10 Lessons From SVU That May Save Your Life

The finale of Law & Order: SVU Season 13 aired last Wednesday. As a former sex-crimes prosecutor, I’ve mocked silly episodes about amputation fetishes and sperm donor impersonators. But this season also brought great new characters, blisteringly real story lines, and impeccable timing on controversial issues. What’s most striking about this season, however, is how many lessons from the show could literally save your life. In case you missed some episodes, here are my top ten real-life lessons to take from this season of SVU.

1.  You may already be in love with your rapist.

When we think of rape, we tend to picture a stranger lurking in the bushes.  But most sexual assaults I saw as a prosecutor were committed by a man the victim knew intimately: an ex-boyfriend or stepfather; a doctor or minister; a teacher or coach; a professional colleague or the guy brought home from a bar.  SVU honed in on this theme in Season 13.  Personal Fouls featured a youth basketball coach who molested his players.  Theatre Tricks included a tech-savvy stalker who was the victim’s neighbor and friend.   The victim in Blood Brothers wouldn’t name her wealthy assailant because she hoped he would marry her.  Many of us worry about someone breaking into our homes – but what you most need to worry about is who you invite in.

2. Look out for your sons as much as your daughters.

Personal Fouls was a remarkable episode paralleling the Jerry Sandusky / Joe Paterno case.  (And it aired before the real scandal broke – I’m still wondering how the writers managed that one.) The episode highlighted sex crimes against boys.

While sexual assaults are the most under-reported crimes in America, assaults against male victims are the most under-reported of all.  It’s estimated that 1 in 4 American women and 1 in 6 American men will be the victim of a sexual assault in their lifetime.  But hardly any of the male survivors come forward, principally because of the perceived stigma attached to being a victim.  SVU’s Detective Amanda Rollins got it right when she said, “Male victims today are where female victims were 40 years ago.  It’s the dark ages.”  Kudos to SVU for getting people to talk about this subject, and helping male survivors realize they’re not alone.

3.  If you are sexually assaulted, tell the police the truth.  Immediately.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn

SVU opened its season with Scorched Earth, a riff on the real Dominique-Strauss Kahn case. The episode featured a fictional hotel maid who claimed she was sexually assaulted by a powerful European politician.  When inconsistencies surfaced in her story, the case tanked.  In real life, it’s nearly impossible to prosecute a he-said/she-said sex assault when the victim has made seriously conflicting statements.  If you’re worried about telling the police something, it’s better to get it out up front.

Delays in reporting rapes are also a common challenge, as highlighted in the episode True Believers, where a college student didn’t come forward immediately, because she was in shock and had her final exams the next day.  Victims often have understandable reasons for not making an immediate report of rape, but the sooner a truthful report is made, the stronger the case.


4.  Lock your door.

Michael Moore might disagree, but the simple act of locking your door could save your life, and it’s surprisingly often

Aaron Thomas, the alleged East Coast Rapist

overlooked.  Double Strand featured a serial rapist similar to the real-life East Coast Rapist – a man charged with sexually assaulting multiple women by walking into their homes when a door or window was left open.  True Believers featured a rapist who got into a home by slipping in while a woman was bringing in her groceries.  When stranger rapes do occur, these two scenarios are often how they start.


5.  There is no florist-client privilege.

Frequent TV mentions of the attorney-client and doctor-patient privileges have made viewers believe in other privileges that don’t actually exist.  A florist in Blood Brothers argued (unsuccessfully) that his delivery of roses was confidential.  I’ve had people argue that information they told their hotel concierge, postman, or yoga instructor was privileged.  Not true.  You may have a privilege for confidences you tell your doctor, spouse, or religious leader, but in the right circumstances, even those can be circumvented.  Keep your secrets between yourself and your lawyer.

6.  Never shake a baby.

In Missing Pieces, the detectives considered Shaken-Baby Syndrome to explain the mysterious death of an infant.  As a prosecutor, I saw too many cases of babies who were killed or brain-damaged from being shaken by a frustrated parent.  If you feel like you can’t take your baby’s crying one moment longer, set him down in a crib, go to another room, and give yourself some time to recoup.  Crying can’t kill a baby – but shaking can.






7.  The police can lie to you to extract a confession.

In Home Invasion and Strange Beauty, the SVU detectives extracted confessions by lying to the suspects.  The Supreme Court has approved of police deception to get a confession.  If you’re ever interrogated by the police, you have to tell the truth – but they don’t.

8.  Use caution when mixing work with romance.

One of the more interesting continuing plot lines this season involved Detective Olivia Benson’s romance with a dashing ADA played by Harry Connick, Jr.  Interoffice romances can always be dicey, and it was heartbreaking – and realistic – to see Olivia lose her first good relationship in a long time after she and Harry crossed some ethical lines in Justice Denied.  But the worst thing about it was that Harry was in the show all season, and he didn’t sing even once.

9.  Don’t have sex with people under your supervision.

Educated Guess featured a mental-hospital guard who had sex with a patient in his ward.  Many  jurisdictions have laws making it illegal for prison guards to have sex with prisoners, teachers to have sex with their students, and mental hospital employees to have sex with patients.  Even if the prisoner, student, or patient is saying “yes,” there’s too much of a power differential.  Don’t mix it up with your clientele.

10.  One more reason not to become a prostitute.

Prostitutes are eighteen times more likely to be killed than other women.  They often don’t call the police if someone robs, assaults, or rapes them, and many have no family to look for them if they go missing.  Predators know this, and serial killers have often preyed on prostitutes.  Hunting Ground highlighted this dynamic with a harrowing mash-up of the real-life Long Island Serial Killer and the Craig’s List Killer.  My second novel, “Discretion,” is about the case of a high-end escort killed at the U.S. Capitol.

I can’t guarantee you’ll live longer if you watch SVU. But you may just learn something.  And if next season is at all like this one, we’ll all have a lot of fun.

Like the blog?  Check out my  legal thrillers LAW OF ATTRACTION and DISCRETION.
Twitter: @AllisonLeotta 




  1. Ugo vennezzi says

    Shaken baby syndrome has been discredited in Canada. Major scandal, IIRC a medical examiner sent dozens or more patently innocent people to jail with this diagnosis. Google it, maybe you’ll find an interesting topic for a future post.

    • Michelle Cunin says

      I think the M.E. who did that had no ethics. But I believe Shaken Baby Syndrome does exist, as so many babies are the victims of that. I could never do that. I have two children, and one of them cried constantly for the first two months of her life. I have begged, pleaded, cried to her myself, but I never once thought about shaking her.

  2. Michelle Cunin says

    That first one completely freaks me out. It’s more than just the “eww” factor. From 1990-1993, I was in an abusive relationship. He would even go so far as actually having sex with me while I was sleeping. I didn’t say no, because I knew if I did it would ultimately end up with a smacking. My husband says that’s me getting raped. I don’t view it as that. Just doing whatever I can to avoid getting hit. But hearing “you may be in love with your rapist” just sends shivers down my spine and makes my stomach drop.

      • Michelle Cunin says

        I keep thinking I really should talk to someone. I’ve been with my husband for 19 years, married for almost 16 (July 19). Half the time I think I’m over it, but I know I don’t trust men. Get paranoid when they’re behind me (the idiot loved those blitz attacks). Each time I think about it, I start tearing up.
        Maybe I’m not over it as much as I think. But after 19 years, one would think I would be.

  3. Alenna says

    Great list. There is an interesting lecture from a law school professor and police officer titled “Don’t talk to the police”, on youtube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wXkI4t7nuc&NR=1

    It fits in with #7 perfectly. Of course if everyone always refuses to talk to the police I would imagine that they would have an extremely difficult time doing their job.

  4. Dave says

    Re: #6, that episode was one that actually really touched me and made me feel sad. Of course, I was pretty tired out that day and the subject of a baby being hurt in such a way is especially close to my heart, but the whole situation was just so tragic and saddening, with no real opportunity to bring about a good resolution from it.

    Veering a little off-topic…I’ve been watching the original series starting with the first season. It’s somewhat striking how different the tone is (and funny to see Cragen with at least a little more hair). One thing that I have to say I like is how straightforward it is; when the ADA comes in and tells the cops “You’re off this case, we’ll take it from here,” there’s no overdramatic “Come on guys…we’re gonna investigate this *anyway!*” from the detectives, just moving on to other work. Nobody has to create false drama by rushing off on personal crusades every episode or getting personally involved with a victim or perp. Honestly, I hope the SVU folks can kind of head back towards this, especially if #1 culprit Olivia ends up moving on to greener pastures. I’ve still enjoyed SVU, but the difference between the eminently competent Ben Stone and, just to pick one SVU ADA, the always on-edge Casey Novak is noticeable.

  5. Angie says

    Recently, an assignment has made me draw a line between popular culture and American law. So of course, I decided to do it on my favorite show, which is this show. I just want to know, is there any truth to this show that meets the criteria of an actual SVU division? Any help would be great!

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