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Authors

Anita Sokolsky

Abstract

As in the case of a parson's invective, the important point about courtroom drama is that it's trying: good will compensates for a lack of expertise. But in fact such invective does more than manifest a muddled populism: it refers delicately to a more intimate knowledge of that which it leaves unsaid and startles by being the least likely source of a knowing critique. Similarly, while courtroom drama may seem to offer a limited and decorous account of the judicial system, it in fact reveals an acute sense of what it means to give scandal to the law. If one considers the law to include not solely the operations of the judiciary, but its dissemination in the cultural imagination-and I suspect that more people's attitudes toward the legal system are shaped by courtroom dramas and mystery novels than by knowledge of that system itself - dramatized representations of the law provide only the most explicit indications of how our culture has internalized notions of judgment and wrongdoing. The effects of such internalization are presumably to be located less in the constraints placed on our overt criminal behavior than in more finely nuanced concerns about transgression, exposure, and punishment. Such issues are most forthrightly staged by courtroom drama in the confrontation between avenger and murderer and most satisfyingly capped by the criminal's impassioned confession - a confession compelled by motives that subtly threaten to bring confusion to the system of law it serves.

The power of the confession scenario is evidenced in the popularity of some of its best-known exponents. Perry Mason mysteries by Erle Stanley Gardner, the second best-selling writer to date (Agatha Christie is the third), spawned a twelve-year radio show and a nine-season television series which is still widely rerun. While a program such as L.A. Law offers a more sophisticated exposé of legal politics, the popular Murder, She Wrote regularly enforces the formula of murderer confessing to (amateur) detective, with the added sophistication of a teleplay reconstruction of the crime to bolster the detective's elucidation. The scene that provokes the criminal's confession appears to exert compulsion over those who witness it as well.

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