‘Ace Attorney’ in the real world

May 22, 2019, 12:30 a.m.

Sometimes, the best of products come from the most seemingly mundane ideas, and this is true of “Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.”

While I must wonder how any sane mind thought of creating a video game series about defense attorneys, we got something incredible out of the phenomenon. With its over-the-top, cartoonish and dramatized take on the courtroom, the “Ace Attorney” series has a special place in my heart. We would probably see a larger number of lawyers if the real courtroom was anywhere near its heart-pounding, plot-twisting and wig-hurling equivalent. This raises a question, however, about how the fictionalized law of “Ace Attorney” compares to the real world.

Okay, maybe that’s not the first question that occurs to most fans — nobody watches “Spongebob Squarepants” and contemplates its questionable likeness to marine biology — but it was raised nevertheless by video game company Bandai Namco. They reached out to us here at The Daily, and I, a not-so-ace attorney but inquisitive enough nerd, took the case. Now, aided by my resident “Ace Attorney” expert Mishaela Robison and Stanford University Law School lecturer Michael Romano, we shall find the answers to this interesting quandary. Well … I think it is interesting, anyway!

Of course, writing this article does not grant me with a law degree, so in order to process an otherwise notoriously overwhelming field, I have singled out the most eye-catching elements of “Ace Attorney” law:

1. Statute of limitations (seven years for murder?)

A “statute of limitations,” while seeming like a random mesh of formal-sounding words, refers to the timespan after which a committed crime cannot be prosecuted. Say, you stole a gum ball from a candy store when you were 10, but the statute of limitations for gum ball-stealing is five years. That would mean, as a college student, you cannot be tried and charged for the crime of stealing that specific gum ball — you are off the hook, you felon.

In the world of “Ace Attorney,” the statute of limitations for murder is seven years, which is shockingly low when you stop to think about it. That means that, if you murdered someone at the first screening of “Despicable Me,” you could not be charged in the present day. Only the minions would know what you’ve done.

Surprisingly, here in the United States, the most common statute of limitations is even shorter: five years. But before you get your pickaxes and your arsenic ready, dear reader, statutes of limitations can vary, and for murder there is no time limit. But, as “Ace Attorney” is a Japanese game series, I decided to look into Japanese law, potentially putting myself on some FBI watchlist in the process. (In hindsight, googling “what is the statute of limitations for murder” several times throughout the last week is not a good look for me.)

In Japan, the general statute of limitations is 15 years, but for capital crimes — like murder — it is extended to 30. So, seven years still remains, quite fortunately, an “Ace Attorney” quirk.

2. Disappearing defendants

This is a fun one. Imagine you, a typical defense lawyer, are going to court, dressing in your finest suit and eating a bagel. All things considered, it is a typical day. But suddenly, the bailiff comes barging in: “Hey!” the bailiff shouts. “Where is the defendant!?”

Such are the life and times of Pheonix Wright, Apollo Justice and other “Ace Attorney” protagonists. Occasionally, the defendant just skedaddles, be it through magic tricks, wandering off, staging their own kidnapping or simply just barging out of the building, “Die Hard”-style. In most of these cases, the event is merely shrugged off as a minor inconvenience as the court goes on as usual, with maybe a few extra weeks of jailtime tacked onto the charges.

In practice, this is not too far from the truth — at least, it’s not as far as I thought it was. There are procedures in place to ensure court can go on without the defendant, as the defendant is not necessarily expected to testify or provide quirky character exchanges as they do in the video game-world. The consequences, however, are much more severe: A warrant would be issued for the missing defendant’s arrest, as not attending your trial is considered a fairly hefty crime on its own. In other words, I wouldn’t advise it — we only offer the most practical of advice here at The Stanford Daily.

3. Defense attorney claiming their defendant is guilty

Certainly, a defense attorney suddenly turning away from the suspect and claiming that “They are, in fact, guilty” would be fascinating, to say the least. Though, fortunately for the defendant — and unfortunately for drama junkies like me — this cannot happen. Legally, anyways.

Whether our feisty lawyer is motivated by justice or if they are simply in pursuit of the truth, a defense attorney speaking from the heart and outing their guilty client is not heroic in the eyes of the legal system. Very rarely do defense attorneys, for starters, even inquire if their clients did the crime; it is not their main concern. The attorney must simply make the best case for their client’s innocence (or, if the defendant pleads guilty, make a good case for their lightened sentence) regardless of their personal opinion.

Compare that to “Ace Attorney,” in which our heroes often never take a case without asking whether or not their client did it; having a spiritual magatama that supernaturally detects whether or not somebody is lying helps with that. In the games, the verdict-oriented lawyer is painted with a nefarious lens.

Reality runs on a different set of logic. It is not the attorney’s job to decide the client’s fate; that responsibility goes to the judge and jury. Such a heel-turn would be met with heavy consequences for the defense attorney to say the least.

4. When the courtroom gets personal

In order to increase stakes, the “Ace Attorney” protagonists often find themselves in a case personally relevant to them. Sometimes a close friend is the victim, other times a companion is framed — if you’re lucky, you could be settling a traumatic childhood event, too. Regardless, this is the extra incentive to get these underdog lawyers in the game.

From an entertainment point of view, it is a romantic prospect, but this is arguably the greatest departure from real law. Having a personal stake in the game could provide the attorney a vast abundance of distraction and, most frighteningly, spawn a conflict of interest. To clarify, a conflict of interest refers to any occasion in which a party gains personal benefit from the outcomes and proceedings of the courtroom; in a sense, the interior processes of the trial and the exterior interests of the attorney become incompatible. If that is the definition of the dreaded conflict of interest, getting your assistant/love interest/mentor/childhood friend/pet whale off the electric chair is the dictionary example!

To put it simply, we do not want our real-world attorneys bravely trotting onto the desk, claiming, Spartacus-style, that they will save the day. It is stylish, but real court is not a performance, nor is it entertaining (there are many law students who could vouch for that). The sheer horror that “Ace Attorney” characters are often put through proves that this dryness can be a good thing.

Still, it illuminates one of the charms of “Ace Attorney” as well: There is always something inspiring about an underdog in a suit doing their best to protect some unfortunate soul. While real court does not enlist knights, this game series allows you to don the armor in a setting more familiar than ancient kingdoms or haunted ghost ships. This is something that all of us are drawn to.

Contact Mark York at mdyorkjr ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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