In a creative mashup of two of America's most racially-charged cases, Law & Order: SVU's "American Tragedy" had Paula Deen shooting Trayvon Martin, and getting away with it despite some deep-fried epithets. Tonight's show wasn't nearly as nuanced as the real Trayvon case, but is sure to spark some much-needed conversation about race, crime, and misperceptions in America.
Recap: A serial rapist is attacking women on Manhattan's Upper West Side. His MO is to push the woman into her apartment as she unlocks her front door, then beat and rape her.
Cybil Shepherd, playing a loosely-veiled version of the Southern-fried culinary queen Paula Deen, walks down the street to her posh brownstone on the Upper West side. Trailing her is (a) some very ominous music and (b) a teenager perfectly fitting the description of the serial rapist: a tall young black man wearing a hoodie and a baseball cap. She asks him to back up, but he lurks closer and creepily closer. She arrives home, hurries through her front gate, and is at her front door -- but the man follows her through her gate and onto her patio. She tells him again to back off -- but he keeps coming. She pulls out a gun and shoots him dead.
At first, everyone including the prior rape victims thinks the dead boy, 16-year-old Mehcad, is the serial rapist. But it turns out Mehcad was just a kid walking home from a basketball game (with cherry bubblegum rather than Skittles in his pocket). Our detectives soon catch the real serial rapist, a maniacal registered sex offender from Detroit. Poor Mehcad probably just wanted an autograph.
Cybil flinches when Ice-T touches her arm, and estimates that Mehcad was about a foot away from her when she shot him -- rather than the five feet the me estimates, and -- wham! -- she is charged with homicide.
Later, it turns out she also made a lot of nasty racist comments in the past, including calling her African-American employees "field hands" and comparing riding the NY subway to "a jungle train through the Congo." And when she takes the stand at trial, she admits that if Mehcad had been a white boy, she "wouldn't have felt afraid." Ouch.
Nevertheless, the jury aquits her. On the courthouse steps, Mehcad's parents ask the assembled protesters to react peacefully. ADA Barba apologizes to the detectives for losing the case, but Ice-T sadly shrugs and says, "It's not in you. It's just how it is."
What they got wrong:
I wish this had been a little more nuanced. The facts of tonight's plot presented a very straightforward self-defense case. There was a serial rapist fitting Mehcad's description, with an MO that mirrored exactly what Mehcad did, following women to their front door and raping them.
(A bit of advice: Gentleman, do not follow single ladies walking alone at night. Especially, do not follow us right onto our front porches. Generally, we don't love walking alone at night, and when there is a stranger following us up to our front door, we get pretty adrenalized.)
In real life, this would never have gotten to a jury. The fact that Cybil flinched at Ice-T's touch was dramatic -- but legally inconsequential. And one foot versus five feet -- meh. Heat of the moment, and witnesses don't carry a tape measures.
Plus all of Cybil's racist comments were discovered after she was charged. Even if they weren't -- even if the cops knew from the beginning that Cybil was a racist -- the facts of this case established that she was a racist who acted in self-defense. The question is not whether Mehcad meant to harm her but whether a reasonable woman in her situation would believe that she was in imminent danger. In this case -- being followed by a man who perfectly fit the description of a serial rapist targeting women like her in her neighborhood, walking alone at night, on her own yard, backed against the wall of her house, facing a man who refuses to stop or back off after she asks him to -- that's just self-defense. If we're going to talk about Trayvon Martin via a fictional case, the fictional case should be just as nuanced as the real one. This wasn't.
A few more nits from the trial. Many of the moments were objectionable. Ice-T couldn't testify about whether "NYPD disproportionately targets black men." That is an expert opinion, which would take all sorts of scientific testing, conclusions, and highly-haggled expert qualifications to be admitted in court. A fact witness like Ice can just testify to what he saw. Similarly, the defense closing argument, playing on the jurors' fear that "your wife be able to protect herself," was totally improper. Attorneys may only argue the specific facts of the case before them, not comment on generalized fear or make policy statements. These were excellent points in a show about racial profiling -- but poorly done in terms of criminal procedure.
What they got right:
"Stippling" is a term that comes up in many homicide trials. It's the powder tattooing on the skin surrounding an entry wound after a gunshot. The amount and pattern of stippling can be forensically utilized to estimate how far a shooter was from the victim.
I loved Barba holding up the picture of Mehcad in his closing argument. In every homicide case I've ever seen, the prosecutor gets a picture of a victim looking as nice as possible, and blows it up to a huge poster to show the jury. It's important to remind everyone that this was a real person -- with parents who loved him, and a whole life ahead him -- who was taken too soon from the world.
Olivia's reaction to the creep who hey-babied her on the street was great. (Not that you should clobber any guy who whistles at you...) But it was the sort of authentic reaction that a crime victim would have to that sort of situation. Olivia is veering wildly between her emotions, and that's a natural part of the healing process. As her therapist noted, victims react in all sorts of different ways in the aftermath of an attack, from anger to fear to, in this case, groin kicks. I also appreciated Olivia's chin-thrust, knee-to-the-nads move. It's a classic women's self-defense technique that I learned myself during a great IMPACT-DC course. I suggest taking a self-defense course to any woman who's ever looked over her shoulder while walking down the street.
Sexual assaults by strangers often start on the victim's front stoop -- the rapist pushes his way in when you're unlocking your front door. This a particularly vulnerable time, and one where you should be especially vigilant. (For more on this, check out my list of top tips for women's safety.)
Finally, the ripped-from-the-headlines part of tonight's episode came from some pretty remarkable headlines. Paula Deen's reputation was deep fried after she testified in a civil employment-case deposition that she's used racial epithets. And the Trayvon Martin tragedy has done more to get people talking about race, crime and the importance of reserving judgment based on appearances than any other case in recent history. Let's hope tonight's SVU episode does the same.
What do you think, SVU fans? Be part of that conversation. Leave your comments!