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Law professor uses 'The Wire' to bring study of criminal law to life

  • The Wire: Crime, Law and Policy
    The Wire: Crime, Law and Policy  Professor Adam Gershowitz has written a casebook, "The Wire: Crime, Law and Policy," to accompany his course that uses the hit series The Wire as a springboard to discuss some of the most pressing issues in criminal law.  Photo by David F. Morrill
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At the start of the coming spring term, certain students of Professor Adam Gershowitz at William & Mary will prepare for their first day of class with some unusually pleasant homework: watching the first two seasons of HBO’s The Wire. Gershowitz will offer a course of his own design that uses the hit series as a springboard to discuss some of the most pressing issues in criminal law.

"There are so many issues that we talk about in criminal law and procedure courses — wiretapping, warrantless searches, interrogations, sentencing decisions, conspiracy, drug possession, and drug distribution, to name just a few — that are vividly and realistically portrayed in the series,” Gershowitz says.

Over the course of 60 episodes from 2002 to 2008, The Wire depicted Baltimore law enforcement in heated battle with the local drug trade. Gershowitz praises the show’s realism, saying, “the series does a tremendous job of showing the issues in a realistic and vivid way. Sometimes, the reality is very disappointing and depressing and the show does not shy away from that.”

Gershowitz has authored a casebook, The Wire: Crime, Law and Policy (Carolina Academic Press, 2013), to accompany the course. The text goes beyond the basic law of drug possession, search and seizure and, of course, wiretapping to consider broader questions, such as whether the police actually follow the Supreme Court’s search and seizure and confession rules. The course also examines societal issues such as crime statistic manipulation, the use of informants and media influence on policing, with an aim to understand the real world in which the criminal law operates.

Gershowitz says that a course based in pop culture helps put students in touch with the reality of the law.

“I think the course is very engaging because it is so visual and students become really invested in the characters,” he says. “In a regular criminal procedure course, we cover cases about coercive interrogations and other aggressive police tactics. But it resonates differently when it is visually in front of you on a screen. And it resonates even more when you feel like you know the characters and can put yourself in their shoes.”

Gershowitz received a predictably positive response from students when he offered the course in the past, both at William & Mary and at the University of Houston, and looks forward to teaching it again this spring. The course and book also recently caught the attention of The ABA Journal.

Gershowitz has taught at William & Mary Law School since 2012 and specializes in criminal law and criminal procedure.