Georgetown Law Presents…”The Night Of”

November 17, 2016

Georgetown Law professors are of course the experts when it comes to discussing the presumption of innocence, prosecutorial ethics, reasonable doubt and more. But they got some able assistance from the entertainment world on Thursday, November 10 — when the creators of the HBO series “The Night Of” joined Dean William M. Treanor and four members of the faculty in Hart Auditorium to discuss the legal and policy issues presented by the show.

Steve Zaillain, who won an Academy Award in 1994 for writing “Schindler’s List,” and Richard Price, whose credits include an Oscar nomination for the “The Color of Money,” joined Professors Abbe Smith, Paul Butler, Allegra McLeod and Sherally Munshi for a discussion on art imitating life. The professors weighed in with their “real-world” thoughts following a screening of clips from the show.

The event, attended by hundreds of Law Center alumni, was orchestrated by Kary Antholis (L’89), president of HBO Miniseries, and sponsored by the Office of Alumni Affairs. One day earlier, the writers had been joined by Smith, Butler, Professor Kris Henning and Justin Hansford (L’07) for a similar presentation at HBO headquarters in New York.

“Whether you’ve seen the series or not, you are in for a treat,” said Director of Alumni Affairs Matt Calise at the beginning of the night. “We will get you up to speed…with only a few spoilers.”

“The Night Of” tells the story of a murder in New York City, following police proceedings, examining the criminal justice system, and showing the conditions and culture of Rikers Island, the city’s jail complex. “If you look at the films I’ve done — “Awakenings” or “Schindler’s List” — I was not an expert on either of those subjects when I started…but I did learn something, and I was interested in the justice system,” said Zaillain, noting that “The Night Of” is based on a BBC show called “Criminal Justice.” “I didn’t really know where it was going to take us, when we adapted the story here.”

Zaillain and Price said that for the American version, the character of the young British cab driver in London was changed to a young Pakistani-American cab driver in New York, raising issues with respect to the U.S. criminal justice system and race that changed the tenor of the story. “All hell is going to break loose in a way that would not break loose for a white kid,” Zaillain said.

Asking the Experts

Professor Abbe Smith, director of Georgetown Law’s Criminal Defense and Prisoner Advocacy Clinic, spoke of the devastating effects that the long wait times have on a person awaiting trial. “There are actually litigations going on…to try to deal with the extraordinarily cruel pretrial detention hearings and repeated court appearances,” Smith noted. “For people who are not detained, it wreaks havoc…they lose jobs…you have to arrange for trial care and you are anxious. New York kind of is in a class of its own when it comes to those long waits, more than any other cities.”

On the subject of prosecutorial ethics, Professor Paul Butler noted that he became a prosecutor wanting to change the system — but the system ended up changing him. “Lawyers are competitive, we’re ambitious, and the way that you rise in a prosecutor’s office is to lock up as many people as you can,” he said.

Professor Sherally Munshi noted that one of the most haunting things about the series is that the character of Naz eventually becomes what he is accused of being at the outset. “The series…brilliantly explores the way in which our modern institutions have a dehumanizing effect,” she said.

Professor Allegra McLeod, whose work has addressed prison abolition, noted that “The Night Of” also exposes the false illusions that many Americans hold about the criminal process and its promises of delivering security. “One of the most important contributions…is the way it subtly exposes many of these false illusions, so that we are able to begin to see how the criminal process actually operates,” McLeod said. “We are able to see it for what it is, rather than being soothed by the fantasy that criminal law enforcement delivers security, or delivers justice.”