you are not allowed to ask questions that imply any facts not already introduced.
These are called leading questions and they are only allowed during cross examination of witnesses adverse to your position. Asking your client "You didn't do it did you?" while they are testifying would end the trial immediately, and not in a good way. On the flip side, no attorney with half a brain would allow a witness to drone on defending their answer during cross examination, such as...
A: "Mr. Smith, you were there with a gun that night weren't you?"
W: "Yes, but the defendant gave it to me and made me bring it. And he told me he would kill my entire family if I didn't bring it and stabbed me with a knife just to prove his point and proceeded to beat me over and over until I was crying and begging for my life. I had no choice."
A: "You're honor. Move to strike everything after 'Yes.' as nonresponsive."
4. Judges Grant Recesses All the Time So Lawyers Can Get Some More Work Done
Everyone likes to be prepared. In fact it's the Boy Scout Motto- be prepared! When it comes to trial preparation it is the attorney's job to be prepared as best as possible. This includes being ready for any surprises that may come up in court.
The simple fact is that court dockets are overwhelmed with cases and those that do go to trial need to be dealt with in as an efficient manner as possible. But how many times have we seen a situation on TV where there is a surprise during trial or the lawyer has an epiphany and shoots up from his or her chair and asks for a continuance or a recess?
And even more insanely the judge says they will reconvene after lunch or at 9:00 the next day. It's as if the attorney is asking for a time out in the middle of trial. The concept is laughable because...
Anyone attempting this would be laughed out of court by the judge or questioned on their sanity. There are no "time-outs" at trial so lawyers can get their crap together or go investigate something they didn't investigate before.
That's why they allow attorneys to request a continuance BEFORE trial. Once the trial does actually start they had better be freaking ready because they will not be allowed time to do work they should have already done. The only way they are getting out of it is if their arm falls off or they come down with a case of Monkey Pox. To get a recess they have to show that there is "good cause," which typically only entails an emergency or illness of one of the parties involved.
5. Trials are Suspenseful and Interesting
They are called courtroom dramas for a reason-- they are dramatic. We have seen the situations before. Every time a witness is testifying you can hear a pin drop in the courtroom. The suspense is unbearable.
Testimony is riveting and someone could drop a bombshell at any moment. And when they do drop that bombshell there are gasps from the audience and the judge has to demand "Order in the court!" So dramatic. So suspenseful. You can cut the tension with a knife.
Trials are boring. It's true that you can usually hear a pin drop but it's because everyone has fallen asleep. Audience members fall asleep. Defendants fall asleep. Even judges fall asleep! Most witness testimony is spent establishing timelines or simple facts necessary for proving a point of law.
There are no Perry Mason moments and nothing results in gasps from the audience after a lawyer breaks someone down and gets them to confess. Just watch Court TV and try not to fall asleep during live trial feeds. Why do you think there is only 1 channel of the 1000 on cable devoted to live jury trials?
6. People That Wear Glasses Are Legally Blind Without Them
This has to be the oldest trick in Hollywood's legal book. The assumption is that pretty much anyone that wears glasses must be blind without them. Witnesses are always being asked if they wear glasses and if they were wearing them at the time they observed whatever it is they are testifying about.
The ridiculous implication is always that people that observe something without their glasses probably have no idea exactly what they saw, who they saw, where they were at, or even what their name is. Not only are they legally blind, they've also become downright stupid for failing to wear their glasses.
The vast majority of people can see quite well, even without their glasses. And the actual number of legally blind people in the United States is around 1.3 million, or 2/5ths of 1% of the population. The possibility that ANY person without their glasses is legally blind is statistically improbable and the possibility that ALL people without their glasses are blind, as Hollywood would have us believe, is completely impossible. Maybe it's time for Hollywood to get a new generic sensory excuse...
A: "Mr. Smith. You have trouble hearing don't you?"
W: "Yes. Yes I do. War injury."
A: "And you weren't wearing your hearing aids that day were you?"
W: "No. No I wasn't."
A: "AH HA! So how did you hear my client say he killed that guy?"
W: "Because he said it before my war injury."