TV Law: In Light of the Simpson Trial

What kind of criminal law is prime-time television practicing under the blinding sunburst of O.J. Simpson's widely watched trial?

In the March 5 premiere of "The Great Defender," a shiny suit had an epiphany during his own closing argument to the jury. So he abruptly aborted his remarks to call another witness. It was Alice in Lawyerland.

Would Judge Lance A. Ito allow this? Would any judge? Sure. When Johnnie Cochran starts buying clothes at Walmart.

There's no way of knowing whether the above sequence or any other courtroom buffoonery in "The Great Defender" was what impaled the legal series on its own puny Nielsen points, causing Fox to swiftly banish it to hiatus hell after that first oafish episode.

What does seem probable, however, is that, for better or for worse, intense TV coverage of the Simpson case has altered forever our concept of real trials and what we expect from fictional ones. Whereas real trials once were found lacking when compared with the charade of TV's "Perry Mason," nowadays almost the opposite may be occurring: The public sizing up TV's fictional courtrooms against the volatile melodrama of the Simpson trial.

Which brings us to "The Wright Verdicts," tonight's new CBS lawyer series whose creator/executive producer, Dick Wolf, also sired Fox's "New York Undercover" and NBC's laudable "Law & Order."

There is little law and even less order on "The Wright Verdicts." Nor are brains its forte. If it flourishes, don't credit its plots (which are formulaic) or legal acuity (which is marginal). Credit its distinctive title character and his amusing chumminess with his two female sidekicks.

Tom Conti has stamped his Scottish brand all over protagonist Charles Wright, a seemingly unbeatable New York defense attorney whose weary puckishness and caustic wit recall the boozed poet that Conti played in "Reuben, Reuben." With less smugness, Wright would be very likable.

Around him revolve two sisterly satellites. Flexing his deceptive, self-effacing charm, he slings wisecracks with his schleppy assistant (Aida Turturro) and gambling-hooked investigator (Margaret Colin), a self-described "lady dick trying to make an honest dollar." The chemistry works.


Yet despite Colin's lushness, there's no hanky-panky here. Well, just a little bit of panky--for the center of Wright's wood-and-glass workplace is not a law library but a pool table, around which he and his fellow schmoozers conduct much of their business at the office, making their days seem like extended coffee breaks. So that's what "the dream team" does when not in court.

You can't help but view this series through a Simpsonesque prism.

The premiere opens with a poisoned body in the trunk of a car. In a wink, there are jurors (as if they'd been bagged and waiting in a closet) and a trial. In a future episode, Wright begins his opening statement by hovering over and mocking the prosecutor: "Nyah-nyah, nyah-nyah, nyah." Bad enough. But tonight this hammy straitjacket zooms over the top, selling his case to the jury by raising a chair above his head and hurling it to the floor because "I don't want anyone in this court to sit back and relax until we have a verdict."

Even the mellow Ito would have Wright in a headlock after that. The judge here merely slaps him with contempt, after which Wright coolly pulls out some money and hands it to the bailiff, then continues his opening statement.

Although the Simpson trial itself is plenty goofy, at least some rules do apply. In real courtrooms, for example, first comes the prosecution case, then the defense. Yet "The Wright Verdicts" shovels witnesses for both sides into the same hash. They also sit in the courtroom through all testimony even though doing so could influence their own.

With rare exceptions, Ito forbids this.

The key to Wright's defense tonight is a pair of pantyhose that the female murderer left behind, but he can't figure out a way to link them to her. Although the obvious way would be lab testing, the judge instead allows Wright to call a "surprise" witness: In walks a scent-sleuthing police bloodhound that sniffs its way through the courtroom until reaching the pantyhosed legs of the slayer, mandating a "not guilty" verdict for Wright's client.

Imagine Ito's plaintive wail if his courtroom door opened and an Akita walked in.

Before that happens, though, the murderer is called as a witness and grilled before the jury by Wright, who implies that she, not the defendant, did the poisoning. Still on the stand, she snaps: "Oh, I see. The cheese is the perfect place to hide the poison, right? This is pathetic. What am I supposed to do, break down and confess I killed my husband? Get a life!"

In the Simpson courtroom, she would have been saved from herself by being swiftly cut off and admonished.

Because this series is "Perry Mason" revisited, the guilty in "The Wright Verdicts" do, indeed, regularly break down in court and confess. In the third episode (in which Wright switches hats, by the way, to become a special prosecutor), a conspirator cracks up and blabs when pressed by Wright, as does the actual murderer, who is still in the courtroom after testifying. "You fool," he shouts, "if only you'd kept your mouth shut!"

And next week Wright nails a murderer in court by spraying a saline solution at his face.

Can you imagine such confessions in the Simpson courtroom? Bullied by F. Lee Bailey, Detective Mark Fuhrman crumbles. "All right, all right! I can't take it anymore! Sure, I'm a racist! Sure, I planted the bloody glove!" Maybe not.

Violating the lawyering axiom of never asking a witness a question whose answer you don't know, Wright appears ever surprised in the courtroom. When shaken by the defendant's reply in a future episode, he requests and promptly gets a "short recess," during which he somehow has time to leave the court building and visit another potential witness whom he persuades to testify. Next scene: The defendant is gone, the new witness in his place.

Ito would never grant a recess on such a whim.

Although his cases are high profile, meanwhile, there are no media carnivals in "The Wright Verdicts." Employing a novel tactic, moreover, Wright begins trying his cases unprepared, as he and his sidekicks casually delay most of their investigating until after the trial begins. Also, judges in this series allow hearsay evidence, let Wright approach and badger witnesses at will and rule on objections without requiring grounds. In one courtroom sequence, a prosecutor protests Wright "casting aspersions on my witness's credibility." As if that were not his job.

All of this is out of sync with the Simpson trial in Los Angeles. But this is New York, where even courtrooms are jungles.

* "The Wright Verdicts" premieres at 9 tonight on CBS (Channels 2 and 8).

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