The good news: Law & Order: SVU will be back this autumn for a 15th season. The bad news: They ended their 14th with one of the silliest episodes of the year.
Recap: A guy burns off his own fingerprints on a hot stove, then ambles to Central Park and uses his newfound anonymity to flash some pretty Scandinavian tourists. The entire SVU squad foregoes their day off to process the flasher.
At first, our detectives have a hard time ID'ing the fingerprintless guy, but he tells them the halfway house where he's staying, and they soon have a copy of his drivers license. He's Louis Williams, who has no prior record of sexual assaults.
Louis is released from jail and promptly goes to the home of a grandmotherly witness to the flashing. He holds a gun to Gramma's head, ties her to the bed, and repeatedly rapes her. He heats up keys and metal hangers and brands her. He beats her up. He leaves his semen and saliva all over her and her apartment, then leaves her alive and tied to the bed. (Because the criminal mastermind who's committed enough to burn off his own fingerprints is going to leave his DNA all over the apartment, and the witness around to ID him. Sure.)
Gramma's neighbor finds her and calls the police. As soon as they arrive, a bloodied Gramma exclaims from the stretcher she's being carried out on, "It was Louis Williams! The guy from the park! He raped me!"
Olivia and Nick interrogate Louis, who gives a "hypothetical" but totally damning statement in which he lists all the intimate details only the rapist would know. "What do you want to hear?" he asks Olivia. "How I put out my cigarettes on her, how I branded her private parts with keys and hot hangers?"
He goes on and on, in a detailed monologue about raping Gramma that was so disturbing I may need years of therapy to recover from it.
In addition to his confession, the detectives learn Louis sold Gramma's jewelry and camera to a local pawn shop, whose owner ID's him. And that's not all.
Turns out, Louis is a serial rapist, but his name was misspelled in his prior cases, so it never caught up with him. He's raped four other women, getting off on technicalities and/or good luck each time. He even raped and killed his own previous defense attorney.
And his foxy new defense attorney is in love with him! And Gramma dies of a heart attack!
Still, the trial seems like a slam dunk, until his defense attorney shows that his DNA sample was tested on the same tray as the crime-scene samples. A mistrial is declared and lecherous Louis is released.
He uses his hard-won freedom to break into Olivia's apartment and wait for her to come home. The season ends with him putting a gun to Olivia's head in her dark, empty apartment, before the screen abruptly flashes to black.
A cliffhanger indeed. Mariska Hargitay hasn't yet signed up for the next season of SVU, so who knows what might happen to Olivia?
What they got right: Cases involving tourist victims, like the Scandinavians Louis flashed, can be challenging to prosecute. Sexual predators know this and often target tourists. Here in Washington D.C., museums and monuments are popular places for serial gropers to commit their crimes, because they know that victims from Kansas are less likely to show up for trial in D.C. Superior Court.
The misspelling of a suspect's name, while simple and low-tech, can be disastrously misleading to authorities. Senator Lindsey Graham alleged that the FBI misspelled one of the Boston Marathon bombing suspect's names -- and that the agency thus failed to identify him when he flew to Russia in 2011.
Testing DNA samples on the same tray can lead to legal problems. A teenager named Austin Sigg is accused of kidnapping, killing, and dismembering a 10-year-old girl in Colorado, and also attacking a jogger. The Colorado Bureau of Investigation issued some "contamination memos," noting that multiple DNA samples in the cases had been tested on the same tray. The defense will likely argue against the reliability of the DNA testing at Sigg's trial this September.
What they got wrong: Let's start with the idea that the whole SVU squad would come in from their Sunday off in order to process a flasher. Only someone who has never met a actual police officer could believe this concept.
Next: burning off fingerprints. Sure, you could try to conceal your identity that way -- if you were an ineffective criminal from the 1930s. John Dillinger tried to do it - but his fingerprints eventually grew back. Robert Phillips grafted skin from his chest to his fingers -- but he was ID'd from his palm prints. And that was in the 1940's. The fingerprint burning-off technique is pretty useless today. With DNA testing, what's the point of burning off your fingerprints if you're gonna leave smoked cigarettes and your semen all over the crime scene?
The idea that Louis would go to Gramma's house to rape and torture her was ridiculous. That's not what criminals do to witnesses. They threaten them. They might even kill them, to ensure their silence. What a misdemeanor-level flasher doesn't do is go to the home of his witness, rape her, torture her, and leave her alive to tell both tales. (For that matter, they don't break into the home of their lead detective either.) I've never heard of a single case like Gramma's happening in real life.
More: Louis's "hypothetical" confession was totally admissible -- and combined with Gramma's horrific injuries and statements, plenty to convict him. A lineup wasn't necessary -- Gramma knew who Louis was. And Ice-T can't testify that the pawnshop owner identified Louis (the pawn guy himself has to do that, lest we run afoul of the Confrontation Clause and Louis's right to confront the witnesses against him), convincing as Ice always is.
Finally, Louis's whole character was silly. He was supposed to be some sort of criminal mastermind, so cunning he could manufacture four aliases, burn off his fingerprints, and fake a suicide attempt to prevent a lineup. And yet he left behind gallons of his DNA, confessed to everything he did to Gramma, and -- what? -- just hoped that this would be the unlikely case where his DNA testing would have some technical problem?
I wonder which one of him -- the mastermind, or the idiot -- will Olivia face in her dark apartment? We'll have to wait til next fall to find out. Good luck, Olivia!
Okay, SVU fans, now that the show's over for the season, what will you do over the summer? I'll be launching my third novel, Speak of the Devil! It's the best book I've written yet. I hope you'll check it out! Visit my website to learn more. Meanwhile, have a great summer! See you back here for Season 15 this fall.