The Verdict: An attorney reviews ‘How to Get Away with Murder’ (Ep. 4 – 6)

Celebrity, Crime, Murder, News

ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder,” from here on HTGAWM, is a fast-paced, addicting new crime show on Thursday nights. This post continues my coverage of the show from my perspective as a law school graduate. Read on for a brief synopsis of each episode and my verdict on the accuracy of the show.

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

Episode 4 Recap

This episode starts with a flashback. The students are at the house and Sam’s body is on the floor. Asher is pounding on the door to be let in and to be given back his statue. Connor is beginning to crack, and the rest aren’t holding up much better.

This week’s case is an insider trading case involving Annalise’s longtime client Marren. Marren has built her trading firm from the ground up and swears she’d never jeopardize her success with something so stupid. A sex tape of her and the CEO of the company she supposedly had insider information on surfaces. Again, each student tries to figure out a way to win the class prize — the Lady Justice statue. Connor, after having sex with Marren’s personal assistant, records a phone call indicating the personal assistant and two others are responsible for the insider trading. Unfortunately, the assistant jumps out of a window before disclosing the names of the other two employees. In order to ferret out the culprits, Annalise begins questioning the employees and is able to get two to confess by lying to each of them about what the other has revealed.

Now, back to Rebecca and the Lila Stangard murder. Rebecca has confessed, but the prosecution won’t give Annalise the tape. Bonnie, using information she has gathered about Annalise, Sam and Nate, goes to the police and threatens to expose that their detective is sleeping with a defense attorney. She successfully brings home the tape, and Annalise is able to get Rebecca’s bail decreased by convincing the court that the confession was coerced.

We finish the episode with a real cliffhanger. Annalise takes off all her makeup and wig, and Sam walks in. Annalise turns to him, holds up a phone and asks, “Why is your penis on a dead girl’s phone?” Dun, dun, dunnnnn!

Attorney verdict on the law in HTGAWM

I guess Annalise doesn’t just do bloody murders. Although this insider trading case has its dramatic moments, like the personal assistant throwing himself out the window, from what I could tell, this case was portrayed rather accurately.

During an interrogation, which the two culprits should have never agreed to without an attorney present, a prosecutor/cop/what-have-you, may lie in order to obtain a confession. I have always found this shocking and kind of unfair. But, if you really don’t have anything to hide and aren’t guilty, you won’t say anything to incriminate yourself … hopefully!

It is odd to have the accused’s defense attorney in the room asking all of the questions, but maybe Annalise is actually representing the organization as a whole and not just Marren. A little background on that: If you are representing an organization, you have a duty to the organization, not the individual employees. The employees should be made aware of this and told to seek independent council. We don’t see this happen in this episode, and it is likely something that would bring up in subsequent trials.

Now, back to the confession tape. Bonnie is a tricky woman! She could get in a lot of trouble for blackmailing the police department. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure if you could argue that a coerced confession tape is something that should lower the bail. Usually bail is set at a high amount if the accused is a flight risk, i.e., someone likely to flee the country and with the means to do so, or if the crime is particularly heinous.

In this instance, we don’t know yet because we haven’t heard the autopsy report. Rebecca is likely not a flight risk. I’m interested to see what happens when they go to trial with this case and if Annalise is able to get the entire confession thrown out on the grounds that it was coerced. She is definitely going to try to go that route from what we have seen so far.

Episode 5 Recap

Oh Sam! He should know better than to send dirty pictures via text message. We all know those are going to end up on the Internet sooner or later. So, the episode starts where we left off, with Annalise asking Sam why his penis is on a dead girl’s phone. Sam admits to the affair and says he lied because he didn’t want Annalise to think he hurt Lila. Annalise throws him out and Bonnie overhears the entire argument.

Our case this week deals with a boy who killed his apparently “upstanding” police officer father. Too bad the dad was, in fact, an abusive husband whose wife could never come out about the abuse because everyone thought he was so wonderful.

Annalise wants to talk about the abuse and the boy’s journals documenting the abuse at trial but is barred from mentioning it until the prosecution accidentally has a witness testify to something contained in the boy’s journals. Then, it’s a free-for-all, and the abuse is allowed into evidence.

When the mother of the boy is asked if was she in imminent danger when her husband was killed, she has to answer truthfully, which is no, not at that time. The case then goes to the jury. Since there is no doubt that the boy killed his father and since at the time, his mother wasn’t in danger, the jury can’t decide it was self-defense.

Laurel decides it would be a good idea to covertly inform the jury about jury nullification. Frank, Annalise’s associate, catches Laurel doing this and tells Annalise. Annalise informs the court that the jury has been tampered with, and a mistrial is declared. Annalise then informs the boy and his mother that the prosecution has decided that they are no longer going to charge him as an adult and that his case will now be heard in juvenile court with probation as the likely outcome.

Flash forward! Frank keeps calling Laurel’s phone and everyone is asking why. She answers to help establish her alibi, and later, we see her sitting with Frank. She tells him she needs him to do something and then pulls the bloody statue out of her bag.

Back to the past. Annalise wants Rebecca to talk with Sam because he’s a psychologist. Rebecca talks about “Mr. Darcy,” Lila’s married boyfriend, but admits Lila never told her his real name. She leaves the house and calls Wes, telling him to look at the wallpaper. Wes goes over to Annalise’s and realizes the wallpaper in the photo on Lila’s phone matches Annalise’s wallpaper. Sam is “Mr. Darcy.”

Attorney verdict on the law in HTGAWM

Jury nullification: They got it right! When I started law school and first found out about this concept, I loved it and always swore that if I were on a jury and didn’t agree with the law, I would tell the other jurors about it and try to use jury nullification. Jury nullification occurs when the jury disregards the law and declares someone not guilty, even though the facts of the case support a guilty verdict. It usually occurs when the jury sympathizes with the defendant and doesn’t think he should be punished for the crime he committed. Nullification can be used in cases in which a specific defense cannot be applied to a case.

A note on self-defense: Self-defense isn’t just the act of defending yourself. It can also be claimed when you are defending a close family member, or even a stranger, from harm or death. In this instance, the defense cannot claim self-defense because at the time of the murder, the mother was not in imminent danger. They would need to prove that the mother would have been harmed or killed at the time the defense was used. Annalise isn’t able to show this, and therefore there are no defenses in this case.

What Laurel did was wrong. Plain and simple. If she were an attorney and did this, she could have been disciplined or disbarred for her actions. Tampering with a jury is a big no-no. Members of the jury are supposed to be unbiased, and neither the prosecution nor the defense can influence them, directly or indirectly. Leaving jury nullification information out in the open with the intent that a jury member finds it is tampering.

Annalise did the right and ethical thing by having Frank take this information to the judge. I have a feeling she knew she had discredited the father’s sterling reputation enough that the prosecution wouldn’t want to bring this to trial again, and that’s the only reason she told Frank to tell the judge. Considering the way they were currently sitting, they would have been lucky to have a hung jury, and the case would have likely been retried.

As for what Annalise is doing in her personal life regarding protecting Sam and defending Rebecca, it’s definitely not ethical. She is skating on thin ice right now, and I have a feeling it’s going to get even thinner.

Episode 6 Recap

Wes doesn’t show up for class, and in his place is the statue. Annalise later goes to his place and asks him what he wants. He says he wants her to find Rebecca, or he will tell the police everything. Annalise promises to do this and Wes rejoins the team.

This week, they are working on a death row appeal and the legal theory of habeas corpus. We get to see a different side of Annalise in this case. She truly cares about getting justice for this man who was wrongly accused 21 years ago. The team digs through the old court documents and discovers that Connor’s dad was the judge for this case. When Connor approaches his dad regarding a witness lying on the stand during the trial, his dad becomes angry and dismisses him.

The team tries to figure out which witness lied and dig up some dirty details on the woman who claims she saw the defendant leaving the scene with the murder weapon. Annalise questions the woman, but the woman refuses to admit that she was paid to lie. Annalise then questions a local senator, badgering him and definitely not winning the court’s favor. The moment of truth comes, and the court tells Annalise how upset they are with her and her actions. The chief justice then goes on to say that they can no longer believe the testimony of the prosecution’s star witness and they must vacate the judgment. YAY! I almost had tears in my eyes at this point. I definitely got goose bumps. The man on death row is finally free after serving 21 years for a murder he didn’t commit.

After the trial, Annalise calls Wes into her office and lets him know that Griffin, the quarterback, is now the main suspect in Lila’s murder after they found Lila’s cellphone in his car and discovered that it contained pictures of another man Lila was seeing. Wes can go get Rebecca and bring her home. Annalise has also had the incriminating wallpaper changed to protect Sam. Meanwhile, Nate, the detective, has been monitoring Annalise and her associates. He has pictures of Frank planting Lila’s cellphone in Griffin’s car.

Flash forward. Bonnie and Connor are sleeping together! Bonnie gets a call from Annalise, and Annalise asks if she is with Sam. Bonnie says no, and Annalise admits that she thinks something bad has happened to Sam.

Attorney verdict on the law in HTGAWM

As I said, this episode gave me goose bumps. Helping innocent people is one perk of being an attorney, and no matter the type of law you practice, hopefully you get to have this feeling once in a while.

As for the realism in the death row appeal process, reviewing past court documents is definitely something you would do to help build the case. Again, would first-year law students be helping with this? Likely not. As a first year, you haven’t taken courses in criminal procedure or evidence, which are both classes that you would use extensively when prepping for an appeal.

For a case to be heard on appeal, you have to prove that something was done incorrectly in the lower court, such as proving that a piece of evidence was or was not submitted or that the judge allowed leading of the witness to occur and this misstep greatly affected the outcome of the case. These examples may be cause to request an appeal and have the case retried or vacated.

For this death row case, a writ of habeas corpus was submitted to the court. So, it was not an appeal based on past courts’ actions or findings. The show was correct in saying the term translates to “produce the body.” If a writ of habeas corpus is granted, whoever is keeping someone, in most instances a prison officer, must “produce the body” to the court so the court can decide if this person’s rights were encroached upon. In other words, a writ of habeas corpus is a petition asking the court to review whether the state has the authority to take action against an individual based on his constitutional rights and whether those rights were violated, causing him to be incarcerated.

In this case, it can be argued that there was a violation of the defendant’s right to due process. Was the court acting fairly when it was informed of the witness lying on the stand and did nothing about it? No, it wasn’t fair, and the lie resulted in this man being denied his liberty, which is a right granted to us by the 14th Amendment.

After the hearing is granted in this case, the team has to prove that the state doesn’t have the authority to keep this man locked up. They argue perjury occurred, and as a result, an innocent man went to prison. Luckily for Annalise, despite their irritation, the justices agree that based on the evidence produced in the hearing, the star witness likely wasn’t telling the truth on the stand. At the end of the day, Annalise and her team save an innocent man from being executed.

Back to the Lila case: Annalise is going to get caught. It’s only a matter of time. Destroying evidence and tampering with evidence are both things that will get her disbarred and likely criminally charged. This actually does happen in the real world. There was a case in Seattle where a former prosecutor helped her husband cover up multiple rapes, so this idea of protecting your spouse to an extent that is criminal is, unfortunately, not too far-fetched.

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