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Love it or hate it, there’s no escaping “Law & Order.” At 12 years and counting, television’s longest-running drama is also its most ubiquitous, with episodes showing every Wednesday night and reruns broadcast thrice daily on cable. Even lawyers, who might understandably resist spending non-billable hours on courtroom dramas, are not immune to the lure of the law enforcement show. But for criminal defense attorneys, the popular program is a guilty pleasure at best. While admitting to occasionally watching “Law & Order,” some members of the defense bar take exception to the show’s pro-prosecution message. “It certainly presents a criminal justice system almost exclusively from the perspective of an extremely self-righteous, indignant and vindictive prosecutor’s office,” says Russell Gioiella, a partner in New York City’s Litman Asche & Gioiella and former president of the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. In an unvarying format, police solve a crime — loosely based on a real case — in the first half of each episode; the district attorney’s office prosecutes the case in the second half. As might be expected in a program titled “Law & Order,” the police and prosecutors are the heroes and the story unfolds almost entirely from their point of view. This successful formula has led the show to critical acclaim and high Nielsen ratings, but sits uneasily with real-life criminal lawyers. “There is almost never an ounce of sympathy for the defendant,” adds Gioiella. “The message of that show is that if you don’t convict on every case you’re a fool.” Included in the criminal bar’s indictment are charges that the show glorifies vigilante prosecutors, demeans the Constitution, presents defense attorneys in an unflattering light and shows defendants as irredeemably evil. “The prosecutors only go after the guilty and will do just about anything to get them,” including threatening to bring charges against witnesses who don’t deserve to go to jail, accuses Gioiella. “That’s fairly common, but I don’t think it should be portrayed as heroic.” In one representative show, the 1995 episode “Purple Heart,” Sam Waterston’s character, Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy, plans an ambush by manipulating the defense counsel into calling the defendant to the stand, only to surprise the defense with a previously undisclosed rebuttal witness. Real defense lawyers also take exception to the show’s depictions of defendants’ attorneys as overbearing and conniving. “There are many episodes where the defense attorney is portrayed as somebody really stretching the truth,” complains Marvin Schechter, also a past president of the New York Criminal Defense Lawyers and a 29-year veteran of the criminal defense bar. “They present stereotypes — caricatures — of defense attorneys.” In the 1994 episode “Competence,” a black defense lawyer attempts to squelch the prosecution of his black client by threatening to instigate a riot. “I scream ‘Burn, baby, burn’ and something, somewhere, goes up in smoke,” boasts the character, in an unlikely exchange with the prosecutors. Another defense objection to the show comes from the shortcuts it takes with the Constitution, especially when it comes to searches and seizures, confessions and eyewitness identifications. On “Law & Order, ” a suppression hearing that might take weeks in actuality is shortened to a 30-second conference in chambers. “It certainly trivializes constitutional rights,” says James Harrington, current president of the New York’s criminal defense association and a partner in Harrington & Mahoney in Buffalo, N.Y. “The scenario is set up so everyone knows the person is guilty, and then the defense lawyer comes along with a piece of paper.” Practitioners are not the only ones to take issue with the program. “It’s a very right-wing show,” says John Denvir, a professor at University of San Francisco School of Law who teaches a course in “Picturing Justice,” which explores how law and lawyers are portrayed by the entertainment industry. “It ["Law & Order"] presents itself as being very factual, but everyone is almost always guilty.” The show can actually be considered “anti-law,” adds Denvir, since the police and prosecutors are presented as heroes for bending the law to obtain a conviction. “People are afraid of violence and like the idea that someone’s going to break rules and see that justice is done.” Real prosecutors, on the other hand, have warmer feelings for the show. “Law & Order” made “a contribution to the public’s understanding of the role of the prosecutor,” says Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney, past president of New York State District Attorneys Association. The show, he says, has made great strides towards “exorcising the ghost of Hamilton Burger — the hapless ‘Perry Mason’ prosecutor who always lost.” The New York prosecutors’ group was so enamored that Carney arranged for actor Sam Waterston and producer and writer Richard Sweren to speak at the association’s annual luncheon last year. John Tunney, Steuben County district attorney and current president of New York’s prosecutors’ association, adds he finds the show more lifelike than other courtroom dramas now airing. The only exception is the scenes where prosecutors plea-bargain directly with defendants — which simply does not happen in the real world unless there are very unusual circumstances. “‘Law & Order’ seems to track pretty closely the dynamics of the real system,” he says. “The attraction for people like me is that it is very realistic.” Ironically enough, for all the animosity the criminal defense bar feels towards the show, writer and producer Barry Schindel used to be a public defender in the Bronx. Schindel, who has been with “Law & Order” since 1999, once helped create a pilot for a show about defense attorneys, but it was never aired. “People probably have a more positive image of a prosecutor’s job than a defense attorney’s job,” he concedes. “It’s probably safer to write about prosecutors than defense lawyers.” Wendy Davis is a free-lance writer in New York.

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