SVU Episode # 14-13: Monster’s Legacy

It’s hard to decide which was the worst part about tonight’s SVU: the decision to cast convicted rapist Mike Tyson as a rape victim, or a storyline so convoluted it had the entire NYPD Special Victims Unit working to exonerate the Ohio prisoner he portrayed. The most redeeming thing about the episode was the cathartic experience of seeing Tyson behind bars.

Recap:

Within the first few seconds of “Monster’s Legacy,” a stern gymnastics coach is stabbed multiple times in the groin. Don’t get attached, folks, this is merely the jumping off point. Heck, it was more than a jump; it was a triple cartwheel with a backflip. If he weren’t in the ICU, the neutered gymnastics coach would have approved.

See, the young janitor who did the stabbing (and who subsequently choked a fellow prisoner while riding New York’s least-secure prison bus) is a long-ago victim of childhood sex abuse at an upstate summer camp, and suffering from a form of PTSD that makes him attack men he suspects of pedophilia.

“Noted,” says Cragen when he learns of this mitigating information. “We’ll tell the DA.”

And here, folks, is where the case would have ended in real life.

“What about the summer camp?” Olivia insists.

And so the detectives begin their exotic forays outside their own district. First stop: a snowy camp in the Adirondacks run by poor Ed Asner, whose excellent turn on the show was completely overshadowed by Tyson.

Ed denies any wrongdoing, but Olivia leaves the camp convinced he’s a child molester. She wants to question all the boys who attended the camp, many of whom are now convicted felons themselves.

This – obviously – leads her to Ohio, where she has no jurisdiction, but where Mike Tyson has covered his facial tattoo with some industrial-strength concealer and taken up residence on death row for killing a man twenty years earlier.

Tyson denies he was ever molested. Case closed? Not by a long shot!

Olivia enlists renowned defense attorney Bayard Ellis, who soon finds serious flaws in Tyson’s homicide conviction. The murder victim wasn’t a stranger, as the jury had been told. He paid teenage Tyson for sex. And the night of the murder, he invited friends who essentially gang-raped Tyson and took photos of it. And then the prosecutor hid the photos inside a case file, onto which she stuck a post-it note that basically said, “I am now going to intentionally lie to put this innocent man on death row, if it’s the last thing I do.  Bwahahaha!”

To right this wrong, the entire SVU squad – we’re talking Olivia, Nick, Amanda, and Tutuola – hunkers down to question witnesses, comb through old files, and find any evidence that will convince the judge that Tyson’s death sentence should be commuted.

(Needless to say, exonerating midwestern felons is not in their job description. But they give it their all. Good thing no other sex crimes happened in New York during that week!)

With the help of the intrepid detectives – who must’ve racked up more frequent-flier miles than any other cops in New York’s history – the Ohio judge sees the truth and overturns Tyson’s conviction.

Olivia delivers the news to his prison cell, whereupon Tyson sweeps her into a big bear hug – which was probably an interesting scene to convince Mariska Hargitay, one of America’s leading victims-rights advocates, to do.

(Click here to see her Joyful Heart Foundation’s response to the casting decision. Click here to see the MoveOn petition urging SVU not to cast Tyson – signed by 15,000 people.)

Verdict: D-

What they got right:

(1) The red dress Olivia wore in the first scene. She’s a knockout (no pun intended).

(2) This episode was based on the strikingly similar real-life case of Terrence Williams, a convicted killer whose Pennsylvania execution was stopped a week before its scheduled date, after it was revealed that the prosecutor allegedly withheld evidence showing that the victim had a predatory sexual relationship with Williams. The shocking real details in Williams’s case constitute a strong argument for, among other things, abolishment of the death penalty.

SVU fans often say that the show is good because it shines a light on dark subjects. Certainly, the topics discussed tonight – prosecutorial misconduct, the stigma attached to male sex-abuse victims, the injustice of the death penalty – all deserve public attention, and this episode sparked that.

What they got wrong:

That said, SVU detractors argue that the show doesn’t so much educate about sex crimes as sensationalize them for TV ratings. The argument carries a fair amount of water when, during February sweeps, the show casts one of the most famous rapists in the world as a rape victim.

Tyson supporters say he’s served his time for raping Miss Black America hopeful Desiree Washington in 1991. He’s said he’s sorry, doesn’t he deserve a break? But, although he has definitely apologized for biting off a chunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear, I can’t find any evidence that he’s ever said he’s sorry for what he did to Ms. Washington. In fact, he told Greta Van Susteran in 2003, “She’s a lying, monstrous young lady. I just hate her guts…now I really do want to rape her . . . and her mama.”

What a charmer.

Michael Vick can’t be a PETA spokesperson; Paris Hilton can’t chair her local M.A.D.D. committee, and Mike Tyson had no business appearing on SVU.

Let the comments begin.

About Allison Leotta

Comments

  1. Toko Bali says:

    If you are going to make an entertainment product with rape as your subject, you better come correct. You better write and produce the thing with a bit more care and sensitivity than an show about robberies or little ponies. And when you are making a show about rape or Nazi Germany, it had better be something more than mindless entertainment (that goes for you too, Mr. Tarantino). Even with the never-ending quest for good ratings, I think the producers have a moral obligation to avoid sensationalism, and think about who they have on the show. I think they already crossed this line a couple of times in the last couple of years, but this time… oh boy. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7dhJxMmkqmY&t=0m36s

  2. I don’t mean to be insensitive to the issues about Tyson, but could you take another shot at the in-story legal issues? I feel like they got glossed over, and I was really looking forward to hearing about them. Is there any possible jurisdiction the SVU detectives have over the guy running the camp and his assortment of crimes? Ellis mentions to Olivia that he hopes she has some vacation time saved up; if we assume that’s what she was doing, was there anything she did in Ohio that violated her stance as a generic vacationing civilian who happened to take an interest in a death row inmate, rather than being a cop violating the crap out of her jurisdiction? What sort of trouble, if any, could the head of the parole board get into? For that matter, how boned are the Ohio DAs? If Tyson’s character were granted a new trial, given the set of facts as we know them and assuming no extreme emotional disturbance or self-defense defense, what kind of charges would we be looking at? How likely is it that would wind up being a plea with a sentence of “time served”? If he wasn’t granted a new trial, with the death warrant lapsed, what exactly would he be looking at? Would his sentence default to life in prison? If so, would there be a possibility of parole at some point?

    • James Pollock says:

      In Det. Benson’s first interview with Tyson’s character, there isn’t a problem… she’s interviewing a potential witness, which cops are allowed to do out-of-jurisdiction. Assuming Det. Benson’s vacation request was granted, then she becomes a private investigator in the “employ” of Mr. Ellis (This is necessary, otherwise lawyer-client privilege is waived for anything Tyson’s character says to Ellis while Olivia is present). Since Mr. Ellis is not the attorney of record for Tyson’s character, there’s some handwaving around that, but once Mr. Ellis represents Tyson’s character, Det. Benson will be treated as “Ms. Benson”, an assistant to Mr. Ellis. There’s also the problem that Mr. Ellis is probably not admitted to practice in Ohio, and would have had to petition for admission pro hac vice (roughly, “for this case only”)

      The DA’s who originally prosecuted Tyson’s character will have some ‘splainin’ to do to the Ohio bar disciplinary committee, and will get AT LEAST nasty letters in their file, possibly a brief suspension, and probably not disbarment, because the offenses were so long ago and (as far as we know) were not repeated and thus are not indicative of these attorney’s fitness to practice.

      The head of the parole board will likely face charges of misfeasance of office, be removed from the parole board, and, if convicted, would face some combination of jail time, a fine, and/or loss of public pension.

      Tyson would NTO get a new trial, but the governmor might commute the sentence from death to life, and might (but probably wouldn’t) commute the sentence to time served.

      Finally, surprising as it seems, Tyson’s character probably does not have a civil suit against the DA’s office OR the DA’s whose misconduct landed him on death row.

      • James Pollock says:

        Oops, missed one.

        The death warrant expiring doesn’t mean that Ohio can’t ever attempt to execute him… it means the state would have to ask for, and receive, a new death warrant before it can do so. A death warrant issues when the judge who issues it believes that there are no remaining legal impediments to carrying out the sentence… no unresolved issues of fact or law remain. Obviously, how hard it is to obtain a death warrant will vary widely from state to state.

        At the end of the episode, Tyson’s character remains a convicted murderer, with a death sentence. That sentence is stayed, but it hasn’t been removed. One of the things that this episode glossed over is the difference between asking for a court order to block an execution and asking for the governor to use the clemency power to block an execution.

        • Excellent analysis, James. Tan, my blogging experts tell me to keep my blog posts to around 1000 words — and this time, I felt that the Tyson issue was the most important one to focus on. I’m back to legal nitpicking as of this week. Meanwhile, thanks to Assistant Blogrunner James Pollock for his thoughtful answers! :)

  3. Speechless…just speechless! Sigh…One redeeming shot was the look that Mariska gave Tyson when he screamed at her from behind bars. That was not acting…I would bet the rest of the series on it! Interesting that the writers and producers made the main detective working with Tyson was Benson and not Ice-T. Could Warren Leight be trying to tell her something? I felt violated and I am sure Ms. Hargitay showered after that hug! What will they try next???? :(

  4. Yeah, this was pretty bizarre and awful. I was wondering during the entire show if Olivia has quit the NYPD and is now working for The Innocence Project or one of those organizations that tries to exoneration wrongly convicted convicts. I mean that in itself is a good project – for someone involved in social justice (ACLU, Quakers, Southern Poverty Law Center etc). But for an NYPD Detective? Beyond strange. Maybe the SVU detectives will join Occupy Wall Street next.

    It was interesting to see Ed Asner (Lou Grant) and Eve Plumb (Jan on the Brady Bunch) again. Sure makes me feel old though.

    • yes, exactly! Sometimes, I think the writers actually want to write a show about the Innocence Project rather than SVU. That could be a good show! But it isn’t this show.

      Love the Occupy Wall Street analogy.

  5. I just watched this episode for the first time today, but knew about all the fuss with Tyson being cast on the show. I felt that it was very distasteful, to say the least, but my fiance has told me that he read that Tyson may be mentally disabled, which was brought up in one of his trials. I didn’t find anything along those lines with a general google search, but do you have any thoughts on this? When did he say that horrible thing about wanting to rape his victim’s mother?!

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