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A Fine Line: Bringing Pop Culture’s Courtroom Into the Classroom

TwoTufts professors discuss the benefits and detriments of incorporatingreal-world legal drama into the classroom.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [06.17.05] In a courtroom drama reported around the world, the jury in Michael Jackson's trial recently delivered its verdict: the pop star was found not guilty on all counts.

For months, media attention for the Jackson trial -- like many others before it -- dominated the airwaves and created a fever pitch around the legal proceedings. Such public portrayals of the American legal system can serve as a teaching tool, prompting two Tufts professors weigh in on the benefits and detriments of incorporating real-world legal drama into the classroom.

Those two professors are Associate Psychology Professor Sam Sommers, who teaches a course on law and psychology, and Political Science Professor Kent Portney, who instructs undergrads in the ways of criminal justice sentencing and judicial politics.

Though their disciplines differ, Sommers and Portney have a similar attitude towards bringing attention-grabbing celebrity trials and pop-cultural representations of the legal system into their classrooms.

Sommers: We grow up in a society where we actually have an opportunity to play an integral role in the legal system, in that we go to jury duty and we can be jurors in a trial. And even those people who are jurors in a trial, a lot of their legal education is Law & Order and John Grisham novels. I love them! I enjoy watching them; I enjoy reading them. I think they're entertaining, but I do think people have a view that all lawyers are criminal litigators and all trials have the great ‘A-ha!' moment that happens.

They also probably think that all trials go on for three months in the state of California with a media circus there! But [in real life], a very small percentage of cases actually go to a trial. If you actually sit there in a courtroom and watch what goes on, in many respects you could argue it's less interesting or more mundane. But in many respects, it's much more powerful-and quick! So I think people get a fairly slanted take on what goes on.

Portney: One of the ideas that I try to get across to my students in judicial politics is the idea that across the country, there's a tremendous variation in what we think of as justice. There is not one single model of justice that applies everywhere to everybody. And students have a real hard time grasping that beyond a superficial level.

They see something on TV and they say, ‘OK, that's the way it works,' when in fact that's not necessarily the way it works. It may work that way in one place, but it may work very differently in another place. So it's that variation-across places, across people, across cases-that really characterizes our criminal justice system. That is one of the things I try to emphasize throughout all my teaching. I do that with the idea that it is a kind of higher-order concept for most students.

It's sort of like the difference between calculus and addition and subtraction in mathematics, where everybody ‘gets' addition and subtraction, but not everybody ‘gets' calculus. Calculus is a higher-order concept; well, variation in what the courts do, variation in sentencing is almost that complicated for many students. So you have to really work hard to get students to internalize and really understand what that means.

Sommers: It's a fine line. I have the motivation to want to take advantage of what's going on in the real world. Last year, in the fall, I was teaching my psychology of law seminar while the Scott Peterson trial was going on. And so there were times when I tried to bring things into class as to what was going on. You want to take advantage of those things and bring them into the classroom, but you don't want your students to think, ‘Ah, this is what the legal system is,' because it's not-there's so much variation by type of jurisdiction, type of case.

It's very fine line between trying to incorporate that which happens in the real world and which everyone is talking about, and giving a real view of how [the system] works in different locales.

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