"There's a speech in the movie," the movie's writer and director said, "where the judge says being on a jury is the highest thing you can do. It's the crown jewel of our {judicial} system. And so few {cases} ever get to that point."

A large number of those criminal cases, before they reach a jury, are settled by plea bargaining, and one such case, a fictitious robbery-assault case placed in Brooklyn, is the subject of "Criminal Justice," an HBO Showcase film airing this month. (The film debuted last Saturday and has airings Wednesday and Sept. 17, 23 and 28.)

Andy Wolk was moved to write the script after doing a tour of jury duty, and one of the piece's main characters is loosely based on his brother, Peter, a Legal Aid attorney in Brooklyn and technical advisor for the movie.

"I think that the major point the piece is trying to make," said Anthony LaPaglia, who plays a public defender, "is there's a lot of discrepancy in the legal system, in terms of who gets fair treatment and who doesn't get fair treatment.

"I think one of the things that the legal system is experiencing in this country at the moment is, because of the drug war, a lot of court cases are being rammed through the court system." Defendants are thus encouraged to enter plea bargain arrangements so "they don't clog up the court system, because it's already so clogged up with all these drug cases."

But despite the intent of the filmmakers, the movie makes other points more forcefully. The presumed object of a judicial proceeding -- truth -- is hard to nail down, whether trial or plea bargain is the hammer.

The cast, made up of a number of possible stars-on-the-rise, projects an interesting group of characters.

Rosie Perez, to be remembered from Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing," plays the film's principal victim, a 19-year-old prostitute and crack addict who is robbed at knife point in a crack house in the middle of the night. She is slashed across the face in a scene that is not for the squeamish.

From mug shots and in a line-up, she fingers the character played by Forest Whitaker, who portrayed Charlie Parker in "Bird." He's an ex-con, but still a sympathetic suspect: He lives with his mother and cares for his 3-year-old son. From the beginning, he maintains he's the wrong man.

LaPaglia, featured in "Betsy's Wedding," draws Whitaker as a client and has to explain the legal facts of life to him. There's only one witness against him, the victim, and with her background, she's not a terribly credible witness. On the other hand, Whitaker's character is no saint either, so who's a jury to believe?

Meanwhile, the prosecutor, played by Jennifer Grey from "Dirty Dancing," has a problem too. She has a client who obviously, in part, is lying to her.

Like other recent heavy dramas presented by HBO, there's no neat, happy ending to this one. "The movie doesn't resolve the issue," said Michael Apted, the film's executive producer who has "Coal Miner's Daughter" and "Gorillas in the Mist" to his credit. "The movie says that life goes on, and it looks like it's going to get worse and worse ...

"If the justice system's going to hemorrhage all over the place, which it looks as though it's doing, and the wrong people are going to be put away and the right people aren't going to be put away , then I think the strong feeling you get at the end of the movie is that something should be done ... that the criminal justice system is not functioning at all well."

But by the end of the movie, it's hard to tell whether the system has worked or not in this particular case. This film doesn't demonstrate clearly whether criminal justice has been administered or denied, and is anything but the final word on the pluses and minuses of plea bargaining.

The more overwhelming question posed by this film is to what degree defendants -- or even victims -- can be believed, by anyone. The viewer sits in on all the pertinent discussions between the accused and the accuser and the respective attorneys. But when it's over, we may still wonder about Whitaker's guilt or innocence.

As to the plea bargaining itself, the process in which a defendant pleads guilty to a reduced charge rather than risk a jury's guilty verdict to a more serious offense, it does impose gut-wrenching questions, especially if you view the options from the vantage point of an innocent defendant.

LaPaglia, an Australian who developed his American accent by watching Al Pacino movies, explains Whitaker's dilemma in compelling terms: He tells his client he can accept the prosecutor's plea offer and be out of jail in time to walk his child to kindergarten. Or he can go to trial, and if he's found guilty he will be out just in time to attend his son's high school graduation.