The Verdict: An attorney reviews ‘How to Get Away with Murder’ (Ep. 1 – 3)

Celebrity, Crime

Before I begin, I must throw out the following caveats: I am not a defense attorney, and I do not practice criminal law. But I do love crime television and couldn’t resist commenting on one of the newest legal dramas on television, ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder.” Much of what you will read in this blog will be opinion based on personal experience. Consider yourselves warned.

“How to Get Away with Murder,” from here on referred to as HTGAWM, is a fast-paced, addicting new crime show on Thursday nights. I will give a brief synopsis of each episode and explore the accuracy of the show from my perspective as a law school graduate.

SPOILER ALERT! If you are interested in watching the show, I suggest you watch it before reading the following blog posts, as I reveal endings and surprises that occur in each episode.

Episode 1 recap

We are immediately thrown into a first-year law class called “How to Get Away with Murder” and taught by high-powered criminal defense attorney Annalise Keating. From the get-go, Annalise comes across as a proud, strong woman who is not willing to take crap from anyone. She can also be a bit arrogant and unforgiving (don’t lie to her).

She gives a task to the class: Come up with a defense for her client who has been accused of murdering her boss and lover with aspirin, which she knew he was allergic to. The four best defenses will earn internship spots at her firm, and the top student will receive a Lady Justice statue. We follow the students to Annalise’s home and office, where we are introduced to her two associates, Frank and Bonnie, along with Gina, the alleged murderer.

The next day, students are eliminated one by one and we are left with the finalists: Michaela, Laurel, Connor and Asher. Annalise also throws in another student, Wes. Each of these characters is similar in his or her need for — and obsession with — success, but each is also glaringly different, particularly in terms of sexuality, race, educational background, et cetera. Annalise couldn’t have picked a more diverse group.

As the trial gets underway for Gina, the alleged aspirin-administering murderer, the students are determined to prove their worth to Annalise. Connor has sex with an IT guy in order to get an incriminating email asking the CEO to step down. Laurel catches the wife and lover being friendly in the bathroom. Wes, thinking he found a way to win the case, rushes over to Annalise’s house one night to present his defense. He walks in on Annalise and a man having sex in her office.

It’s later discovered that the man was not her husband. We finally meet her husband, Sam Keating, at a party. He happens to be a psychology professor at the same university. Annalise pulls Wes aside, assures him the affair was a mistake, and acknowledges that her marriage is going through a rough patch. We get to meet the lover, a detective named Nate, the next day at trial when Annalise calls him to the stand and forces him to admit that the police have tampered with and edited surveillance tapes in the past and that they may have done so this time.

This admission helps set Gina free, and Annalise wins her case. She changes things up and offers internships to all five students: Connor, Michaela, Laurel, Asher and Wes, who thinks the only reason he got it is because he caught Annalise cheating. Annalise assures him that this is not the case.

Not only do each of the students and Annalise have their own storylines, but we are also made aware of a missing girl, Lila Stangard, in this first episode. We catch glimpses of missing posters throughout the episode around campus, and her body is later found in a water tank. We also find out she was a student of Sam Keating’s.

Wes’ story is delved into more than the other students’. He isn’t the smartest in the group, and he is somewhat looked down upon. It’s no wonder he thinks he got the internship because he caught Annalise and could blackmail her. Anyway, Wes’ storyline includes his neighbor, Rebecca, an emotionally dark bartender who fights loudly with her boyfriend.

Throughout the show, the narrative flashes back and forth between the present and three months previously. The aspirin case happened three months ago, while in the present, Michaela, Laurel, Wes and Connor are in Annalise’s office with a dead body on the floor. The flashbacks are shaky and dark, and they are thrown in when you least expect them. The students are trying to get rid of the body, and they decide burning it is the best option. Right as the match is lit to start the bonfire, we see the face of the body, and it’s Sam.

Attorney verdict on the law in HTGAWM

Despite this show being a legal thriller and a crime show, we don’t encounter much relevant law. There are aspects of the show that are true and are based on how law is practiced, but there are also parts that are completely unreliable and would never occur in the courtroom.

First-year law students do take a class on criminal law. It is not nearly as specific and pointed as this class, but it’s in every law school’s curriculum. Another thing that stood out immediately was the use of first-year students as interns for a criminal defense practice. Although some law students work for an attorney while in law school, it usually doesn’t happen this quickly. I can only speak for myself, but when I was a first-year student in my first semester, I knew absolutely nothing about criminal law and defense my first week of class. In most instances, when law students work for a firm or attorney, they do research and present that research to an attorney in memo form. They do not come up with defenses and interview clients and potential witnesses.

Some of the aspects of the show that are not accurate can be very trivial, like Annalise never wearing sleeves in court. She looks good, don’t get me wrong, but unfortunately sleeveless isn’t really acceptable courtroom attire. Judges expect lawyers to dress conservatively in business attire. The image projected by both attorney and client can have a huge impact on the judge and jury, and dress is something that merits a lot of consideration when anyone steps into a courtroom.

There is no way I could have sat in on a high-profile murder case and been of any help. Meanwhile, Annalise’s students are having computers hacked, discrediting witnesses and finding time between torts, contracts and legal writing to defend a murderer. Far from the typical first week in law school.

Episode 2 recap

The next episode starts with Annalise declaring that everyone lies and wondering if it’s possible to really believe or know anyone. It’s looking that way in this episode. Annalise has decided to represent Max, accused of killing his wife of 20 years by stabbing her multiple times. Was he after her inheritance? Annalise doesn’t care if he’s guilty or innocent.

We again are taken through the twists and turns of a murder trial. Each student tries to outdo the others and set Max free. They collect evidence, discredit witnesses, and prep Max’s daughter to take the stand. When it’s discovered that Max may have murdered his first wife, the team works together to prove that though he may be guilty of the first murder, he definitely didn’t stab his second wife 16 times. After Max is declared not guilty, the team learns that his daughter from his first marriage is the real murderer. She plotted to take down her father after discovering he had lied about what really happened to her mother.

An update regarding Sam and Annalise: Annalise cannot get over Nate, the detective she was sleeping with, who now wants nothing to do with her. She sneaks a look at Sam’s phone and looks up Lila Stangard’s name. Interestingly enough, there are quite a few emails between the professor and the now-dead student.

The flash-forwards in this episode show how emotional the characters are getting about what to do with Sam’s body. Wes flips a coin to decide if they should go back and get the body or leave it. Heads, they get the body; tails, they leave it. The coin flips, and he slaps it on the back of his hand: tails. But much to the viewers’ surprise, he says, “Heads.” Back for the body they go.

The next scene flashes to Wes in a convenience store buying lighter fluid and a burner phone. He makes a call to an unknown person, assuring him or her that everyone is going to be okay. He then shows up at a hotel, and the door opens to reveal Rebecca. He embraces her, telling her she’s safe now and he’ll never leave her again.

Attorney verdict on the law in HTGAWM

Based on my law school education, this episode seemed a bit far-fetched to me. Do criminal defense teams really hack into people’s computers to find their dirty laundry? Do defense attorneys have the accused preserve the crime scene for months and months after the murder?

After polling some of my classmates regarding hacking computers and searching through trash, I’ve confirmed that this usually isn’t done in a standard criminal case. Neither the defense nor the state has the resources to treat every trial this way. Obviously, a murder trial costs more time and money because someone’s life is on the line, but in most cases, this is unlikely.

Another aspect of this case I found really compelling was the preservation of the murder scene. I have never heard of this being done before, nor did I ever hear about it while in law school. The crime technicians who arrive at the scene following a murder are supposed to be unbiased, searching only for facts, so they would likely have already gathered all evidence from the scene and preserved it. In this case, the bloody murder scene and animal trophies all over the wall helped lead the team to their ultimate defense.

HTGAWM isn’t completely bogus when it comes to preparing for a trial. The defense must always do their homework and Annalise’s team does, other than missing that Max was charged with murdering his first wife. They dig into the prosecution’s witness in order to discredit her and destroy the prosecution’s theory that Max’s wife wanted a divorce.

They prep their own witnesses, peppering the daughter with hard questions and testing her story for believability. They find the evidence to corroborate Max’s alibi. These are all important lessons we learned in law school and are accurately depicted in this episode.

Episode 3 recap

Michaela’s fiancé is visiting and she brings him to meet the team. Her fiancé happens to know Connor from their boarding school days, and when Conner mentions that they hooked up when they were younger, Michaela threatens to call off the engagement. Connor later works his way back into her good graces, but her reaction to his sexuality is interesting.

The team takes off to pick up their next client from jail, a woman named Paula who has been charged with prostitution. As Annalise explains that the charges have been dropped and walks outside, a team of FBI agents swarms the premises and arrests Paula.

We find out Paula’s fingerprints match those of a woman wanted for the bombing and murder of a janitor during the ‘90s. The team works to find the ringleader of the bombing group, a man named Gabriel. After locating him, Annalise sets up a meeting to convince him to testify on Paula’s behalf and admit to manipulation and mind-control, the defense the team has concocted. Unfortunately, Paula is still very much in love with Gabriel, and even after Gabriel switches sides and testifies on behalf of the prosecution against Paula, she runs away with him, leaving Annalise and the team without their defendant.

Meanwhile, Annalise has been asked to represent the star quarterback, Griffin O’Conner, in Lila Stangard’s murder. He claims Rebecca, Wes’ emotionally troubled neighbor, set him up by hooking up with him and making sure Lila discovered them. The night previously, Wes discovers that Rebecca hid a cellphone in his bathroom, but he can’t access the phone because it’s password protected. While he’s working the next day, the phone rings. Wes answers and someone is asking for Lila and drugs. After discovering this, Wes tries to visit Rebecca in jail but is told the only way he can see her is if he is press or her lawyer. So what does he do? He creates a fake ID card and goes in to see her. She refuses to see him, and he is arrested for impersonating an attorney. Annalise bails him out of jail, and he convinces her to represent Rebecca.

The flash-forwards in this episode show the students creating their alibi for the night of the murder. They go to a bonfire party, making sure plenty of pictures are taken. At the end, after they have gotten rid of the body, Michaela discovers she lost her ring somewhere along the way.

Attorney verdict on the law in HTGAWM

I cringed as I watched this episode and the way Wes acted regarding Rebecca. Seriously Wes?! Do you want to be able to sit for the bar exam? In order to sit for a bar exam in any state, you have to pass a character and fitness exam. This isn’t an actual test. In most states, when you apply to sit for the bar, you fill out a bunch of information about yourself, including past addresses, conviction history, past names, educational background, references, et cetera. Then, a board reviews this information and determines if you would be a moral and upstanding attorney. People with DUIs, drug or murder convictions don’t always pass this exam.

If they don’t pass, they are brought in front of the board and are allowed to explain their situation. Sometimes they are granted permission to sit for the bar; sometimes they aren’t. In this instance, lying about being an attorney would be greatly frowned upon. And until you take the bar exam and professional responsibility exam and are sworn in by the court, you are not a certified attorney.

Wes, if charged with impersonating a member of the court, would have to claim this on his bar application, and if his actions were egregious enough, the board could find him unfit to sit for the bar. I haven’t personally heard of this happening, but it’s always a possibility.

Ethics don’t seem to be a strong point of this show, though: No one seems to have any, and no one seems to care. Annalise rewards Wes in the end by giving him the statue and taking Rebecca’s case over Griffin’s. The show doesn’t paint attorneys in the most ethical light, and unfortunately the profession gets a bad rap for the few lawyers who aren’t ethical.

Most attorneys do care if their client is guilty or innocent and if their client is lying or telling the truth. If an attorney intentionally puts a client on the stand knowing the client is going to lie, the attorney faces a potential loss of license. Most attorneys are not willing to risk their reputation, livelihood or practice on this type of ethical gamble.

The one aspect of law they did get right in this episode was the felony murder rule. If someone is killed as a result of or in the course of a felony, everyone involved can be charged with murder. Paula is the perfect example of this. Do I think she manipulated by Gabriel? Of course she was. Was she guilty of felony murder? I’m a little more conflicted about that.

Mind-control is a hard defense to prove, and she would have to go through a battery of tests by psychologists and psychiatrists to prove she was under Gabriel’s influence and unable to think on her own. The show doesn’t go into detail about whether any of this testing took place. Paula has bigger issues to deal with now, and I believe her story has run its course.

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