The Dark Truth About Perry Mason

The HBO remake offers a grim depiction of Los Angeles—but it hardly keeps pace with the reality of police abuses in the era.

An image from the television show 'Perry Mason.'
Merrick Morton / HBO

I don’t blame you if you’re sick of gritty reboots. For years now, Hollywood has relied on a formula so successful that it’s become ubiquitous: Take a well-known character or franchise and reimagine it as darker, bloodier, and bleaker. Studios have done it so many times that when I heard HBO was rebooting Perry Mason, a show I used to sit down and watch with my grandma alongside Matlock and Murder She Wrote, I just rolled my eyes.

The Perry Mason reboot is certainly gritty. The season-long mystery involves the kidnapping and murder of a child. Its Depression-era Los Angeles is a gloomy place, populated by destitute World War I veterans, sensationalist reporters, street preachers ministering to the penniless, and heroin-addicted sex workers. The title character, played by Matthew Rhys, is an alcoholic divorcé who lives on a crumbling dairy farm and takes compromising photos of celebrities to make ends meet, until he is offered a gig as an investigator for a defense attorney. My colleague Sophie Gilbert found it too dark, “of a piece with other efforts to ‘update’ classic characters by amping up the edginess and the grotesquerie.”

What Perry Mason portrays in the most dismal light, however, is law enforcement and the criminal-justice system. The cops in Perry Mason are corrupt. They are racist. They take bribes, torture suspects, intentionally arrest the wrong people, falsify evidence, and are generally indifferent to solving crimes as long as they find someone to pin them on. L.A. District Attorney Maynard Barnes, played by Stephen Root, withholds evidence, employs coercion, and attempts to prosecute cases in the media by appealing to the public’s prejudices. He also betrays at least some awareness of police using extralegal methods. “If you walk out of that door and you think for one second that you are entering into a nation of laws, you are a complete fucking idiot,” Mason declares in the fifth episode.

This is a departure from earlier interpretations of Perry Mason, in which there were certainly incompetent or villainous authorities, but where tidy endings reinforced faith in the system rather than undermining it. At her confirmation hearing, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor credited Perry Mason with “igniting the passion that I had as being a prosecutor,” recalling an episode where a prosecutor informs Mason that he is not disappointed at his case falling apart because “My job as a prosecutor  is do justice and justice is served when a guilty man is convicted and when an innocent man is not.”

Many gritty reboots are sold as faithful returns to the original source material. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, which, as Kwame Opam points out, was arguably the catalyst for the widespread adoption of the gritty reboot, was marketed as a return to the Dark Knight’s roots. Perry Mason’s uncharacteristic bleakness may make viewers feel like this is another shortsighted attempt to draw in viewers with the misguided belief that darkness and sophistication are the same thing. Perry Mason is cleverer than that. The show has its flaws, and indulges some obvious fictional flourishes, but its portrayal of the authorities is rooted in the real history of American law enforcement. But you don’t have to take my word for it, because almost a century ago the federal government issued a report painting a damning portrait of law enforcement in California and the country at large.

President Herbert Hoover convened the Wickersham Commission in 1929 to study the effects of alcohol prohibition on law enforcement, about three years before Perry Mason takes place. One of the volumes of the commission’s report, “Lawlessness in Law Enforcement,” warned that “there is no more sinister sophism than that the end justifies the employment of illegal means to bring offenders to justice.”

The Wickersham Commission
An archival photo of the Wickersham Commission (Harris & Ewing Collection / Library of Congress)

The report, however, found copious evidence of such abuses, in particular the use of coercion to force suspects to confess, referred to colloquially as “the third degree.” The authors of the report concluded that “the third degree—that is the use of physical brutality, or other forms of cruelty, to obtain involuntary confessions or admissions—is widespread.”

“Physical brutality, illegal detention, and refusal to allow access of counsel to the prisoner is common. Even where the law requires prompt production of a prisoner before a magistrate, the police not infrequently delay doing so and employ the time in efforts to compel confession,” the report stated. “While third-degree methods are most frequently practiced by policemen and detectives, there are cases in which prosecuting officers and their assistants participate in them.” Although the report noted that third-degree methods “were particularly harsh in the case of Negroes,” it documented such practices being used against Americans of all backgrounds.

Some of the examples in the report are particularly evocative—they now read as prophetic. The report describes a sheriff in Clarksdale, Mississippi, waterboarding Black men suspected of murdering a white man in order to induce confessions. “They had the appellant down upon the floor, tied, and were administering the water cure, a species well known to the bench and bar of the country.” The report also described police in St. Louis using sleep deprivation as an interrogation technique. Both methods would later be employed after 9/11 as ways to torture terror suspects.

In Kenosha, Wisconsin, officers bragged about having “beaten a confession of murder out of a man,” saying, “What we ought to have done would be to kill him.” The report described police in New York City attempting to “explain many of these cases of visible injuries by saying that the prisoners fell downstairs, and occasionally the prisoners give the same stock explanation, afraid of police reprisal.” The report notes dryly that “prisoners frequently fall down stairs; officers do not.”

The examples in the report from 1930s Los Angeles bolster their portrayal in Perry Mason. In one episode, jail authorities step aside to allow the police to torture a suspect; the torture stops only when Della Street (played by Juliet Rylance), a member of the defense team, arrives to interrupt the interrogation. The Wickersham report describes a specific cell used to hold prisoners where “beatings take place” and “screams have been heard and complaints from prisoners are frequent.”

In one incident detailed by the report, a Finnish immigrant named Axel Hayrinen, who was known not to be a suspect, was nevertheless brought to an LAPD precinct and beaten for contempt of cop by an officer who stated, “So you don’t like the police; I’ll make you like the police.” Hayrinen was “covered with blood,” according to the report; “blood spurted on the wall, and his upper lip was cut clean through by a brass knuckle, so that four stitches were later taken.” He was allowed to clean himself up after saying, “I like the police now.”

The LAPD abuses collected in the report were first documented by the Constitutional Rights Committee of the Los Angeles Bar Association. The response to the committee’s work, the report notes, was that “the police resisted the movement for greater legality,” dismissing the group’s objections as support for criminals. “The police and their advocates made such statements as … ‘most of the sob sisters of both sexes, lawyers included, are more interested in the criminals than in the protection of law abiding citizens.’”

Prosecutors were not immune to this kind of corruption. Although the Wickersham report showed nothing as dramatic as Perry Mason’s Barnes threatening a defense attorney with prosecution unless he forced his client to cut a deal, it noted that prosecutorial misconduct was widespread. In one instance, prosecutors held suspects for 18 months without trial by gaming warrants; in another, they kept suspects confined by refusing to request the records that would have led to their release.

Barnes does fit the archetype of the overzealous prosecutor described in the report in one key respect: his attempt to use innuendo rather than evidence to convict the main suspect of kidnapping and murder. “No type of unfairness in prosecutions is so frequent as the injection of inadmissible evidence and evidence unsupported by oath,” the report says. “Another method frequently used for discrediting the defense is to argue purely impeaching testimony to the jury as if it were substantive evidence.” Similarly, the report documents how, like Barnes, prosecutors often tried to appeal to the prejudices of a jury. “In a California manslaughter case, the district attorney referred to the untruthfulness of Italians, and the necessity of keeping members of this race in order, and maintaining American customs.”

The report is sober on the prospects for reforming such abuses. “Statutes cannot cope with the third degree nor can police regulations. Without the will to enforce them, these become words upon a printed page,” the report reads. “The real remedy lies in the will of the community. If the community insists on higher standards in police, prosecutors and judges, the third degree will cease to be a systematic practice. But before the community can express its will it must know when, how, and to what extent these abuses are perpetrated.”

Prosecutors and cops aren’t the only ones who skirt the law in Perry Mason. The titular character and his allies frequently skirt or outright violate the law to obtain the necessary evidence or manipulate the legal process, an aspect of the narrative that only enhances the sense that justice is elusive in the American legal system. Toward the end of the season, the show depicts a classic “Perry Mason moment” when Mason appears to break the killer on the stand—but a clever twist deprives the viewers even of this anticipated satisfaction. There is a dash of hope in its portrayal of the legal system in the finale, but no more than that.

The gritty reboot is an overused Hollywood trope, but it’s popular for a reason. With Perry Mason at least, many of its bleak touches are bolstered by the history of American law enforcement. And if that feels disturbingly familiar in the era of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, it probably should.