Monday, January 23, 2006

And Justice For All

It must be nice to live in Dick Wolf's world. You know, the one where the cops never arrest the wrong man and the justice system never sends and innocent person up the river or worse. That's the central feature of his main series Law And Order. Doubt is for namby pamby series like NYPD Blue. Wolf has publicly stated that there will never be a heroic, or even really likable defense council in one of his shows. In fact in the last attempt to create a Law And Order spinoff Law And Order: Trial By Jury the only people worse than the criminals were the defense attorneys, a group so much more vile than the murderers that the show dealt with because they knew the "truth" about their clients and not only didn't drop them like hot potatoes and tell the prosecutors all the heinous little details but kept coming back to defend more and more of these evil characters. I'd like to think that explains why Law And Order: Trial By Jury was quickly dismissed to the ash heap of television history.

Well I don't live in Dick Wolf's World. I can name four men - Steven Truscott, David Milgard, Donald Marshall, Guy Paul Morin - convicted in Canada of murders that they didn't commit. If Canada had the death penalty these men would have been executed, and indeed Steven Truscott was briefly on death row at age 14 - his sentence was commuted less than a year after his conviction because of his age and he was released on parole in 1969. His case was reopened in 2002 and is under investigation by the Ontario Court of Appeals. A fifth man, Wilbert Coffin, was executed in the 1950s after being convicted on a combination of circumstantial evidence and political interference in the nightmare that was Maurice Duplessis's Quebec. Cases like these are why I oppose the death penalty - if you make a mistake it's pretty hard to correct it. It's also why I don't like Dick Wolf's World and only watch Law And Order: Criminal Intent because the Goren character is so fascinating. It also explains why - once I actually saw it - In Justice grabbed me isn't likely to let me go anytime soon.

In Justice follows the work of the fictional National Justice Project, which is based on the actual Innocence Project which works to exonerate wrongly convicted people through the use of post conviction DNA testing. The office of the National Justice Project in the San Francisco-Oakland area is headed by lawyer David Swaine (Kyle MacLachlan from Twin Peaks) and former San Francisco detective Charlie Conti (Jason O'Mara, last seen in The Agency). They are surrounded by a group of young and idealistic people who work at investigating cases.

One interesting thing about this show is the opening, which seems to be almost a response to Law & Order. That show starts with "In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police, who investigate crime; and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories." It is an opening which makes it pretty clear that the cops and prosecutors always get the right man, at least in this show. In Justice opens with the line "Every trial results in a verdict, but not every verdict results in the truth. This is what the jury believed..." before launching into a recreation of the crime as presented by the prosecution, a view which Swaine, Conti and the rest of their team are out to discredit. In the episode which aired on Friday, a teenaged boy had been convicted of killing his sister after a night of video games, rock music and pills. This in turn was presented by a sleezy tabloid journalist with backdoor access to evidence, which in this case includes a conviction from the accused. It's this that Conti picks up on - the cop interrogating the teenager mysteriously changed his shirt indicating that the interrogation went on a lot longer than the few minutes that the prosecution claimed. This is enough to get Swaine interested in the case. Swaine manages to reopen the case and gets in touch with the "journalist" for access to all the interrogation tapes. He turns them over after Swaine threatens to reveal the guy's source in the District Attorney's office - he also sent along an industrial strength magnet to erase the tapes. After all, creating a shadow of a doubt about the case wouldn't be as good a story as "Teenagers who kill." When they do get access to the original tapes, they discover that the cops have used what are at best questionable methods in interrogating their suspect. It's nothing entirely illegal - they lie to the suspect, tell him his parents want to have nothing to do with him, say that getting a lawyer would only slow things down, and use a largely discredited technology (Voice Stress Analysis) which they tout as "science". The last is a particularly interesting moment; one of the cops tells the suspect "You've seen CSI. Science doesn't lie." After sixteen hours of interrogation the kid eventually broke down and confessed.

Conti and the team of young investigators also began looking for alternative suspects. They come up with several. The house was kept locked and only four keys supposedly existed, which leads them to suspect the victim's father. The window of the room where the sister was murdered can be reached by someone agile but there was a stick that kept the window from opening too far. The girl had a 16 year-old boyfriend who was on her gymnastics team. A neighbour reported a suspicious man looking for someone called DeeDee who kept ringing her doorbell. All of these are leads that the cops haven't investigated because they felt that the accused brother "didn't act the right way" about his sister's death. Even if the leads don't pan out - the father is cleared, the "boyfriend" was gay and in any case had an alibi - they did provide additional leads, like the existence of a previously unknown key.

At the same time that the investigation by the "NJP" is occurring the legal battle is engaged. Swaine has to persuade the judge who tried the case originally to allow DNA testing to determine if the convicted teen was responsible for his sister's death. This is complicated by the fact that at the moment they don't have an alternate suspect - all they have is the videotapes. During the course of this we learn something of Conti's reasons for working with the project. The District Attorney's office reviews cases in which Conti had used exactly the same techniques that the cops in this case had used and in which he got the right man. In redirect Conti spoke of one case in which he used those techniques and an innocent man was not only convicted but committed suicide before he could be exonerated. For Conti, one was too many. While the judge was moved by all of this he eventually decided not to overturn the verdict on the grounds of "finality". When Swaine objects he is found in contempt of court, but sees time in jail as an opportunity for publicity.

I liked this show. The main characters of Conti and Swaine are clearly passionate about their work, and O'Mara in particular was strong in his role as the cop attempting to atone for what he perceives as the wrong he committed years before. In this episode at least Swaine is more of a cypher - we don't know why he does this work except perhaps because he likes the publicity and being a "crusader". I must confess that I've never been a particular fan of Kyle MacLachlan. Still I think he's well suited for the flamboyant and passionate Swaine who on occasion needs to be reined in by the calmer but no less passionate Conti. The lesser characters in this series are less distinct. For the most part they seem to blend into a sort of amorphous blob, indistinct as individuals although this may be because I've only started watching the series. The cops - at least in this episode - tend to be somewhat one dimensional, but of course we don't see their motivation beyond trying to clear the case.

For me the most appealing aspect of this show is that it takes a contrarian point of view when compared with so many other shows which are on TV these days, even Close To Home, the CBS show which is on opposite In Justice. In so many shows the cops investigate every lead in order to find the real killer, so of course the suspect who eventually goes to court is guilty. In Justice gives us cops who aren't perfect, and while not corrupt or violating a person's rights still manage to perform in a way that needs correction. This show is definitely worth having a look at as one of the better mid-season dramas of the year, and with any luck (or perhaps I should say justice) should be on ABC's schedule for next season.

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