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'The Good Wife': Good Law? - Season 6, Episode 13

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By Christopher Coble, Esq. on March 02, 2015 3:15 PM

Did Colin Sweeney kill his wife? "The Good Wife" does a twist on "ripped-from-the-headlines" TV shows with extensive courtroom scenes from Sweeney's defamation lawsuit which morphs into yet another attempt at determining his guilt.

Here's what you need to know from last night's episode, entitled "Dark Money":

The Good Wife: Good Law?

Season 6, Episode 13
"Dark Money"

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Episode Recap (Spoiler Alert!):

While Alicia is chasing campaign money from a lecherous homophobe and Kalinda is shepherding Lemond Bishop's son home from school, Diane and Cary are prosecuting Sweeney's defamation lawsuit. Sweeney sued the makers of the TV show "Call It Murder" for an episode depicting Sweeney's alleged murder of his wife.

Unhappy with Diane and Cary's efforts, Sweeney unsuccessfully attempts to rope Alicia into the courtroom, although she does provide guidance that forces "Call It Murder" to settle the case.

Legal Roots:

Most of the legal action centers around Sweeney's defamation lawsuit, alleging the show's depiction of the alleged murder is false and injures his reputation. Sweeney points to the plummeting value of his company and his impending removal from the company's board as evidence of injury, and the first half of the trial features both sides arguing over whether the episode is actually about Sweeney himself. But when it comes to the falsity of the murder portrayal, that's where things get interesting.

A statement can only be defamatory if it is false. And when it appears that Diane and Cary have sufficiently demonstrated all of the other elements of a defamation claim, the TV show's defense attorney turns the case on its ear: She contends that Sweeney in fact killed his wife, and the show's portrayal of the act is true and thus can't be defamation.

Although three other trials failed to demonstrate Sweeney was responsible for his wife's death, he's not so lucky this time around. Only Alicia's keen eye (in spotting the TV show's use of Sweeney's Chum Hum website in multiple scenes) and Diane's threat of a disparagement lawsuit force a settlement, and Sweeney's guilt can remain unresolved.

Legal Fiction:

Sweeney's entire defamation trial takes place in front of a judge instead of a jury. While so-called "bench trials" aren't unheard of and can be fairly common for lesser criminal charges, it's unlikely that such a big case wouldn't have a jury trial. Still, the choice of a bench trial is the plaintiff's in a civil case, so perhaps Sweeney was trying to minimize the exposure of the "Call It Murder" episode by not allowing a jury to see it.

Legal Fact:

There are a lot of references to the burden of proof in "Dark Money," and the show pretty much gets them all correct. The burden of proof refers to two intertwined concepts: (1) which side in a case much prove an allegation, and (2) the level to which they must prove it. For example, in criminal cases, the burden is placed on the state to prove a defendant committed the alleged offense, and the proof must be beyond a reasonable doubt.

However, in civil cases like Sweeney's, the burden is initially on the plaintiff (Sweeney) who must prove the elements of a defamation claim by a "preponderance of the evidence." This is a lower standard, and generally means that the allegation is more likely to be true than not. (Notice, however, that the burden shifts to the defendants -- the "Call It Murder" producers -- to prove their allegation that Sweeney killed his wife and therefore the portrayal of the crime isn't false.)

Legal Babble:

Directed verdict: After the defense team finishes putting on their evidence that Sweeney did kill his wife, Diane and Cary ask for a directed verdict. This is a request, usually from the defendant, to end the trial early in his or her favor. Essentially, it argues that, after presenting all of their evidence, the other side failed to meet their burden of proof, and the case should be decided already.

The Verdict:

Overall, this was a legally solid "Good Wife" episode. We see a lot of the inside of a courtroom and the law was on point. I do have to wonder, though, why the writers felt comfortable with the homophobic campaign donor casually using the anti-gay "f" word slur on multiple occasions. I doubt they would ever use the N-word, no matter how reprehensible they're trying to make a character look.

What did you think of this week's episode of "The Good Wife"? Is the show guilty of making any legal mistakes? Check back here for more legal recaps of "The Good Wife," and send us a tweet at @FindLawConsumer with the hashtag #TheGoodWife.

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