Recap: I’m sure SVU’s writers would disagree, but it seems this episode practically wrote itself. If you followed the DSK case, you know that SVU’s season premiere paralleled the most notorious sex-offense case of this summer. In real life, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the IMF and likely next president of France, was accused of rape by a maid at his posh NY hotel. In the SVU episode, the politician was Italian, and lecherous mercie’s were simply replaced with lecherous grazie’s (as when the Berlusconi-wannabe accepted a glass of champagne from a callipygian flight attendant).
In the real DSK case, the prosecution fell apart when the Manhattan DA’s Office discovered serious credibility problems with the victim (there were reports that she’d lied about being raped in her home country of Guinea in order to get asylum in the U.S., that she falsified tax returns, that she’d accepted large sums of money from a drug dealer, that she made phone calls to that drug dealer (recorded because he was in jail) talking about how much money she could get from DSK, and, perhaps most damningly, that she repeatedly changed her story of how the sexual assault actually happened). In real life, it was clear that the Manhattan DA’s office couldn’t go forward with the case. The charges against DSK were dropped in August, before a trial ever went forward. (Check out my analysis here.)
In the SVU episode, the victim’s fall from grace wasn’t quite as steep, and the case actually went to trial. The SVU facts were almost like a law professor’s hypothetical, where the weight on each side of the scale is almost precisely even, and when the professor polls the class, the students are evenly split. That’s what happened with the SVU jury, which returned a compromise verdict rejecting the sex assault charges but finding the Italian bigwig guilty of wrongful imprisonment.
What they got right: Many sexual assault victims lie about something – often something even more significant than what was portrayed on this episode. That doesn’t mean they weren’t sexually assaulted. Often, sexual assaults happen to very vulnerable victims: prostitutes, children, inebriated people. They might not tell police or prosecutors the full story at first. Many details are embarrassing or painful. Every sex-offense prosecutor becomes intimately familiar with the term “rolling disclosures.” The whole story might not come out in the first telling. You have to gain the trust of your witness before she tells you everything.
You also have to do your due diligence as the prosecutor. You have a duty to be fair to everyone – including the defendant. Your job isn’t just to win, but to make sure justice is done. That means investigating what the victim says and seeing if external evidence corroborates or disproves her story – and then turning over any discrepancies to the defense. One interesting difference between the SVU storyline and the real DSK case was that in the SVU episode, the defense attorney was the one who found out about the victim’s credibility problems. In real life, the DA’s office itself discovered the victim’s problems. The DA’s office might’ve been too quick to arrest DSK, but they did the right thing by discovering the problems with their witness and promptly informing the defense.
This episode also accurately portrayed the prosecutor’s struggle with how to handle a difficult case. “Prosecutorial discretion” means that the individual prosecutor can decide what to do with her case: like whether to bring charges, and what charges to bring. It’s a luxury most lawyers don’t have (a public defender, for example, can’t say he won’t take a case because he thinks his client is guilty). But this discretion can also be a burden. I empathized with the SVU lawyers as they struggled with each other, and within themselves, to figure out what to believe and how to steer the case accordingly.
What they got wrong: I laughed when our new detective foisted off her box of personal effects, hopped onto the elevator, and raced out to the crime scene on her first day. Anyone who’s worked a government job knows that your first day is spent getting fingerprinted, choosing a health care plan, and trying to stay awake during WordPerfect training – not swabbing blood at the scene of the biggest case of the year. But good for Detective Amanda Rollins, for being a go-getter.
And as much as I mourn Elliott’s leaving the show, it was time for him to go, as evidenced by this dialogue about his most recent shooting of a civilian (the girl who walked into the cellblock and shot several suspects in last season’s finale).
Captain Cragen: IAB is going to be all over Elliott.
Olivia: It was a good shooting!
Captain Cragen: But it was his sixth.
Elliott’s shot six people! Holy cow. No wonder he’s being investigated by Internal Affairs. Most cops don’t fire their service weapon during their entire career.
I also appreciated these lines:
Captain Cragen: If Elliott wants to stay, they’ll make him take anger management classes.
Olivia: Then he’ll tell them to go to hell!
Generally, this isn’t a great response to your anger management instructors (but Elliott, and many real-life cops, may very well have said something like that). I felt sorry for Olivia as she sobbed for her partner in the back room, but I’m looking forward to meeting our new male detective on next week’s episode.
(Meanwhile, I loved that I nailed which ripped-from-the-headlines story would be first up on SVU’s docket. Click here to see the rest of my guesses on which real-life news stories will become SVU storylines next.)