SVU Episode #15-2: “American Tragedy”

In a creative mashup of two of America’s most racially-charged cases, Law & Order: SVU’s “American Tragedy” had Paula Deen shooting Trayvon Martin, and getting away with it despite some deep-fried epithets. Tonight’s show wasn’t nearly as nuanced as the real Trayvon case, but is sure to spark some much-needed conversation about race, crime, and misperceptions in America.

Recap: A serial rapist is attacking women on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. His MO is to push the woman into her apartment as she unlocks her front door, then beat and rape her.

Cybil Shepherd, playing a loosely-veiled version of the Southern-fried culinary queen Paula Deen, walks down the street to her posh brownstone on the Upper West side. Trailing her is (a) some very ominous music and (b) a teenager perfectly fitting the description of the serial rapist: a tall young black man wearing a hoodie and a baseball cap. She asks him to back up, but he lurks closer and creepily closer. She arrives home, hurries through her front gate, and is at her front door – but the man follows her through her gate and onto her patio. She tells him again to back off – but he keeps coming. She pulls out a gun and shoots him dead.

At first, everyone including the prior rape victims thinks the dead boy, 16-year-old Mehcad, is the serial rapist. But it turns out Mehcad was just a kid walking home from a basketball game (with cherry bubblegum rather than Skittles in his pocket). Our detectives soon catch the real serial rapist, a maniacal registered sex offender from Detroit. Poor Mehcad probably just wanted an autograph.

Cybil flinches when Ice-T touches her arm, and estimates that Mehcad was about a foot away from her when she shot him – rather than the five feet the ME estimates, and – WHAM! – she is charged with homicide.

Later, it turns out she also made a lot of nasty racist comments in the past, including calling her African-American employees “field hands” and comparing riding the NY subway to “a jungle train through the Congo.” And when she takes the stand at trial, she admits that if Mehcad had been a white boy, she “wouldn’t have felt afraid.” Ouch.

Nevertheless, the jury aquits her. On the courthouse steps, Mehcad’s parents ask the assembled protesters to react peacefully. ADA Barba apologizes to the detectives for losing the case, but Ice-T sadly shrugs and says, “It’s not in you. It’s just how it is.”

Verdict: B+

What they got wrong:

I wish this had been a little more nuanced. The facts of tonight’s plot presented a very straightforward self-defense case. There was a serial rapist fitting Mehcad’s description, with an MO that mirrored exactly what Mehcad did, following women to their front door and raping them.

(A bit of advice: Gentleman, do not follow single ladies walking alone at night. Especially, do not follow us right onto our front porches. Generally, we don’t love walking alone at night, and when there is a stranger following us up to our front door, we get pretty adrenalized.)

In real life, this would never have gotten to a jury. The fact that Cybil flinched at Ice-T’s touch was dramatic – but legally inconsequential. And 1 foot versus 5 feet – meh. Heat of the moment, and witnesses don’t carry a tape measures.

Plus all of Cybil’s racist comments were discovered after she was charged. Even if they weren’t – even if the cops knew from the beginning that Cybil was a racist – the facts of this case established that she was a racist who acted in self-defense. The question is not whether Mehcad meant to harm her but whether a reasonable woman in her situation would believe that she was in imminent danger. In this case – being followed by a man who perfectly fit the description of a serial rapist targeting women like her in her neighborhood, walking alone at night, on her own yard, backed against the wall of her house, facing a man who refuses to stop or back off after she asks him to – that’s just self-defense. If we’re going to talk about Trayvon Martin via a fictional case, the fictional case should be just as nuanced as the real one. This wasn’t.

A few more nits from the trial. Many of the moments were objectionable. Ice-T couldn’t testify about whether “NYPD disproportionately targets black men.” That is an expert opinion, which would take all sorts of scientific testing, conclusions, and highly-haggled expert qualifications to be admitted in court. A fact witness like Ice can just testify to what he saw. Similarly, the defense closing argument, playing on the jurors’ fear that “your wife be able to protect herself,” was totally improper. Attorneys may only argue the specific facts of the case before them, not comment on generalized fear or make policy statements. These were excellent points in a show about racial profiling – but poorly done in terms of criminal procedure.

What they got right:

“Stippling” is a term that comes up in many homicide trials. It’s is the powder tattooing on the skin surrounding an entry wound after a gunshot. The amount and pattern of stippling can be forensically utilized to estimate how far a shooter was from the victim.

I loved Barba holding up the picture of Mehcad in his closing argument. In every homicide case I’ve ever seen, the prosecutor gets a picture of a victim looking as nice as possible, and blows it up to a huge poster to show the jury. It’s important to remind everyone that this was a real person – with parents who loved him, and a whole life ahead him – who was taken too soon from the world.

Olivia’s reaction to the creep who hey-babied her on the street was great. (Not that you should clobber any guy who whistles at you…) But it was the sort of authentic reaction that a crime victim would have to that sort of situation. Olivia is veering wildly between her emotions, and that’s a natural part of the healing process. As her therapist noted, victims react in all sorts of different ways in the aftermath of an attack, from anger to fear to, in this case, groin kicks. I also appreciated Olivia’s chin-thrust, knee-to-the-nads move. It’s a classic women’s self-defense technique that I learned myself during a great IMPACT-DC course. I suggest taking a self-defense course to any woman who’s ever looked over her shoulder while walking down the street.

Sexual assaults by strangers often start on the victim’s front stoop – the rapist pushes his way in when you’re unlocking your front door. This a particularly vulnerable time, and one where you should be especially vigilant. (For more on this, check out my list of top tips for women’s safety.)

Finally, the ripped-from-the-headlines part of tonight’s episode came from some pretty remarkable headlines. Paula Deen’s reputation was deep fried after she testified in a civil employment-case deposition that she’s used racial epithets. And the Trayvon Martin tragedy has done more to get people talking about race, crime and the importance of reserving judgment based on appearances than any other case in recent history. Let’s hope tonight’s SVU episode does the same.

What do you think, SVU fans? Be part of that conversation. Leave your comments!


  1. lelnet says

    The only clearer case of self-defense I’ve seen was the actual Martin shooting. I mean, at least the shooter on TV wasn’t in the process of being beaten to the brink of death when the shooting happened, so I suppose there was _some_ room for doubt about whether it was self-defense. (Not much, though, for all the reasons you point out.)

    • Stefi says

      I completely agree Lelnet on both cases: the fictional and the real. Whilst I thought Mariska Hargitay was brilliant, I felt her reactions were the most interesting part of the episode. I’ve represented a few victims of brutal domestic violence and rape who have defended themselves and this seems very realistic, and then it’s thrown in with a case that’s even more preposterous than the Zimmerman trial.

  2. Stefi says

    It would have been a much more interesting and frankly more honest if instead of presenting Mehcad, as a sweet innocent kid, they had made him like the real Trayvon Martin character, who was anything but. They could have also had child pornography found on his phone, which, among other things, was found on Martin’s phone. I also think it would have made for a more thought-provoking episode if it was left open whether or not he was the rapist.

    • TokoBali says

      Why is it so important that Martin was “anything but” an angel? That does not change anything to the fact that Zimmerman followed him, for no good reason, and killed him, for no good reasons (he had a couple of very bad reason, which any fool can see). That Martin smoked some weed and stole some stuff is utterly irrelevant when discussing Zimmerman’s actions or the injustice suffered by Martin and his family. It’s a cheap and nasty tactic to make people care less about the boy, as though some weed and theft is equal to, or deserves, murder. And a credible source for that child porn thing would be nice. And FYI, Ron Paul forums do not constitute a credible source, and one 17-year old sexting another is not child porn in any meaningful way.

      • Stefi says

        It’s very important that Martin was anything but an angel, when creating a fictional account that is so obviously based on a real case not because Martin smoked weak or was abusing purple lean, but his sex offending and propensity for theft were relevant factors in what his motivation was on trespassing on someone else’s property and peering into the windows and his familiarity with firearms and street fighting were relevant to his assault upon Zimmerman and why he tried to dash Zimmerman’s head against the pavement.

        Obviously, you’re unhappy that the jury returned with a not guilty verdict, but in the real world he was acquitted because Martin’s death was a justifiable homicide. The State of Florida v Zimmerman fits the classic definition of homicide se defendendo (Archbold). In fact, several Florida attorney’s, I’ve spoken to on the issue, think the motion for the JOA should have been granted.

        As for the credible source for the child porn, I wouldn’t have thought Ben Kruidbos testimony under subpoena and the fact that both defence and prosecution acknowledge those images were on his phone was widely known!

        • TokoBali says

          Nothing of Martin’s history was known to Zimmerman when he started following the boy, so no, it had no relevance in Zimmerman’s actions. And in Stand Your Ground territory, hell, everything could go as a justifiable. And the question remains: what did he have on his cell phone? A picture of a nude 17-year girl, one of those pictures send through an entire high school by an angry ex-boyfriend perhaps? Or the nastiest of nasty kiddy porn with young children? I can’t find the answer googling around just now. But it wouldn’t surprise me if it were the first, and an intentionally vague term like “underage” is used to decrease any sympathy for a murder victim.

          • Carl N. Brown says

            Stand Your Ground as explained to me in hand carry permit class means that if the defender is where they have a right to be, they do not have to prove a negative: that they could not have safely retreated (as required under the “duty to retreat” law in some states).

            SYG does not change the fact the use of force must be justified under the common law rules–a reasonable person in the defeneder’s shoes would be in fear of imminent death or greivous bodily harm and the attacker had the ability, opportunity and means to put the defender’s life or limb in jeopardy.

            Kruidbos was easy to find. One example:

   2 Aug 2013

            Ben Kruidbos has sued the prosecutor because he was fired for testifying under supoena in a pretrial hearing. “Kruidbos testified last month in a pre-trial hearing that he found photos on Martin’s phone that included pictures of a pile of jewelry on a bed, underage nude females, marijuana plants, and a hand holding a semi-automatic pistol.” Prosecutors argued that it could not be proven that Martin had taken the pictures and written the texts found on his cell phone.

          • James Pollock says

            “Stand Your Ground as explained to me in hand carry permit class means that if the defender is where they have a right to be, they do not have to prove a negative: that they could not have safely retreated (as required under the “duty to retreat” law in some states). ”

            At common law, there is a duty to retreat if possible prior to using deadly force. A “stand your ground” statute removes that duty to retreat. This difference reflects a difference in priories. Under the common-law rule, deadly force is not to be used unless there is no other alternative. Under “stand your ground”, the priority isn’t limiting use of deadly force, but rather limiting the ability of criminals to force people to back down by threatening them. A “stand your ground” law allows use of deadly force ealier in a confrontation and in more circumstances than did the common-law rule.

            Florida’s “SYG” statute does more than that, it changes the way presumption works in a trial. If self-defense, like other justification defenses, works as an affirmative defense, you get a shift in presumption. First the the prosecution has to prove that the defendant actually did the acts acharged, with the normal presumption, ie, that the defendant is innocent. Once an affirmative defense is applied, however, the defense must prove its case, and the presumption is that the affirmative defense claimed is invalid until the defense proves that it applies. Florida’s SYG law flips the presumption back to the prosecution when self-defense is claimed.

            “‘Kruidbos testified last month in a pre-trial hearing that he found photos on Martin’s phone that included pictures of a pile of jewelry on a bed, underage nude females, marijuana plants, and a hand holding a semi-automatic pistol.’”

            “Photos of underaged nude females” and “child pornography” are not the same thing at all.

      • Carl N. Brown says

        Martin’s history goes to explaining his possible behavior and choices that night. Martin showed himself on social media as some kind of gangsta wannabe bragging about fights, drugs, guns, etc. Trial testimony by Rachel Jeantel showed he had reached the Green house he was staying at. He could have gone inside, called his dad or called 911 himself. Jeantel on the Piers Morgan show talked how “new school” settles things by “whomping ass” rather than “old school” ways.

    • Josh says

      “It would have been a much more interesting and frankly more honest if instead of presenting Mehcad, as a sweet innocent kid, they had made him like the real Trayvon Martin character, who was anything but.”

      OH, but then that would involve NBC indirectly admitting that they took George Zimmerman’s words out of context by doctoring the tape to make George Zimmerman come off as racist. And the parent company CAN’T DO THAT.

  3. Stefi says

    This episode was all over the place to me. The prosecutions theory of the case was absurd. A jury is not going that Mehcad (16) followed Jolene (63) home ignoring her repeated requests to leave her alone, then trespassed on her property because he was so desperate for her autograph, especially since he had an opportunity to ask for it when she initially turned around.

    The defence counsel let Jolene take the stand when I would be asking for a directed verdict because there was no case to answer. Also he failed to point out that Mehcad was looking directly at Jolene when she was speaking to him and he didn’t remove the headphones or ask her to repeat what she said, the obvious conclusion is that he heard what she said. The prosecution had no evidence to the contrary. It also seemed strange that the defence didn’t suggest that the evidence supports that Mehcad did intend to rape or otherwise harm Jolene.

    I agree with you the difference between 1 to 5 foot was irrelevant and in any event stippling is only effective for determining distances under 30cm. Also if he’s 6′ 3″ his arm span is likely to be pretty long. So if his outstretched hand is a 1 foot away his body would be about 3-4 foot away.

    It also annoyed me that they skirted over the issue of racially motivated rape and sexual assault of white females by black males, as if that wasn’t very significant.

    • TokoBali says

      “It also annoyed me that they skirted over the issue of racially motivated rape and sexual assault of white females by black males, as if that wasn’t very significant.”

      Again, credible source would be nice, especially for the “raccially motivated” part. (Most data brougth to support this kind of thing is bogus anyway -> .) Otherwise, this is nothing more than the old pathetic “but the criminalblackman is dangerous” nonsense. Anything to avoid serious contemplation of racism in society and the criminal justice system.

      • Stefi says

        I guess you have never been to an international war crimes tribunal where the phenomenon of interracial rape is widely recognised. It exists everywhere and is readily documented. The FBI figures show that there is a disproportionate number of black on white rapes compared to white on black rapes in the US. And the phenomenon has been publicly acknowledged in Europe, where unlike the US, politicians and the public are not frightened to address the issue. Back in Italy in 2008 there was talk of putting the troops on the street to deal with interracial rapes and in 2009 law were passed to legalise vigilantes, which have been very effective. So the existence of the problem is not in doubt in either the US or Europe.

        Rape is a horrific and humiliating crime, racially motivated rape adds trauma in exactly the same way racial motivated assaults do. That would be just as much true where the victim is black and the rapist white but it happens to be the case that black males are disproportionately raping white females. If you are denying that interracial rape is more commonly black males raping white females, then are you suggesting that the majority of black rapists convicted of raping white females are in fact innocent?!!

        • TokoBali says

          What I am actually suggesting is that you give some links to prove your point, which you haven’t done. What I am actually suggesting is that you back up your claim that there is widespread “racially motivated” rape, i.e. black rapist going for white women BECAUSE they are white and is thus very different from ‘mere’ interracial rape, which you can’t do because its batshit crazy. Also, I would suggest you take a look at openly racist forums like Stormfront and see how they employ the same black-on-white crime stories, with the same bogus stats (or no stats at all), and using that as a justification for racism. They seem to agree with you that this kind of sotry is “significant”.

          And lastly, the only European politicians that concern themselves with these kind of scare stories are of the extreme-right and xenophobe kind. And bringing up the most racist and corrupt country of Europe does not exactly prove your point.

          • Stefi says

            No, you asked me for a credible source, I’ve cited the FBI, you’re welcome to look it up. You don’t get to claim that I haven’t provided you with a source because I have. I brought up Italy because it’s relevant and I’m Italian (Sicilian to be precise) and you have just made some rather xenophobic comments about Italy.

            Your notion that interracial rape isn’t racially motivated is clearly nonsense because rapist rarely choose their victims randomly, therefore if black rapists are targeting white victims, then there is every reason to believe the crime is racially motivated, it is the victims and witnesses perception that is paramount. The statistical reality is that interracial rape in the US is predominately black males raping white females.

            This episode of SVU touched on this, and cited a report that black offenders commit a disproportionate number of the rapes in NYC . My criticism is that have broached this important issue, they didn’t take it far enough. My guess is that the programme makers were frightened to frightened of being accused of racism. The difference between Europeans and Americans is that the race card doesn’t work on Europeans, so we’re not afraid to talk about racially motivated rapes.

          • TokoBali says

            I still don’t see any link to that FBI stuff, so we can hardly consider that a full citation. Also, pointing out that the country of Kyenge and Berlusconi, is not doing very well on the race thing is not xenophobic. I didn’t say a damn thing about Italians, I spoke to this -> . When a country is in such a state, with its politics functioning the way they do, I do not trust that the laws you discuss are sound and justified.

            Not choosing randomly does not equal choosing because of race. Opportunity, location, all kinds of things can come into play. Your suggestion that black men rape white women to attack the white race is nasty and stupid.

            And again, the only ones “not afraid” to spread this nonsense are the xenophobes and racist of the EDL, Le Pen, the Greek fascists, Wilders and Lega Nord. This fearful, Birth of a Nation-like talk of black rapist is not very prevalent in Europe. It’s rare, it is racist, and it comes from the same extreme-right corner that produces it in the US.

        • James Pollock says

          “The FBI figures show that there is a disproportionate number of black on white rapes compared to white on black rapes in the US.”

          There’s lots more white women than black women. This is about as surprising as discovering that more car accidents involve Toyotas than Ferraris.

        • Cait Rappel says

          If you’re looking at the statistics for rates of conviction—you’re very likely right. But those do not always accurately reflect the rate of occurrence.

          There’s a reason that white rape victims who initially lie to police about the identity of their actual rapist (or indeed, women who fabricate stories of stranger rape) often falsely claim that their rapist was a black man–it’s because they know the police will be less likely to question the claim’s validity and/or respect the rights of the alleged suspect.

          Furthermore, these cases will be less likely to go to trial because they’ll be quicker to secure a guilty plea or a plea-bargain—especially if you consider the economic disparity (and therefore, ability to secure adequate defense) between white and black defendants in many sexual assault cases.

          Furthermore, consider the likelihood of there being more priors (more often than not, racially biased in nature) on the average black suspect’s record that sway the justice system every step of the way—from the arrest, all the way to sentencing.

  4. TokoBali says

    What annoyed me most was the episode’s lame justification for stop-and-frisk policy, portraying it as though it is useful and necessary. This policy is nothing more then a program to jack up young black men, regardless of whether there is a black suspect or a 4th Amendment. It is not a useful police tactic, it is not an effective way of fighting crime or catching drugs, nor is it intended to do that. Unlike what tonight’s episode seems to suggest, young black men have more reason to fear the NYPD then upper-class white ladies from Georgia.

    • Carl N. Brown says

      St. Louis MO had a program in the 1970s of stopping any late model car driven by a black on the grounds they would probably find a weapon; about 25,000 stops, 117 firearms seized. Blatant violation of fourth amendment rights of the vast majority of the persons targeted. It was hard for me to see in1979 how that rose to fourth amendment “probable cause” for a search. (And if the guns turned out owned for self-defensed a second amendment violation as well.)

      However, I think the script was drawing a parallel between the NYC street “stop and frisk” profiling and Joline seeing the man following her and approaching her on her curtilage as matching the reported profile of the suspected rapist.

    • Carl N. Brown says

      The episode after this one has a cop Swatted and put in the loony bin. That sounded familiar and checking my notes that went back ti the issue of stop’n’frisk:

      “An NYPD report supports the claims made by Officer Adrian Schoolcraft, the Brooklyn cop who accused the NYPD of throwing him into a mental hospital because he complained supervisors were cooking the books to make the crime rate seem lower.”
      –Rocco Parascandola, “NYPD report supports claims by Adrian Schoolcraft, cop whistleblower”, NY Daily News, 7 Mar 2012.

      “Officers were told to arrest people who were doing little more than standing on the street, but they were also encouraged to disregard actual victims of serious crimes who wanted to file reports.”
      –Graham Rayman, “The NYPD Tapes Confirmed”, The Village Voice, 7 May 2012.

      Serious crime reports down, credit stop’n’frisk?

  5. Carl N. Brown says

    If “Joline” had called police non-emergency dispatch to report a person matching the rapist profile but that he had run away; if dispatch had arranged for “Joline” to meet up with responding officer(s) where the suspicious person was last seen; if while “Joline” was waiting for the officer(s) to show up the suspect had walked up to “Joline” and punched her in the nose, knocked her down and straddled her, and “Jolene” then shot him, while with a history of saying racial epithets twenty years earlier, then, yeah, this would have been a mashup of the Paula Deen and Trayvon Martin cases. As it is, it is a messup that does not inform us about Paula Deen, Trayvon Martin or George Zimmerman.

  6. James Pollock says

    “As it is, it is a messup that does not inform us about Paula Deen, Trayvon Martin or George Zimmerman.”

    It’s not supposed to inform you about Paula Deen, Trayvon Martin, or George Zimmerman. It says so right at the beginning.

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