Law question (Perry Mason)

I’ve been watching the old 50s series of Perry Mason starring Raymond Burr. I noticed that Mason and the prosecutor often object thus:

Objection, Your Honor! Incompetent, irrelevant and immaterial!

I’ve never heard these grounds for an objection on any other law show. How, for example, can you claim that a question is incompetent? That doesn’t seem a legal point. But I know that the author Erle Stanley Gardner was a lawyer. Is, or was, this a common objection in California courts?

I had wondered about that myself. I foundreferences such as this:

It is still not clear to me if ‘incompetent’ is referring to the competence of the attorney, IOW amateurish, or the testimony of a witness such as one underage or not in their right mind.

Incompetent is referring to the competence of the witness. If, for instance, you put somebody on the stand and ask them about nuclear physics without first proving that they’re a nuclear physicist, I could object that the witness is 'incompetent"; that you haven’t shown that the witness is qualified to talk about nuclear physics.

When Burger said it to Mason, it was usually, “Incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial, and not proper cross-examination!”

Now I know where the Johnny Cochran -type lawyer on Seinfeld got his schtick: “Outrageous, fallacious, salacious”! That sort of thing will enliven a boring court procedure!!

One dynamic that’s in play is the concept of making your record.

When a litigant appeals an adverse verdict, he must typically identify an error–during trial, says the appeal, the court committed such-and-so error, which undermined my right to a fair trial. If this error had never happened, I never would have been convicted.

But that opens up the possibility of gaming the system: when an error happens, remain quiet. If you’re acquitted, then you’re fine; if you’re convicted, complain on appeal about the heinous error that cost you your freedom.

To combat this play, the general rule is that you cannot complain on appeal about a trial error unless you objected to the error at trial, with enough specificity that the trial judge has an opportunity to intelligently rule on your complaint, correct the error and limit any prejudice you might suffer. This is why you must generally offer the grounds for an objection.

So under that rule, “gaming the system,” becomes objecting on a wide range of grounds that are even slightly defensible. At least you made your record, and if you need to appeal on the point, no one can say that your appeal is barred by Rule 5A:18, so suck it.

Always with the complex legalese. :slight_smile:



It’s been many years since I binge watched Perry Mason, but I seem to remember that in the first season, the legal proceedings appeared (to me — IANAL, but IANAI, either) much more authentic than what one usually encounters on television. My SO at the time, a huge fan of the novels, said those scripts were based, at least to some extent, on specific books. Starting with season 2, the TV writers went off on their own, and the legal procedures quickly went downhill.

Most TV lawyer shows cut the pro forma legalese down to a minimum, unless a special point is being made. A lawyer will object without saying the reason for the objection.

Perry Mason seems odd today because it did the legalese correctly and in full. That was a selling point. It followed Gardner’s rep from the early books, made because even then he was the only one to do trials with full detail. The verisimilitude of being in an actual court was greater with him than anyone else. The books appear oddly formal today, now that we’re used to a more casual world.

It worked great. People forget how incredibly popular the Mason books were. A list of million-selling mystery paperbacks, from 1965, showed 69 Perry Mason titles; every other mystery writer in the world combined also had 69. But Gardner still won because he had another 13 titles there under his A. A. Fair pseudonym, openly acknowledged by that time.

“Incompetent, irrelevant and immaterial” is a cover-the-waterfront objection, discussed in the Encyclopedia of Evidence on pp. 71 - 73, The encyclopedia, which is from 1906, says some courts consider it too vague to use. I don’t know if there are jurisdictions where this is still a commonly used objection. “Incompetent evidence” is evidence that is for any reason inadmissible.

At least in this jurisdiction, and (I understand) in federal courts, the trend is to require more specific objections nowadays precisely to avoid this sort of “throw everything at the wall and hope something sticks later” objection.

Burger often followed that with “Counselor is on another of his well-known fishing expeditions”, in a sneering voice.

I recently read “The 16th rail” on Arthur Koehler, the expert whose testimony on the ladder left at the Lindbergh home matched the wood in Hauptmann’s home was a key factor in getting a conviction. There were a few times he was consulted on Perry Mason scripts. Of course the court room confessions by an unsuspected witness do not happen in real life

It should have been used as an objection to The Chewbacca Defense.

I really like the show. There was one episode where Perry defended a friend of Burger’s. Burger stepped down because of the conflict of interest and let another prosecutor take over. There were a couple of asides of him calling the fill-in DA an idiot for using his own typical courtroom antics.

It was done for the sake of the TV show, but it’s also fun to watch Perry ask for permission to continue his improper line of questioning and the judge just says “Sure, go ahead.”

In an actual trial a lawyer may object on “352 grounds,” referring to the section of the California Evidence Code which allows for evidence to be rejected on ‘prejudicial’ grounds.

I’ve never heard the three terms used together. Separately “incompetent” evidence is simply a broad term which means that the evidence should be inadmissible for any of the reasons for which evidence is inadmissible. The rules require more specificity.

“Irrelevant” evidence is just that. It has no nexus to the ultimate fact at hand and is either wasting time or too prejudicial to your client.

AFAIK, “immaterial” is the same as irrelevant.

Not quite. Materiality is a subset of relevancy, probative value being the other aspect. But any number of lawyers and judges conflate the two and I have yet to see or hear of a scenario when the distinction makes any difference.

Except when dissecting a perjury indictment, there’s very little effect to distinguish materiality from relevance.

A little OT, but- in the entire history of jurisprudence, has a defense attorney ever tricked a witness on the stand into admitting that he, in fact, was the real murderer?

The Wikipedia article on “Perry Mason moments” doesn’t list any such incidents. In real life, almost everything that happens in a criminal (or any) trial is predictable.