All that the Law Alllows

Vision 67

All that the Law Allows


By Lynne Murray

Copyright © 2012, By Lynne Murray, All Rights Reserved


I strayed into working for lawyers by accident in 1973 and found that word processing for a law firm was the ideal job for someone who needed to work weird hours to support a writing habit. Over the past decades I have typed every sort of legal document, and transcribed tapes from police interrogations and FBI surveillance to court hearings.


I was surprised to find out how many plot twists the law can provide--including murder victims. When I was writing mysteries my coworkers realized that I was killing people for cash and none of us would have to go to jail for it. They asked if I took requests. I made a point of letting one woman know that her hateful boss was a victim in my book and she cheered, but then she said, “Kill him again!” I actually agreed because she suggested such a cool murder method: the firm’s founder owned a vanity winery and she suggested stuffing the victim in a wine barrel.


Now that I’ve moved on to writing about vampires, I find that vampire lawyers are a very fruitful area of inquiry, although they could only make appearances in Night Court.


Law is all about conflict and some simple research can yield great plot ammunition but writers often stray from the reality of the legal system because we think we know about the law from watching television and movies and reading mystery novels. Unfortunately many dramatizations of criminal investigations and legal proceedings more closely resemble The Three Stooges slapstick reel Disorder in the Court than any real world legal proceeding.


In The 33 Worst Mistakes Writers Make About Courtroom Law I consider the areas where fiction writers most often get it wrong. I also provide links and references for those who want to delve deeper into certain rich veins of real courtroom quirks and battles


For example, consider Mistake Four: Spousal Privilege - A wife cannot testify against her husband and vice versa. Many a lovelorn lady in fiction has witnessed a crime and been wooed by a crafty criminal because “a wife can’t testify against her husband.”


Yes and no. Spousal privilege protects marital confidences. It only applies to things one spouse tells another that happened while they are married. If the crime took place before the wedding, the spouse can still be compelled to testify.


The privilege only applies to what a spouse says, it does not apply to what one actually saw the other do, so if one spouse witnesses the other committing a crime, he or she can be compelled to testify.


There are a number of exceptions to spousal privilege, and one is if the spouse who confided about the crime discusses it with a third party. This would indicate that he or she didn’t consider it confidential--unless the third party was a lawyer, priest, or doctor, all of whom are bound not to disclose confidential information.


Or Mistake Ten, a blunder that drives lawyers and paralegals crazy. It’s the story where a lawyer who practices in one area of law is asked by a friend to take on a criminal defense case, because the friend wants to be defended by “someone who believes in me.”

This is nonsense because law is almost as specialized as medicine. Having a trusted lawyer friend defend you in criminal court is like having your friendly neighborhood pediatrician do your brain surgery. Trusting someone doesn’t make him or her competent in every area of the law.


Believing in the client is no substitute for knowing what you’re doing. Criminal law practices in particular are not all in the reference books. At best, the lawyer who is unfamiliar with criminal law will spend a lot of time learning from scratch. At worst, they could blow the whole case.


Some of the mistakes we see in fiction are silly as in Mistake Five--Drug tasting cops: Frequently in a police drama the policeman will taste a suspicious powder. Aside from being monumentally stupid (the powder could be rat poison for all he or she knows), this is not a reliable test for the presence of controlled substances. Another common mistake is the policeman picking up a gun at the crime scene to remove the ammunition.


Both these actions are tampering with evidence and could get the evidence excluded. The evidence should be secured and not touched until the crime scene has been processed by the forensic technicians.


In writing The 33 Worst Mistakes Writers Make About Courtroom Law I consulted a lawyer friend and a paralegal with extensive experience in criminal law and we had a lot of fun and finding mistakes writers make that drive the legal community crazy.


The realities of the law can provide a ring of truth that pulls the reader deeper into the story, and the way the law really works can inject some unusual twists that readers won’t see coming.


To learn more about legal mistakes check out The 33 Worst Mistakes Writers Make About Courtroom Law, available from A Conspiracy of Authors Publication.