If you’re a criminal defendant, watching a legal-themed television drama or movie may make nervous about your impending trial. You’ll be relieved to know that Hollywood courtroom scenes bear little resemblance to the real thing. Here are five ways that actual criminal trials differ from those on television.
- The criminal process isn’t brief. Most legal shows have to cram the entirety of the criminal process into a one-hour slot, so it’s easy to get the impression that the procedure moves smoothly and quickly. In reality, criminal procedure can take several months to over a year. During this time, the prosecution and defense are busy filing motions with the court, gathering and exchanging evidence in the discovery process, deposing witnesses, discussing potential plea bargains, and preparing for trial. The trial itself may even last a few weeks, depending on the complexity of the case. So, if you are entering the process expecting a speedy resolution (outside of a plea bargain), better think again and settle in for a long ride.
- The lawyers can’t treat witnesses however they want. The entertainment industry loves to show lawyers screaming in the faces of witnesses on the stand until they confess or break into tears. But in real life, lawyers cannot yell at, harass, or coerce witnesses. Lawyers aren’t even allowed to physically approach the witness without good reason or permission from the court. If a lawyer did cross the line and badger a witness, a good criminal defense lawyer would immediately object and ask the judge to intervene.
- “Objection” is more than a word. On television shows, you often hear a lawyer shouting “objection!” to protest some behavior of witness or opposing counsel, and the judge will immediately say: “overruled!” or “sustained!” In reality, the lawyer must state the procedural grounds for the objection, and the court must listen to the position of both sides to determine whether the objection is valid.
- Court cases are rarely full of drama. Legal dramas include plenty of plot twists to keep their audience edge. Real legal cases aren’t so dramatic. The vast majority of the case takes place outside of the courtroom–and most cases never make it to trial at all. And if the case does go to trial, there are rarely stunning turnabouts. For example, don’t expect the prosecutor to present a surprise witness or piece of evidence mid-trial. Both sides must disclose all evidence to each other before trial during the discovery process. If significant new evidence comes up during the trial, your criminal defense lawyer and the judge will be informed first.
- The verdict is not the end. If there’s a guilty verdict, television shows and films inevitably end there, showing the criminal defendant being taken to jail in handcuffs. But in real life, upon hearing the verdict, good criminal defense lawyers will already be thinking about grounds for appealing the case and overturning the verdict.