[6 September 2006]
With his new series, Justice, Jerry Bruckheimer crosses over from prosecutors and detectives to the defense. Rather than looking at the ways that razzle-dazzle technology combined with forensic evidence always nail the guilty, the new show considers how defense attorneys go about dismantling the prosecution. To highlight the questions of class and access that such a system raises, Justice focuses on the prestigious L.A. firm of Trott, Nicholson, Tuller & Gaines (TNT&G: they’re explosive), whose clients are rich and famous.
In keeping with the Bruckheimer formula for protagonists, the firm’s head, Ron Trott (Victor Garber) is the best there is and incredibly smug about how good he is. Renowned and self-aware, Trott’s primary function is PR and spin. Though his swagger is a turn-off for jurors, it plays great on TV.
The premiere episode revealed little of his team, except that they are youthful and energetic, and all determined to win over jurors by multiple means. Though forensics specialist Alden Tuller (Rebecca Mader) is single, she explains that she wears a wedding ring in court to make herself appear more “grounded.” Tom Nicholson (Kerr Smith) is possessed of a “good-looking, All-American face,” and Luther Gaines (Eamonn Walker) is good at finding holes in the opposition’s cases.
They put their skills to use in the pilot episode, where they defended Kevin O’Neil (Sam Trammel), accused of bashing his wife Caitlin’s head in with a golf club, then dumping her body in the family swimming pool. The episode began with the arrival of the police at the O’Neil house to arrest Kevin, along with a huge media caravan. While it was unclear why Kevin was famous or the case attracted such attention, the show presented the arrest as something like those of O.J. or Michael Jackson.
This scene made clear the series’ dominant theme, that whether or not a client is actually guilty is less important than how his or her innocence looks to the press and juries. While Trott delayed the press and police with a lengthy statement on Kevin’s front lawn, Kevin and Tom slipped out the back, so that Kevin could surrender himself at a Malibu police substation, beyond the TV lights. It’s better in potential juror’s eyes to give yourself up voluntarily than be dragged out of your home in handcuffs.
This was the first of many tricks employed by TNT&G, who move at lightning speed. In rapid succession, the defense team sorted through the boxes of prosecutorial evidence, prepped their own forensic witnesses, spun the media, manhandled their client, selected a jury, evaluated mock jury feedback, and adjusted their strategy. Many of these scenes were so brief, they left the viewer wanting more explanation of the lawyers’ objectives.
Perhaps that’s just as well, as their interest in winning at any cost was quite explicit, making evidence seem secondary, except as it can be exploited for one side or the other. The team’s pretrial activities were directed toward making their client look innocent in the public’s eyes; during trial, they worked on making their version of events sound more plausible than the prosecution’s. So, they argued that Caitlin slipped while emerging from the pool, hitting her head on the edge. As she tried to stand, Caitlin fell a second time, resulting in another blow to the head and causing her to fall back into the pool. The scenario sounded farfetched. And though Kevin was acquitted, it wasn’t entirely plain whether he was innocent.
The most pleasing feature of Justice is its doubled ending strategy. At the conclusion of the trial each week, viewers are offered a recreation of what “really happened.” In the Kevin case, the defense team’s hypothesis of what happened at the O’Neil home was dead-on: Caitlin’s death was accidental, and Kevin was inside the house when the whole thing occurred. And indeed, once her death was made visible, its logistics seemed much more plausible.
Presumably, these codas will expose that sometimes the guilty get off and the innocent don’t. Were our justice system perfect, there wouldn’t be any need for defense firms like TNT&G. As Tom explains in his closing argument at Kevin’s trial, it’s easy to hate such lawyers and to buy into the stereotypes assigned to them. However, he notes, if we were the ones on trial, we would want lawyers exactly like the ones at TNT&G. That is assuming we could afford such lawyers. Most of those on trial who aren’t assigned a public defender are lucky to have a lawyer not juggling a half dozen other cases. Most accused don’t have their lawyers appearing on TV shows such as (the fictional) American Crime as Trott does, or have their trials attended by the likes of Dominick Dunne. “Justice,” as defined by the series, is directly proportional to spin, and spin costs money. It’s beyond most of us poor slobs.
Unlike the teams on Bruckheimer’s CSI shows, Without a Trace, and Cold Case, the one on Justice isn’t heroic. Viewers looking for affirmation that we have the noblest judicial system in the world would be advised to steer clear. Those seeking an inside look at the dirty politics and sleight-of-hand that accompany high profile court cases won’t be disappointed. The lawyers here don’t grandstand about finding the truth. They only mean to get their client off, and thereby insure their reputations as winners. Matlock, this ain’t.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/justice/