The courtroom was the original reality show—before our televisions and telephones were giving us access to entertainment 24 hours a day, the local courthouse was the best show in town. Free, drama-filled, exciting, and the bonus of seeing someone hauled away in handcuffs. As television invaded our culture, shows like Perry Mason, the Defenders, LA Law, the Good Wife, and the ever-present Law & Order, along with dozens of other lawyer-based shows, became the representation of our legal system in the minds of the public.
The true turning point in putting real court cases in the public eye was the OJ Simpson case in 1994. That case had lots of drama and made Court TV one of the most watched networks on cable TV. But as Court TV found out, and what all those in the legal profession already know, reality is far less exciting than the cases on TV and in movies. Rarely is there a true “Perry Mason moment,” and the cross-examination of a witness never ends in a screaming match between Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson.
Before the proliferation of social media, lawyers and judges were already concerned with the “CSI effect”—the expectation of jurors that the evidence will definitively prove the guilt or innocence of a defendant. This also is exceedingly rare. Whether in criminal or civil court, the case is rarely cracked, and no one ever confesses on the witness chair. Cases that are clear cut never make it to the courtroom. They are settled or a plea agreement is reached well before a jury enters a courtroom. Nevertheless, the entertainment world has given the impression that such exciting moments are inevitable in a courtroom. Lawyers have had to counteract the CSI Effect by educating juries at the outset of a case that such moments don’t really exist.