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Law in Popular Culture
Posted November 8, 2018, 7:00 am CST
A few weeks back, I wrote a column reviewing the ABC series How to Get Away with Murder. I received a bit of feedback as I often do. Some was positive. Some was negative. It’s the nature of the game, and honestly, regardless of the feedback, I’m just glad to know people actually read the column.
One reader explained that he followed my “advice” and watched an episode of How to Get Away with Murder. However, I didn’t really recommend the show but rather examined the realistic vs. fantastical elements of the episode I actually watched. Nonetheless, the reader did not appreciate my “recommendation” (and also pointed out the unrealistic issues the series presents).
The reader suggested I spend more time reviewing “worthwhile” legal shows, such as Perry Mason. To you, reader, I dedicate this column.
THE QUINTESSENTIAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY
Sadly, I think you could walk down the street these days asking random people: “Who is Perry Mason?” and you’d probably get just as many guesses as you would correct answers. Today’s viewing audience isn’t what it was a decade (let alone decades) ago. Plenty of younger folks are just as likely to mistake Perry Mason for Matlock (maybe I’ll do a similar write-up on him in the future). Part of this is probably recency bias.
Perry Mason ran from 1957 through 1966 for a total of 271 episodes. It was based on multiple novels from Erle Stanley Gardner. Perry Mason (played by Raymond Burr) made his living defending the innocent in the most difficult of cases. He was cool, calm and had a knack for getting the correct confession at just the right moment.
Even today, when talking about trials and other types of litigation, it’s common for attorneys to reference a “Perry Mason moment” when something surprisingly and effectively goes their way. The series has engrained itself in the common lexicon of legal practitioners, and although that is partly due to its run of nearly 10 seasons, there are other reasons why it’s near and dear to so many.
WHICH PERRY MASON EPISODE IS THE BEST?
Coming up with the “best” episode in this series was a bit of a task. I haven’t watched all 271 episodes—not even close. Even if I had, my opinion would be completely subjective and only worth the credit you’re willing to give. I asked other attorneys but received nothing close to a consensus. I figured the easiest and least-biased way to choose would be a simple internet search. Surely, someone out there in cyberspace had a (somewhat) informed opinion, right?
Through my research, I actually came across a pretty cool website I was never aware of beforehand: episode.ninja. It’s an aggregator that claims to list “the best episodes of your favorite shows.” According to the site, its goal is simple: It compiles “millions of viewer ratings to rank the best episodes of any TV show.” That sounded like as good a place to start as any.
I headed to the Perry Mason page and was quickly informed that the best/highest-rated episode of the original run is “The Case of the Lucky Loser” (season two, episode two). My next task then was to find a way to watch the episode in its entirety. I’ll be completely honest: I don’t own, or know anyone who owns, the complete Perry Mason box set. Lucky for me—and anyone else interested in catching some classic celluloid lawyering—individual episodes of the series can be found on Dailymotion.
THE CASE OF THE LUCKY LOSER
The obviously wealthy Lawrence Balfour follows his wife after hearing her make an appointment with someone, only to find her leaving another man’s company. Balfour shoots the other man and kills him. Once he gets home, Balfour calls his family’s fix-it man (Steve) to confess the trouble he’s got himself into. Balfour explains he doesn’t know what to do, mentioning that he can’t call a lawyer. Steve tells him to get out of town, assuring Balfour that he’ll take care of the body.
Steve takes the body to Sycamore Lane and stages a hit and run; however, he’s spotted, and his tag number is reported to authorities. Problem is, the car (and license plate), belong to Theodore Balfour—Lawrence’s nephew (and heir to the Balfour fortune), who had nothing to do with the slaying.
Theodore is unsurprisingly arrested and charged with the death. An older woman (Florence) visits Perry Mason on Theodore’s behalf to request he take the case. Mason explains that he can’t even go speak with Theodore because the Balfour family retained an army of lawyers and it would be completely unethical.
Steve shows up to Florence’s home to strong-arm her into false testimony for Theodore’s defense. After she initially balks at the notion, Steve explains that he was the one who covered up the homicide, and that Theodore is innocent. She consents to help the family.
Steve then goes to the eyewitness who reported the hit-and-run. He relays that the Balfours are willing to loan the witness $25,000 to flip on his prior statements to law enforcement. Steve persuades the witness into agreeing that he could barely see the night of the homicide because of how dark it was. The witness agrees to testify that he only thought he saw what he really saw.
The eyewitness testifies to his newfound uncertainty regarding the prior identification. This results in Balfour’s first trial ending in a hung jury. The prosecution pushes for a second trial, and Balfour is ultimately convicted through a plea deal wherein the judge agrees to suspend the sentence. The district attorney is not happy about the result. Apparently, the deal wasn’t approved by him. He explains to his deputy who tried the case that he wants the body exhumed. He reminds the deputy that he’s going to need a court order to get it accomplished.
Perry Mason is subsequently called to the Balfour manor. The patriarch (Theodore’s grandfather) requests that Mason get Theodore’s case reopened and the conviction reversed. Mason accepts, and he gets to work. Shortly thereafter, the audience learns that the district attorney discovered a bullet in the head of the newly exhumed body, and that the prosecution intends to move forward with first-degree murder charges.
Mason is next shown arguing a writ of habeas corpus in which he requests the judge to release his client and dismiss the new charges on double jeopardy grounds. The judge asks for authority, and Mason is happy to provide it. The trial judge punts the issue to the higher court, implying that they can rule on the double jeopardy issue once the second trial is complete whether and when Theodore is convicted.
The family tries to fire Mason, but he stays on the case when he learns that Theodore still wants him as his attorney. The case proceeds to trial on the new first-degree murder charges. The state presents its witnesses, and the prosecution and the judge appear very surprised when Mason initially refrains from any cross-examination. The trial judge even chastises Mason for not confronting the prosecution’s witnesses, to which Mason explains that—more or less—he’ll ask questions when he has them. He eventually does but only when necessary and never for too long.
Interestingly, there is a surprise during the trial that involves the city of Norman, Oklahoma (where I completed my undergraduate degree). I won’t get into any detail aside from one obvious hint: Mason gets his moment. I don’t want to spoil the episode for anyone who decides to watch it.
DOES PERRY MASON STAND THE TEST OF TIME?
And watch it you should. But it is in black and white, and it’s definitely from 50 years ago. So if those are hurdles you don’t deal with, this isn’t for you. The acting is a little forced at times but only from the extras and never from the stars. All in all, it’s pretty damn impressive on more than one level.
The series starts out with some jazz noir for the opening credits. It’s a great way to set up the show, as you know from the start that Mason is the man with the plan. The costume work is well done, and the courtroom scenes don’t come across as too manufactured.
The episode actually focuses on the narrative instead of simply parading Mason around questioning witnesses and spouting one-liners. The story is so well staged that Mason doesn’t even appear for the first time (aside from the opening credits) until almost exactly 11 minutes in on the dot.
There’s an innocence to it—the fact that Steve just shows up to the lady’s house and admits his involvement even after she has told him she is good friends with a well-connected attorney such as Mason; the fact that the grandfather wants Mason to not only prove that Theodore is innocent but also teach him to “fight.” The ending tries to tie that second request back in at the last moment, and it does come off somewhat hokey.
However, this particular episode really surprised me with its dialogue. The use of actual legal terminology and references was impressive. The episode focused on multiple facets of the law. It showed Mason discussing the ethical implications of corresponding with a represented party. It mentioned mistrials (and, perhaps inadvertently, how they often end up resolved prior to the conclusion of a second trial). Hell, there’s even a mention in the paper regarding Theodore’s suspended sentence. A lazier show might simply refer to his “probation.”
I was especially in awe of the habeas corpus scene, in which the audience basically gets a lesson on double jeopardy and the constitutional consequences. Believe me, this isn’t simply some passing mention of a few buzzwords. Mason brings the heat with his legal authority, and I’d be surprised if he wasn’t citing actual cases (I didn’t check the citations.) If every episode is this informative, maybe I should have skipped law school.
Perhaps my favorite parts of the episode involved Mason’s decision not to cross-examine some of the witnesses. My trial practice professor told me that an OK cross is five questions, a good cross is three questions, and the best cross-examination is no questions. Now, there has to be some flexibility there depending on the complexity of the issues or possibly the amount of impeachment. But it’s overall a rule I try to stand by.
Too often we see cross-examination played out in pop culture as some long, drawn-out exercise. More often than not, it shouldn’t be.
Ultimately, the most refreshing aspect of the show for me was the manner in which the prosecution is portrayed. The deputy district attorney comes across a bit brainless. Honestly, it’s a nice change from current shows like Law & Order: SVU, where the prosecution is virtuously victorious, more often than not—the new shows always have the prosecution as the infallible advocate making all the right decisions.
There aren’t many positive portrayals of defense attorneys in the media these days—think Better Call Saul and The Lincoln Lawyer. These days, it seems fictionalized defense attorneys are entertaining because they bend the rules. That wasn’t always the case, and Perry Mason brings that point home full force.
If you’ve never seen the original Perry Mason series, I am 100 percent recommending it. If it’s been a while since you’ve seen an episode, check out “The Case of the Lucky Loser” and enjoy. Feel free to comment below, or shoot me your feedback.
What’s your favorite Perry Mason episode and why?
Adam R. Banner is the founder and lead attorney at the Law Offices of Adam R. Banner, a criminal defense law firm in Oklahoma City. His practice focuses solely on state and federal criminal defense. He represents the accused against allegations of sex crimes, violent crimes, drug crimes and white collar crimes.
The study of law isn’t for everyone, yet its practice and procedure seems to permeate pop culture at an increasing rate. This column is about the intersection of law and pop culture in an attempt to separate the real from the ridiculous.
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