Teaching with stories from popular culture offers an alternative to reported cases and law and criminal justice textbooks. There are several reasons why stories, especially those told in popular legal culture, should occupy a central spot in the classroom.

Popular culture texts generally offer stories that are narrated as they occur in real life, that is to say, they have not been cleaned up by lawyers, judges, casebook authors, or law professors. Students, through class discussions and activities, can do the legal analysis. In this sense, they offer an additional advantage over traditional judicial decisions and other legal texts published on casebooks and textbooks that are already processed and devoid of nonlegal issues.

There are no empirical studies that suggest that teaching with printbased cases is the best or most effective way for students to leam law, criminal justice, or any other academic or professional discipline. Neither is there evidence that teaching law nor criminal justice from lectures based on textbooks helps students leam deeply. Furthermore, there are no data that demonstrate that teaching with cases or textbook leads to better results than when students leam with popular culture stories and other media texts.


Popular culture can serve as sources for students to analyze cases, situations, and problems from legal and criminal justice perspectives. There are several possibilities to work with popular culture texts as sources in the classroom. One activity that has been tried in the law school classroom and that has been reported in the teaching and learning literature is the analysis of scenes from popular TV shows and commercial motion pictures whose main theme is not a legal or police one, but which offer situations that may have legal or criminal justice consequences and which may be analyzed from legal and criminal justice perspectives.

As a way of illustration, when you want your students to analyze the crime of stalking, you can show some scenes from several films and TV shows that depict situations that constitute the crime of stalking as well as situations that resemble the crime but that lack some elements of the offence. For example, in Family's episode entitled Someone’s Watching (1977, S2 E 15), Nancy Lawrence, an attractive law school student and single mother, feels that someone is following her, observing what she does all the time. She receives unexpected presents for herself and for her baby from an overzealous secret admirer. If she needs something, whether it is herbs for a meal or notes for her law school class she has missed, he will have them delivered to her. If he does not like what Nancy wears, he gives her something more conservative to wear. Nancy gets terrified. She fears for her life and her baby’s life. She goes to the police with her dad, an experienced attorney, and her mother. But the police will not do anything, which makes Nancy feel even more vulnerable. Students can discuss whether Nancy’s secret admirer committed the crime of stalking in California.[1] Students can also discuss whether his actions would constitute stalking in other North American jurisdictions that do not follow the California model such as New York or Canada (Gregson, 1998). This episode lends itself for expanding strictly legal discussions and introducing criminological considerations. For example, students can learn about the criminological categories of stalkers. Students can debate whether Nancy’s admirer is a love obsession stalker and whether he also presents aspects of an erotomaniac stalker, as he may believe that he and Nancy are having a relationship (Casper Martinez, 2000). This episode can be complemented with several other clips from other TV shows and films dealing with stalkers. For example, in There’s Something About Mary (Farrelly and Fanelly, 1998) Ted, who 13 years after graduation from high school still has a crush on—and probably even an obsession with—Maiy hires a private investigator, Pat Healy to track her down. Healy follows Mary everywhere. He spies on her and eavesdrops on her conversations with her friends and family. He even makes contact with her.

Songs can also be used to analyze stories and events from a legal perspective. A popular culture song that deals with stalking is Every' Breath You Take written by Sting and performed by The Police. The song tells the story of a stalker who is watching “every breath you take, every move you make, every bond you break, every step you take.”

Another example to illustrate how to work with popular culture texts as sources for leanring law and criminal justice is to use clips depicting trials from movies and TV shows. If, for example, you want students to leant about objections in trials, you can show some scenes for students to make objections while they watch the testimony of witnesses and the lawyers’ examination and cross-examination of witnesses. You can divide the class in three groups. One group will be the defense lawyers, the other one will play the role of the prosecutor, and the third group will be the judge. You play the selected trial scenes and ask the first two groups of students to object at any time there are grounds for objections according to their roles. Apart from objecting, they have to state the grounds for the objection. The stirdents playing the judge have to rule on the objection. For example, My Cousin Vinny (Lynn, 1992), like most courtroom movies, is plagued with objections and even more with grounds for objections not raised in court. This activity can also be used for the analysis of any aspect of the trial. As a way of illustration, you can show' a trial up to the closing arguments, and ask students to prepare and present the closing arguments. Then you can show' the closing arguments from the film or TV show' and compare them to the ones presented by the students.

a relationship—any relationship—that they settle for negative relationships. Erotomaniacs delude themselves into believing that they already have a relationship with the objects of their obsession. Erotomania stalking cases often draw public attention because the target is usually a public figure or celebrity.

Another example to illustrate the way to teach with popular culture texts is to analyze constitutional and legal breaches in police investigation. For example, you can screen scenes from a film showing a police officer investigating a crime. Then, you can ask students to raise constitutional and legal challenges to police conduct, hi this respect, you can show scenes from Dirty' Harry (Siegel, 1971), where San Francisco Police Inspector “Dirty” Hany Callahan commits a series of police bnitality acts in order to arrest a serial killer, including searching the suspect’s home without a warrant, seizing his rifle, denying the suspect his right to seek legal counsel, and even torturing the suspect. Students can discuss whether a search warrant is needed and, if so, what legal consequences Dirty Hany's conduct triggers off. In an advanced class, students can watch Charlie Chan’s Chance (Blystone, 1932). Charlie Chan investigates the murder of Sir Lionel Grey, a former head of Scotland Yard, who is killed in New York. The investigation involves gathering evidence in both the United States and England. Students can discuss bilateral, regional, and multilateral international agreements dealing with law enforcement and judicial assistance obligations in the investigation and prosecution of crimes with an international component. Students can do research about these agreements and can identify the benefits of these agreements for law enforcement. They can also identify the disadvantages of the existing framework that is applicable to Sir Lionel Grey’s case. Students can propose the basis for law reform in the area so that police officers can have more rights and do a better job in investigating in this case and similar cases with international connections and effects.

hr a criminal justice class, you can ask students to identify the theoretical criminal justice models that criminal justice agents, victims, and perpetrators from films and TV shows adhere to. Criminal justice models are theoretical frameworks to think about the criminal justice system. Most people, including many seasoned professionals, are unaware of their allegiance to one of these theoretical models, but their actions invariably align with one of the models. As a way of illustration, in 10 To Midnight (Thompson, 1983) Detective Leo Kessler a seasoned police officer, plants evidence to help convict a serial killer. The defense lawyer presses his assistant, Detective Paul McAnn, who knows about Kessler’s actions and agrees to testify against Kessler. This results in the exclusion of the false evidence from the trial. Stirdents need to identify which criminal justice model each of the criminal justice agents adheres to. Students can also discuss Detective Kessler’s actions and the legal consequences of planted evidence.

An interesting activity to teach the critiques to the eyewitness testimony and the unreliability of memory, problems of perception, and inaccuracy of crime perpetrators is to show a crime and ask students to pretend to give testimony about what they just saw. For example, you can show scenes from Home Alone (Columbus, 1990) where Hany and Marv burglarized vacant houses. Students have to identify what is missing from the houses, and any other information that they consider relevant for the investigation of the crime. Then, you can show the scenes again; and they can compare what they remembered with what actually happened, which will lead them to recognize the fragility of eyewitness testimony.

Another activity for a criminal justice class involves the analysis of crime scene investigations. You can show a film or TV show depicting a crime and the process followed by police officers in the scene of the crime. Then, you can ask students to analyze the way the investigation is conducted. Students can focus on whether the search for and collection of evidence are done according to procedure, whether the collection of evidence disturbs the crime scene and does not interfere with other evidence. Students can also focus on whether the police appropriately secure the crime scene, walks through the crime scene to get the big picture of the scene, and whether police officers formulate initial theories based on their visual examination of the crime scene. You can also ask students to examine whether the police officers neglect to collect some pieces of evidence and whether the documentation of the collected evidence is done appropriately.


Academic disciplines tell stories: a general, foundational stoiy that attracts and unites all members of the discipline and innumerable specific stories that apply and expand on the foundational stoiy

Law tells the stoiy that it is possible to harmoniously regulate human behavior through laws and that professional third parties (judges) can enforce the law objectively and restore justice whenever someone breaches the law. Criminal justice tells the stories of police, the courts, and prisons.

Stories and storytelling permeate the practice of law and criminal justice. Clients, witnesses, police officers, prosecutors, lawyers, and judges tell stories. The paradigmatic stoiy is the judicial case, where judges narrate the stoiy of a dispute. Cases tell stories that deal with every single aspect of human life, including the most essential aspects of life. All cases narrate stories in dramatic ways and follow a structure that is not too dissimilar from the narrative structure of popular culture texts: setup (facts of the case), conflict (identification of legal issue, applicable rule, and legal analysis), and resolution (decision).

There is an abundance of popular culture stories such as films, TV shows, songs, and novels focused on law, lawyers, and the legal and criminal justice systems, wliich gave rise to the genre of popular legal culture. Its academic analysis, in turn, gave rise to the field of law' and popular culture, which is concerned with the mutual influence that each exercises over the other. Despite the popularity of popular legal culture and the increasing importance of law' and popular culture, popular culture texts are not used as sources for the study of law' or criminal justice, which, in North America, is still based almost exclusively on the analysis of cases and criminal justice textbooks, respectively.

Teaching law' and criminal justice with stories from popular culture constitutes a sound pedagogical alternative to reported cases and textbooks, because they can greatly motivate students while at the same time they offer a wide array of diverse stories for students to examine substantive aspects of the legal and criminal justice disciplines.

The next chapter will examine the importance of teaching media literacy in the law' and criminal justice classrooms. I will focus the discussion on the interpretation and production of popular culture and other media texts.


  • academic disciplines
  • stories
  • storytelling
  • teaching with stories
  • law and popular culture
  • court cases

  • [1] ’California Penal Code 646.9. 2 The traditional classification of stalkers includes: (1) simple obsession, (2) love obsession, and (3) erotomania. Simple obsession stalking is usually an extension of a previous pattern of domestic violence and psychological abuse. Stalkers in tins category try to re-establish a relationship with their former spouses or partners. When victims attempt to remove themselves from such controlling situations, stalkers often feel that their power and self-worth have been taken from them. In such cases, stalkers will often take drastic steps to restore personal self-esteem. It is when stalkers reach this desperate level that they may feel they have nothing to lose and become most volatile. Love obsession stalkers seek to establish a personal relationship with the object of their obsession—contrary to the wishes of then victims. Love obsession stalkers and victims are casual acquaintances (neighbors, coworkers) or even complete strangers (fan celebrity). These stalkers seek to raise their own self-esteem by associatmg with those whom they hold in high regal’d. Love obsession stalkers become so focused on establishing a personal relationship with their victims that they often invent detailed fantasies of a nonexistent relationship. They literally script the relationship as if it were a Hollywood movie. However, when victims choose not to participate m the stalker’s imagined passion film, the stalker may try to force victims into assigned roles. Often, love obsession stalkers are so desperate to establish
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