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  • Writer's pictureMikayla Dukes

'Law and Order's Representation of the Criminal Legal System

TW: Rape and Sexual Assault, Violence, Abuse

TV shows like Law and Order, Criminal Minds, and Cops maintain huge followings. I'm not one to follow these shows, but I am one who's interested in understanding more about the criminal legal system. In an era where the criminal legal system has come under strict scrutiny for its racial, social, and gender-based inequities, I thought it'd be interesting to explore how the shows depict perpetrators of different genders.

Despite not having watched any of the shows mentioned above, I decided to give it a go, watching a couple episodes of Law and Order: one with a cisgender man and one with a cisgender woman.

The first episode I watched was about a white man who had committed a heinous hate crime on a subway station. While seeking out the perpetrator's identity, detectives located the suspect's child and the child's mother. It was in this scene that the child and her mother discussed his rage-like tendencies, and the mother even expressed a desire to remain confidential out of fear for her family's safety.

There were many current ideas and issues that we see today, reflected in this episode: white supremacy, xenophobia, and mental health.

A decision of whether or not to go for the death penalty (capital punishment), loomed over the prosecutor's conscious. I found it interesting that, outside the courtroom, the defense sought to appeal to the prosecutor's personal beliefs and their past advocacy as young lawyers against capital punishment. As far as this serving as a representation of the US criminal legal system, it led me to wonder how often do those who work within the criminal legal system run into personal dilemmas relative to the cases they're working on. The defense further claimed that his bigoted ideals were reflective of the state of his mental health. Despite this, he was found guilty by the jury and sentenced accordingly.

This episode brought to mind just how complex it is to approach issues of white supremacy, mental health, domestic violence, and restorative justice when they're all so intricately intertwined with one another in a legal case.

In a second episode, a female teacher is accused of statutory rape against a 15-year old student; the teacher, however claims that the student raped her. With both parties sticking to their respective stories, the investigators clearly leaned toward the disposition that the teacher was guilty. It was only through careful observation that they found that the boy, who, unbeknownst to many, had a history of sexual activity and boasted of having sex with his teacher. It is to the shock of much of the courtroom that he admits to raping his teacher and apologized for his actions. The attempt of the defense; however, to portray the student as clinically predisposed to a sex addiction, and unable to control the urge due to his age, made significant headway in the courtroom. Compelled by the remorseful student's account, the teacher requested that he not be punished such that his 'life would be ruined'.

After watching the clips, I'd say the primary difference between the episodes lie in the treatment of the suspects. The man who committed the shooting was treated as one who was perceived as guilty from the start. In the case of the woman, there seemed to be a pretty open consideration and interrogation of both sides. Certainly the crimes were different, but the social status of the woman as a teacher seemed to be held in a higher esteem than the man who worked as a train mechanic.

The similarities were that--in both cases--the defense attempted, unsuccessfully, to assert the claim that the mental status of the men led them to commit the crimes. Another similarity between the two episodes were that the abuse was two-fold. In the first episode, the shooter showed abusive tendencies toward his child and mother, contributing their fear of coming forward. In the second episode, the student convicted of rape ended up being raped while in an in-patient center for juvenile sex offenders.

Given the large following of shows like Law and Order, it'd be interesting to note how these depictions impact viewers perceptions of the criminal legal system relative to reality.

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