View from Glen Hill: Legal lessons gleaned from Law and Order

I’m a great fan of the old Law and Order TV series and must confess to binge-watching far too many of the full 456 episodes to which WeTV recently obtained broadcast rights.

Surely the late Jerry Orbach’s Briscoe, Jesse Martin’s Green, and Sam Waterson’s McCoy — senior N.Y.P.D. detectives and Executive Assistant D.A. respectively — keep my attention with witty repartee, intense fervor, and beautifully crafted scripts. But more than that, it’s the accuracy of the courtroom process — to which I can relate from personal experience (though never as a prosecutor only on the other, defense, side of the aisle): From arraignments to allocutions, and from examinations and cross-examinations to summations, the writing and acting is extraordinarily realistic with spot-on authentic and often acerbic lawyer-judge interactions in the process.

Likewise, we view diligent investigators and prosecutors refusing to stop at simple answers and pressing on even when the process is tedious and breakthroughs come excruciatingly slowly. We see only the highlights of days of careful investigative work: poring through records of mind-numbing volume — and often opaqueness — and pursuit of leads moving wherever in the city the evidence take them. Exciting skirmishes sometimes occur, but more often what we see on the action side are simply brief, high-point snapshots flowing from the tireless, day-in and day-out drudgery of pursuing information down often-fruitless rabbit holes and, through their careful investigation, ruling out alternative explanations for the final decision before making an arrest.  

On the D.A.’s side as well, the work is heavily detail oriented, and the care with which leads are pursued by the prosecutorial team after, as well as before, arrests are made is admirable. So, even when they have a full admission by a defendant to commission of a murder, the D.A.s and detectives are still vigilant: If, for example, the specifics of the allocution made by the defendant on sentencing about the homicide at issue do not accord with what the D.A.’s office knows to be the facts surrounding the murder from the evidence recovered at the scene, adduced on autopsy of the victim, or subsequently developed, they halt the process to explore whether the defendant is purposely trying to mislead to give a basis for appeal or, alternatively, whether he or she is covering up for the real perpetrator.

In their investigations, days are spent reviewing everything from electronic traffic and phone and financial records to videotapes from street surveillance cameras to search for the truth about a crime’s commission. The meticulousness of the investigative process throughout is really impressive, as is the insistence on corroborative evidence for whatever witnesses or suspects may be asserting as truth. In short, this series illustrates the very best in police and prosecutorial work, and it is heartening to see even if presented in fictional form — though more than a few times, one can recognize in the series’ fiction the thread of actual proceedings and events.

Equally realistically, the Assistant D.A.s don’t always win at trial, and the vicissitudes of the case can prompt them to move in directions otherwise against conviction interests when they think that justice is best served in that way.

In a sense, what Law and Order is mirroring for me is the process that we have been seeing month by month, then week by week, and most recently day by day (or so it seems) in the investigations conducted by Special Counsel Mueller and the various U.S. Attorneys’ Offices engaged in their own related investigations, most notably the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices for the Southern District of New York, the Eastern District of Virginia, and the District of Columbia supported by the FBI and joined in by the N.Y.S. Attorney General’s Office. Their meticulous assemblage of evidence from sources of all types — witness recollections, tape recordings, phone, email and financial records, and many other sources — is truly impressive, and we all know that we have so far likely seen only the tip of the iceberg of the volume of corroborative evidence they have carefully gathered and drawn together into a coherent picture of far-reaching and depressingly base conduct.  

This is how excellent investigative and prosecutorial work proceeds, and we can all be very grateful for it. It is at the heart of the maintenance of the rule of law on which our democracy relies for its continued existence. The rule of law is something we should all treasure as among the most vital bulwarks of our freedom and of the integrity of our national life.