Television producers adore criminal defense and the practice of criminal law. Given the number of shows aired or currently on-air, the admiration has yet to vanish. Two of the most recognized shows, Law & Order and Criminal Minds boast an incredibly large fan base.
Law & Order and Criminal Minds, both police procedural, crime and legal television dramas, provide significant advertising dollars for their respective networks. But do they also provide an accurate representation of the field of criminal law?
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Criminal Defense as Represented on TV
Law & Order was one of the longest running crime dramas on American television. It ran for 20 seasons until it ended in 2010.
Set in New York City, the show revolved around a two-part structure. The first half hour of the show focused on the investigation of a crime (typically a murder). The arrest and interrogation of the suspect by the New York City Police Department follows.
The second half portrayed the court case and prosecution of the suspect by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. Often, the show was based on actual stories of crimes in New York City.
Criminal Minds is set in the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit in Virginia. The show differs from Law & Order in that it profiles the criminal in a crime, rather than the offense itself.
The series follows a group of FBI profilers, tracking suspects through evidence gathering and behavioral analysis.
Both series can be analyzed from how they mimic or address actual crime investigations and procedures.
In the Criminal Justice System…
Law & Order neatly showcases an entire criminal police investigation within the span of half an hour. In reality, it’s much more messy with more opportunities for mistakes.
Often, suspects can remain in custody for extended periods of time while investigations and court cases are arranged. Suspect interviews in real life can often produce misleading testimonies or false confessions.
Criminal defense cases sometimes get thrown out due to insufficient evidence or other inconsistencies. In reality, the time it takes to charge a suspect and bring them to court does not happen the way it’s portrayed on television.
Also, differences exist in the legal portion represented by Law & Order. On television, the courtroom on Law & Order was often full of people. In reality, the courtroom lacks a captive audience.
In reality, the time it takes to charge a suspect and bring them to court does not happen the way it’s portrayed on television.
Like the criminal charging procedure, criminal defense cases tend to drag. It can take years for cases to get to trial. Jury selection, evidence processing, the actual trial and sentencing extend the time even further.
On the stand, witness testimonies in court are long and boring and lack the drama and outbursts of their television counterparts. Thus, what is portrayed in one hour on Law & Order takes up much more time and is less succinct in real life.
In the Mind of a Criminal
While Criminal Minds makes the process of criminal profiling look exciting and dramatic, in real life it is full of more admin work and protocols.
While every episode of Criminal Minds ends with the Behavioral Analysis Unit team tracking down their criminal and solving the case, few killers are caught via profiling alone.
While forensic evidence is often used to link a suspect to a crime to prove guilt in a case in real life, rarely does it lead investigators to catch a criminal.
The BAU team also doesn’t participate in actual arrests or apprehension of suspects in real life, in contrast to what is portrayed on Criminal Minds.
Which Television Show is Most Accurate?
While both Law & Order and Criminal Minds offer an entertaining look at the reality of crime investigations and the legal system, they are simplified for more engaging television viewing in comparison to their real-life basis.
They should be viewed at face value for their portrayal of crimes and cases, but not taken as the sole truth in how criminal defense truly works.