Essay on Adversarial Process in Culture

In popular culture, often times we see daily functions and occurrences come to life on screen. One of the more popular topics for film, television, and other forms of entertainment is the adversarial process. The process is formulaic: usually we see the crime, the police, the prosecutor and defense attorney, the trial, and finally, the punishment. Certain steps of the process can be the focus of different shows and movies, but they all attempt to accomplish one thing: to establish the adversarial process as exciting, captivating, and important to discuss. During this, however, factoring in entertainment value and the liberty to change certain aspects, often the realistic adversarial process gets lost in the search for a dramatic, box office shattering film. Directors and producers make a choice to decide to tell a story either accurately or inaccurately, to achieve a certain effect on the public. Because of this decision, dramatic themes are prioritized over everything else. Popular culture inherently glamorizes the adversarial process, due to the desire to create captivating media, as well as the need to portray the adversarial process in a way that will facilitate an influential plot line.

To examine the adversarial process in relation to popular culture, we must first examine its role in real society. There are two competing models of the criminal process: the due process model and the crime control model. These models are used as a guide to stress the importance of different parts of the criminal process. The due process model is focused on reliability. With the due process model, we strive to achieve the pinnacle of fairness in the courtroom. The due process model guarantees our rights, and prosecutors must meet the “burden of proof,” and have significant evidence to convict a citizen. In comparison, the crime control model is focused on the reduction of crimes committed in society. It requires efficient decision making, and often police and prosecutors have a presumption of guilt, despite the 6th Amendment of the United States Constitution stating that we are all guaranteed a fair trial.

In popular culture, we see the strive for the due process model through the failure to achieve it. In Witness for the Prosecution, Leonard Vole demands he be held to the standards of due process when he recalls the principle that in England, you never convict an innocent man. Accomplished attorney Sir Wilfred is left shocked when Vole, the man that he defended and acquitted, is in fact guilty of the murder he was accused of. Part of the glamorization of this film is the unrealistic monocle test that Sir Wilfred used to decide that Vole was an innocent man, which is why he as well as the audience was left so surprised at his eventual guilt. Wistfully, Sir Wilfred decrees that justice was served for Leonard Vole by his wife Christine, who murders him in the courtroom. We see the failure of due process in this film because instead of Vole being correctly punished for the crime he committed, we see the more dramatic alternative of his wife murdering him and the film shows us that his murder is the “justice,” rather than the punishment in jail that due process heralds. We also see the due process model and its flaws in Indictment: The McMartin Trial. In this film, we see the prosecution push a guilty narrative on a disgraced family who once ran a daycare. The prosecution sees the Buckey family as guilty child predators and molesters who are given no chance to redeem themselves, or even post bail. We see the due process model most clearly in this film when the lead prosecutor refuses to turn in evidence to the defense, which is a violation of a right under the model. The evidence that was withheld discredits the prosecution’s key witness and proves defendant Ray Buckey to be innocent. Although this film is based on a real life case, many elements were exaggerated and dramatized in favor of the element of suspense and entertainment. It should also be noted that Indictment: The McMartin Trial was produced by HBO, which is a more liberal leaning company and played more on the side of sympathy for the Buckey family, despite the real facts of the case the film was based upon which caused millions of Americans to abhor them for their alleged counts of abuse.

Also in popular culture, we see the crime control model best used when there is a need for an underdog narrative in a film. Prosecutor Rusty Sabich in Presumed Innocent yearns for justice in the wake of his own trial, where he was wrongfully accused of a crime and saw the presumption of innocence pass him by. Due to the dramatic element of the new district attorney being elected, Rusty is quickly pushed into the prime suspect position. Della Guardia not only wants to have a good open and shut case as the new district attorney, but also to cover up the bribery that the victim, Carolyn Polhemus, participated in. This film is an example of the crime control model because we see the people in positions of power wanting to simply charge and convict Sabich without giving him the benefit of the doubt, legally seen as the presumption of innocence. We also see the crime control model in the film 12 Angry Men. This film differs from Presumed Innocent because it focuses on the trial and the attitudes of the jurors assigned to a capital murder case. We see the influence of the ideologies of the jurors in 12 Angry Men, some of which showing clear racial bias and some showing their want to quickly solve the case and leave the courthouse without fully dissecting the case at hand. Juror #8 is used in the film as the underdog character, since his role as the one juror that believes the hispanic young man is innocent plays the most pivotal part in the film. He encourages his fellow jurors to take the time to review the case, shed their biases, and see that the man was innocent. His role was extremely dramatized because in reality, it is highly unlikely to convince 12 other people that a man is innocent, and would likely end in a mistrial in a real court situation.

While 12 Angry Men is one of the most influential films about the adversarial process in film history, there have been other films in popular culture that have been centered around juries as well. One of the most dramatized and glamorized interpretations of juries in film is the 2003 thriller Runaway Jury. This film centers around a civil trial where a group of individuals is placed in a venire and the defense takes extreme measures to select certain members in order to sway the jury in their favor. This film was without a doubt made for entertainment purposes only. To draw the audience in even further, the film adaptation changed the trial from a tobacco company to a firearms manufacturer to make the plot line even more intense. While we see the adversarial process in action with the trial as well as the jury selection with voir dire and peremptory challenges, the goal of the movie was to draw the audience in to the action and adventure behind the corruption and illegality of the methods shown on screen. Films like Runaway Jury are the pinnacle of exaggeration and glamorization of the adversarial process, and even showed some of the elements in an overdramatically negative light. Realistically, the lengths that the characters went to, including blackmail and surveillance, would result in a mistrial immediately. In the end of the film, justice was served and the plaintiff was awarded damages, which was a classic example of how good should always prevail.

While good should always prevail, as it is our human nature to be on the side of good, this does not always happen in popular culture. To Kill a Mockingbird was a wildly successful film adaptation of the novel of the same name written by Harper Lee, and shows immense glamorizations of its own. Atticus Finch, an esteemed lawyer in the Deep South was tasked with defending Tom Robinson, a black man accused of sexually assaulting a white woman. With an all-white jury, Robinson barely stood a chance, similarly to the defendant in 12 Angry Men. Finch, played by Gregory Peck, assumed the role of the noble defense attorney and did everything he could to avoid the conviction and sentencing of an innocent man. Since Tom Robinson had a physical impairment in his arm which would prevent him from assaulting Mayella, Finch used this as one of the main points in his case for Tom Robinson’s innocence. Still, the jury found Robinson guilty of the crime due to deeply rooted prejudices and racial biases, and sadly, Robinson dies at the hands of a police officer before he even begins serving his time in prison. Since the novel and movie were based on the real trial of the Scottsboro Boys, we can see a direct comparison and glamorization used for dramatic effect. Using the effortlessly handsome and noble Gregory Peck to represent Samuel Leibowitz, the real attorney of the Scottsboro Boys, was a conscious choice made by the film’s executives to cast a man that would cause the audience to feel sympathy for him and his beliefs. Atticus Finch, a single father, appealed to the audience and the film was set up to favor the side of the defense, as the story was told through the eyes of Finch’s daughter Scout who felt sympathy for Robinson and had childlike idealistic beliefs of justice that unfortunately did not hold the same meaning for the jurors on the case.

Sympathy is used in the entertainment industry to draw an audience in and allow them to pick a “side,” and demonstrate the moral good in a film. In real law, there is the constitutional concept known as jury nullification that allows a jury to acquit a person of a crime if they believe that it was committed for the correct reason. In A Time To Kill, we see the compelling power of jury nullification in a case where Carl Lee Hailey becomes a vigilante to avenge the assault of his black daughter, who was raped by two white men. Since this film was based on a fictional novel by John Grisham, the producers were able to achieve a further glamorization of the sympathy felt for Hailey as well as a conversation on civil rights in the southern United States. Matthew McConaughey’s performance as the young attorney Jake Brigance is compelling and forces the jury to see the side of a father wanting to do right by his daughter, and urge them to find him innocent, which is something the audience watching already believes, based on the perspective that was given to them by the director Joel Schumacher. In films like Witness for the Prosecution, we see our trust in and sympathy for lead characters stripped away in compelling final plot twists which leave the audience questioning how they couldn’t see it coming. A choice example of this is the film Primal Fear. In Primal Fear, the audience sympathizes with Aaron Stampler, a young stuttering suspect in the murder of a highly regarded Archbishop Rushman. We learn that Stampler was sexually abused by the Archbishop, and the defense attempts to use an insanity plea to explain that the trauma that Stampler experienced caused him to develop a dissociative identity disorder and turn into Roy, who committed the murder, rather than Aaron. The insanity defense is used in real life court cases as well, however it is the glamorization and eventual plot twist that takes this film from a realistic trial to an exaggerated psychological legal thriller. In the final scene of the film, defense attorney Martin Vail visits Aaron in his jail cell after being found not guilty, by reason of insanity. At the end of the visit, the audience finds out that Stampler had faked his identity disorder, and leaves both Vail and the audience in utter shock when he claims that the real persona was Roy, and Aaron was the fabrication after all. Since it is so difficult to use an insanity defense in real criminal trials, it is highly unlikely that any real trial would incorrectly acquit a man or woman by reason of insanity.

To conclude my argument, I urge the reader to take a look at not only film and television, but entertainment as a whole as a means to escape reality. In theory, we use entertainment to fill a certain need in our lives, and depending on that need which varies from person to person, we choose certain aspects to entertain ourselves with. Entertainment centered around the adversarial process serves as an idealistic form of the law and its processes. We see certain realistic aspects of the adversarial process, such as the due process and crime control models, used to push certain plot lines and messages onto our screens and into our minds. While the basis of the adversarial process remains, as it is impossible to tell an entertaining story unless it is rooted in a semblance of realism, we see the shift from real life courtroom and legal experiences blossom into masterpieces which carry higher meaning. The higher meaning that adversarial entertainment provides us with is rooted most securely in the glamorized attempt to solidify the law in an optimistic state, with noble characters such as Atticus Finch, as well as the underdog likes of Ray Buckey, Rusty Sabich, and Carl Lee Hailey. We also see the yearning for justice and a higher meaning through characters who turn on us and our moral values, such as Leonard Vole and Aaron Stampler. These characters, whether completely fictional or based upon real heroes of legal history, show us that the law and our moral compasses walk hand in hand, and can either work together or betray us to create a thoughtful, utopian atmosphere where glamorization and drama can only exist: in entertainment.


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