Can you handle the truth?

If you think you know how trials work from streaming old episodes of 'Law & Order,' you’re probably mistaken

click to enlarge Can you handle the truth?
Columbia Pictures
Jack Nicholson gets fi red up on the witness stand in the 1992 hit movie “A Few Good Men.” Real-life trials are pretty sedate affairs.

When I covered my first two murder trials, in April and May of last year, I immediately noticed something odd.

Judge Jay Gaskill didn’t have a gavel.

That’s when I realized there might be a few things movies and TV shows lied to me about when it comes to how a real courtroom works.

Sure enough, as the trials went on, there were no surprise witnesses, no dramatic confessions of guilt on the stand and not once did Gaskill bang his nonexistent gavel and shout “Order! Order in the court!” when things got unruly, because they didn’t. In fact quite the opposite happened: A jury member kept falling asleep in the courtroom.

Attorneys didn’t address the jury or stand before them giving heartfelt pleas, except during opening and closing arguments. They didn’t pace the courtroom floor, either, while questioning witnesses, hands folded behind their back, casually asking that one incriminating question.

But since that’s just one person’s experience over a couple of trials, I decided to go to someone who’s seen a few more things than me to make sure I wasn’t missing something.

How it works

Gaskill spent nearly nine years as 2nd district judge before retiring last year and was a magistrate judge from 2001-14. He described his role during murder trials as “calling balls and strikes,” ruling on evidence, testimony and whatever objections come up in court to keep the process going forward.

Another component keeping the criminal justice system moving is the work of attorneys. While Hollywood often depicts contentious relationships between the prosecution and defense, Gaskill said that, at least in Nez Perce County, the two sides generally play nice with each other.

The back and forth that plays out in the courtroom is one aspect of the job, but often the prosecution and defense work together to come up with joint agreements to resolve cases.

“If they didn’t (work together), it would be deadlock. You would never be able to handle the caseload that we have,” Gaskill said. “I think we’re real lucky here, because I think the defense bar and public defender work really well with the prosecution.”

"All rise"

Courtroom formalities tend to be depicted differently on screen, like standing up when the judge walks in.

“I tried to get the bailiffs here to do the ‘oye oye’ but they won’t do it,” Gaskill said, referring to a common cry in TV, and some real-life, courtrooms.

Some traditions change, like standing to address the judge, which has become less common over the years. Now, attorneys often speak to the judge via microphone while seated at a desk looking at files on a computer.

But films and TV shows need action, so onscreen attorneys often stride across the courtroom as a cinematic element to create movement in an otherwise stationary scene.

“I don’t know if there’s any judges around that are big on (attorneys) walking around approaching the jury,” Gaskill said.

Unlike other traditions that slowly disappeared, Gaskill said he never saw any judge use a gavel in the courtroom. There was no need to bang a gavel, he said, with bailiffs present to ensure order.

The wheels of justice turn slowly

Real life cases are seldom concluded in an hour, and many are delayed before they go to trial.

Courtroom dramas tend to focus solely on the jury trial, rarely acknowledging the full process of initial appearances, preliminary hearings, arraignments and pretrials, which can take months, if not years.

“Drama shows about courtroom procedure have to be a lot more exciting and succinct than we are in real life,” Gaskill said.

That’s where jurors can get caught off guard if they’re expecting courtroom drama to unfold.

“And they're sorely disappointed,” Gaskill said, which perhaps is why jurors occasionally seem to lack focus, though “unless they are falling asleep, you can’t really do much about it.”

However, Gaskill said most jurors want to do a good job, taking the responsibility seriously and paying attention. They also tend to catch on to the proceedings quickly, even if those proceedings are slower than expected.

Their job is made harder when, unlike in Hollywood trials, defendants don’t immediately crumble and confess on the stand under hostile interrogation.

“I’ve seen some good cross examinations where they will kind of trap people in things they’ve said, which can really impugn their credibility,” Gaskill said. “I’ve never seen anybody actually (say) ‘OK, I did it.’ ”

Brewster (she/her) may be contacted at or at (208) 848-2297.