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Twenty Seasons of Law And Order by the Numbers

There are 456 episodes of Law and Order, and for the past two years Overthinking It has been crowdsourcing a list of how each one ended.

Image: Joe Gratz

Everybody knows what this sound means:

It’s time for cops and lawyers to come together, solve the crime and put the bad guy away, leaving us questioning our own morality, and the power of the justice system. There are 456 episodes of Law and Order, and for the past two years Overthinking It has been crowdsourcing a list of how each one ended.

The possible endings go like this, from least to most common: other, hung jury, mistrial, defendant killed or fled, charges dismissed, not guilty, implied win, plea bargain, guilty. The vast majority of episodes ended with the last two: plea bargain, or guilty. Overthinking It, writes:

Over the entire run of the show, more than a third of all the episodes ended in Guilty verdicts, while another third ended in plea bargains. 80% of episodes ended in solid wins: either Guilty verdicts, plea bargains, or implied victories. That’s not too shabby, considering that the actual NYPD has a homicide clearance rate of about 50%. (Although you have to figure Law & Order isn’t meant to represent every case these detectives investigated; in 20 seasons, I don’t think there was a single murder that didn’t result in an arrest.)

It might shock you that Law and Order doesn’t really line up with real life. What about other ways at looking at the outcome?

et’s turn to a different metric: the Success Rate. Success Rate is ALMOST the same as Guilty + Plea + Implied Win, but not quite. Sometimes in Law & Order there are wins that feel like losses and losses that feel like wins. Success Rate is basically a measure of whether the D.A. is satisfied with the outcome (irregardless of how the outcomes appears to the public). For instance, look at the finale of season 18, “Excalibur.” In order to convict the murderer, Jack McCoy needs the governor to testify, which would reveal that he has a thing for prostitutes. The governor engineers a plea bargain, thus avoiding the sex scandal. In this case, the outcome may be Plea Bargain, but it’s definitely not a success; McCoy’s case was completely derailed.

Well the success rate was sporadic. Season 4 had under 60% success, while season 17 it was up over 95%. Interestingly, ratings in season 17 hit an all time low. Overthinking It puts it this way: “In other words, the 95% Success Rate was the Law & Order equivalent of Fonzie jumping the shark.”

You can download the full spreadsheet and make your own graphics here.

More from Smithsonian.com:

C.S.I. Smithsonian on Forensic Fridays
Solving a 17th-Century Crime

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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