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Allison Leotta

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SVU Pits Manhattan Against Suffolk County

Posted: 01/10/2013 12:36 pm

Confidential informants can be great sources for police, but also present challenges to their police handlers, especially if they're accused of crimes themselves. Tonight's episode, "Beautiful Frame," took that issue and ramped it up into a tight, twisty story that got a lot right.

Recap:

Pretty single mom Jessie gets ready for a date night and drives to her boyfriend Tommy's house (which -- note -- is in Suffolk County, outside of our SVU's warm and happy jurisdiction). Instead of dinner and movie, we jump to a 911 operator getting two calls about Tommy's house: (1) a couple screaming, and, soon thereafter, (2) gunshots! The cops bust into Tommy's house and find him bleeding on the floor with a gun by his head. Jessie is kneeling over him. Despite remarkably thin evidence, the Suffolk police arrest her for murder.

Olivia is devastated by the news. See -- Jessie is also a victim in a Manhattan rape case from Labor Day that's still awaiting trial.


Back in September (picture this in faded-colors flashback mode), Jessie fought with Tommy, went for a girls night out, and was found unconscious, drunk and bruised on the street. When she awoke in the hospital, she at first said nothing happened. Then she said she didn't know who hurt her. Then that she was kidnapped and raped by a stranger. Only on story #4 did Jessie finally say that she was raped and assaulted by Michael Provo, her sometimes hookup, who she phoned for a tipsy booty call after a night of clubbing. And, um, can we keep this on the down low, because Tommy would kill her if he ever found out.

Things get dicier when we learn that Provo, a PI and ex-ATF agent, is also a confidential informant for the Suffolk County police.

In more faded flashbacks, Provo -- a married man -- admitted to having an affair with Jessie, but denied raping her, claiming Tommy was the abusive one. Manhattan charged Provo with Jessie's rape anyhow.

Back to the full Technicolor present: The two DA's offices quickly line up behind their respective people. Olivia leads the charge for Manhattan, believing Jessie. But Suffolk County, in the mink-clad persona of DA Pamela James, lines up behind Provo. Nick murmurs, "It's not unusual for a DA to protect her asset."

Jessie's bail is set at $200,000, which she can't make. Her five-year-old son is placed in foster care. The Manhattanites collectively tear up.

There's no prints on the murder weapon or residue on Jessie's hands, but a posh haberdasher in Manhattan claims he slept with Jessie and she stole his gun. But he's lying.

ADA Barba drags the haberdasher into the office. "He'll only talk," the haberdasher's lawyer insists, "If you give him full Queen for a Day." Barba replies, "I'll even give him a tiara." Lured by immunity, the haberdasher admits that he made up his first story -- at Provo's urging, to repay Provo for an old debt.

Provo framed Jessie for Tommy's murder? Magic words. There's nothing Barba likes better than a nice big government conspiracy. He arrests Provo, who promptly calls James.

ADA James storms into ADA Barba's office wearing earrings the size of lima beans, a full fur jacket the likes of which I've never seen on any real ADA, and a snarl. "You attack my office, you're in for the fight of your life," she growls.

DA cage match!

Olivia reports the development to Jessie, who sobs upon hearing that she's not being released. "Get out!" she orders Olivia.

The two counties decide to prosecute their cases at the same time -- simultaneously trying different defendants for the same crime. Suffolk charges Jessie with killing Tommy. Manhattan charges Provo with raping Jessie and framing her for Tommy's death to stop the rape trial. In a legally plausible but logistically nightmarish twist, Jessie and Provo testify against each other in their respective courtrooms, days apart.

Manhattan gets their big break when they discover that both 911 callers were blackmailed into falsely making their calls by Provo, to whom they owed favors. Faced with this evidence, James finally admits that her case is in shambles. Her office will be in shambles, too, when the world learns that her CI is a date-raping, single-mom-framing liar. Barba offers a deal: "Release Jessie now and I'll drop charges against Provo. You can do your internal investigation and charge him with murder yourself. We all want justice... right?" James agrees, visions of bar ethics investigations dancing in her head.

Jessie is finally free, her son comes out of foster care, and they hug each other tightly.

Verdict: A-

What They Got Right:

It's true that two counties could charge two different defendants for the same murder, under completely different theories. This isn't a great idea as a matter of public relations -- can you imagine how Above the Law would ridicule that situation? But as a legal matter, it's doable.

It's not uncommon for a rape victim to tell a false story on first telling -- and for the prosecutor to have to dig deeper to find out the real story. Like Jessie, who had a controlling boyfriend, victims of sexual assault might have a host of reasons to prevaricate. The fact that a witness lied at first certainly hurts the case, but doesn't necessarily mean she wasn't assaulted. Often, convictions are secured even when the victim's initial story wasn't entirely truthful.

It's true that Suffolk would lose a lot of pending cases and have to reopen many old cases if it turned out their CI lied and set someone up. The DA on tonight's episode had a serious incentive to protect Provo.

"Queen for a Day" immunity is a real prosecutorial tool, although it's not nearly as cool for the queen as it sounds. The prosecutor signs a letter saying she won't use the witness's statements directly against him. She can still use the statements derivatively, though -- and that's important. Let's say the haberdasher mentions he robbed a bank. Barba could follow up -- say, pull the bank tapes and see the haberdasher holding up the teller -- and then charge him with robbery. Queen for a Day isn't full immunity. In some ways, it's designed to protect the prosecutor more than the witness -- so the witness can't later say he was promised full immunity. In real life, the better course for the haberdasher would have been for his lawyer to give a proffer -- saying what his client would say -- and then getting full immunity for the haberdasher.

What They Got Wrong:

Olivia kept having intimate heart-to-hearts with Jessie in her jail cell. Bad cop, no donut. Jessie was a defendant in a murder case, represented by counsel. Olivia should never have talked to Jessie without Jessie's lawyer present.

While the legal machinations were realistic, I was skeptical about Provo's motive. To cover an extremely weak rape charge (an alcoholic, intoxicated victim, who told four different stories and left a booty-call on her assailant's voicemail the night of the assault), he committed armed first-degree murder and tried to frame his lover by enlisting a bunch of criminals and daffy civilians to lie for him. Silly plan for such an evil genius, right?

What do you think, SVU fans? Could a CI go this terribly wrong? Will we be seeing more of ADA Pam James? And was I the only one looking at Barba's hand to see if it was the one Olivia was holding on last week's episode? Leave your comments!

 

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