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Behind the Scenes by real justice producer Ben Gale

British producer Ben Gale spent ten months in Boston shooting hundreds of hours of footage inside the city's criminal courts. The result: two television series on the criminal justice system which are airing separately in Britain and the US. The British version is a ten-part series of half-hour programs called "Boston Law." The American version is a two-and-a-half hour FRONTLINE series, "Real Justice," by producer Ben Loeterman.

(read Ben Loeterman's producer's notebook)

The brief for "Boston DA" -- the working title for FRONTLINE's two-part "Real Justice" series -- was to get beyond the stereotypical sound bite coverage of criminal justice, usually seen in the form of a lawyer reading a well-prepared statement from the front steps of a court house.

We wanted to understand how the system works on a day-in, day-out basis, as opposed to the occasional high-profile cases -- O.J., William Kennedy Smith, Louise Woodward -- that the media latches onto. We wanted to understand the system better by getting closer to the people who work within it.

Why we came to Boston

I was already well-versed in the joys -- and frustrations -- of filming court cases. In the early 1990s, I made a series called "The Trial" about the criminal justice process in Scotland. It was the first time cameras had been allowed to film trials in the UK and we spent nine months negotiating the rules before we were even allowed into the courtroom with a camera.

We had always wanted to build on that experience and make a similar series about the criminal justice process in America. Our decision on location was based on a number of factors. First we needed a state that allowed cameras in the courtroom. Massachusetts filming guidelines are framed in a way that is very favorable to the presence of cameras. A defendant must show 'serious risk of prejudice' for the camera to be excluded, not impossible if the footage was being shown nightly on the news but much harder to prove if the footage is being screened at a later date -- as we were planning to do.

Second, we needed the support of a local DA's office. When we approached Ralph Martin's office in Boston the immediate response was "Yes, we'd be interested, please tell us more about what would be involved." Those two factors moved Boston straight to the top of our short, short list.

And finally, we wanted a city which offered us a sense of place -- somewhere the audience, particularly the British audience, would be able to recognize and identify.

the serious work begins...

In July 1999 we began speaking to every assistant district attorney -- about 140 in all -- on a unit-by-unit basis. These discussions ranged from the modus operandi of some of Boston's more vicious criminals to an assessment of the Boston Red Sox chances of making the playoffs. In other words, while we were looking for busy areas and DA's who we thought would work well on film, we were also trying to get a feel for the motivations and passions of those working in the DA's office and the justice system as a whole.

We met with the presiding judges of all the courts where we hoped to film, as well as the cream of Boston's defense bar, taking recommendations from each lawyer as to who they would most like to be defended by, should they ever get into trouble. (This question was inspired by my mother, a lawyer, who would always be able to tell me who she was most likely to call on to defend me, if I ever needed defending in court!)

The Boston Police Department gave us permission to film officers at work on the streets and behind the scenes preparing cases with the DA's office. One of the most important structural lessons I've learned is the pivotal nature of the relationship between the police and DA's office. Getting the police cooperation made an enormous difference to the project, giving a much truer sense of the system as a whole. It meant we weren't just confined to the courtroom but could film the all-important discussions that take place in the corridors and precincts around the courthouse. And in many ways, it's in the corridors around the courts where "justice" is carved up and deals done; the courtroom is just the rubber stamping of the back-room process.

our technique

Associate producer Leeanne Vinson and I shot virtually the whole series ourselves using the latest generation of digital video (DV) cameras. Shooting on DV is a liberating experience because you don't have to have a cameraman in tow, and you can hang out waiting for something to happen without having a major impact on the budget. It also meant we could shoot events at very short notice. This increased our flexibility and access to people and stories we were following. But we were careful to use documentary sound-recordists -- crucial in terms of maintaining craft standards and retaining a true documentary feel to the series.

deciding what and where to film

We knew Roxbury District Court had great energy and atmosphere. The judges were receptive to the idea of documentary filming and the courthouse was constantly busy with a wide range of interesting cases. I met Viktor Theiss on an early scouting trip and knew immediately he would be a great subject for filming. He has enormous energy and really cut a swath through his workload, which I knew would come across well on film.

Leeanne Vinson met Lisa Medeiros one day in Roxbury when she was hanging out with Vik, and Leeanne also knew quickly that Lisa would work well on film. We were struck by the rapport she has with her clients and the fact that she never talks down to anyone.

It took us a while convincing some of the more senior assistant DA's that what we were doing was different compared to the usual media coverage of courtrooms. Josh Wall, Dennis Collins and Eileen Murphy (featured in the second episode of "Real Justice") were more concerned about taking part than those involved with the District Courts. In part, I think this is because the stakes are so much higher at Superior Court. But it's also because prosecutors' contact with the media is usually when a sentence is being attacked as "too lenient." Most prosecutors we spoke to seemed to feel that the leniency attacks directed against them -- which are sometimes very personal -- came from reporters who didn't know why the sentence was lenient and because the real facts might detract from the impact of the headline. Those headlines in turn feed the need for lawmakers to be seen to take a tough stance on punishment or sentencing issues.

the overview

People often ask my impression of the system as a whole. I find this the hardest of all the questions about my Boston experiences, mainly because it's so difficult to characterize the system as a whole in a neat and digestible way.

In essence, the system seems to work -- most of the people seem to get what they want most of the time. But in an adversarial system, by its very nature, one side in every case is going to be disappointed. Often plea bargains result in both sides being disappointed. As Josh Wall says, "It's a system of compromise and you've got to make intelligent compromises [to keep the system moving]."

I think the integrity of Ralph Martin's office was extremely impressive. They have been at the center of a more focused and integrated approach to fighting serious crime that Boston has pioneered in recent years. Martin's office now works closely with both the Boston Police Department and the probation service on a stream of programs, like the Safe Neighborhood initiative. Furthermore, I think the standard of advocacy within the defense bar is vociferous, diligent and intelligent. The system is the sum of these parts. And in Boston it works particularly well because both defense and prosecution are well-funded and well-motivated.

Having said that, I do not believe the system is color blind -- the chances of young African-American men coming into contact with the criminal justice system are significantly higher than their white counterparts. From what I observed, if an African-American man in his mid-20's appears in Roxbury District Court with no criminal record it's assumed he must have given an alias, so unlikely would it be that someone in that neighborhood could get into their mid-20's without a record.

One African-American witness I spoke to shared an on-going joke within the African-American community: "After you call the police to an incident, you must shout loudly and quickly as the police arrive at the scene 'I'm the victim' otherwise you might end up getting arrested." The underlying point is a serious one. And, of course, the issue of racism goes much wider than the criminal justice system.

I also wondered why some people who ended up being treated as criminals weren't treated as patients - and again the answers are far more complicated than the question. Mental health within the criminal justice system is a huge issue, and a subject I'd love to explore further in the future.

But overall, despite these reservations, my impression was of a system working hard, under enormous workload pressure, to get the best for defendants and victims. Vik, Lisa, Judge Leary, Judge Russo, Dennis Collins, Roger Witkin, Jack Cunha,, Josh Wall, Mark Lee, Mike Collora, Eileen Murphy, Billy Doogan and the many other lawyers, police officers and judges we filmed during the course of our ten months in Boston reflect that commitment to 'doing the best' and fighting their corner tooth and nail which is, ultimately, the greatest strength of any system.

(for more read Ben Loeterman's producer's notebook)

Ben Gale specializes in long-form documentaries and spent the first eight years of his career working for the BBC Documentaries department, producing 'access' documentaries which went behind the scenes of various institutions.

One of the pioneers in using digital camcorders, Gale produced for BBC1 in 1997 the first 'digital' series, "Firefighters." The previous year he produced and directed three films in "Airport," the acclaimed popular-documentary BBC1 series and went on to produce a BBC1 series about life on an intensive care unit and "Lakesiders," chronicling how shopping malls have become an integral part of British life in the 1990s.

Working with Lion Television director Nick Catliff, Gale made two films for BBC2 for 'The Trial' series which was the first time cameras were allowed inside British courtrooms. He is currently living and working in San Francisco, producing a six-part series, "Law and Order," for The Learning Channel, and executive producing "Coroners," a six-part series for MSNBC.

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