SVU Episode #15-6: Dissonant Voices

A pair of vindictive teen girls were (once again) the unlikely culprits on tonight’s SVU, in an episode that mashed up the real-life sex abuse cases involving The Voice judge Cee Lo Green (cleared of all charges), Elmo’s creator Kevin Clash, and TV host Jimmy Saville.

Recap:

A music coach on an American-Idol-like show is accused of sexually abusing two four-year-old boys at the posh private school where he’s their music teacher. The detectives build a strong case, arrest him, and hold him on $1,000,000 bail.  But, it turns out, the boys were coached to lie by their pouty teenage sisters, who were angry at the coach for rebuffing the girls’ attempts to sing on the TV show.

Verdict: B-

What they got right: 

The first half of this episode showed some authentic details about how child-sex-abuse cases are built.  The boys initially gave very good disclosures: with specific details, in their own words, without appearing rehearsed.  They described things a four-year-old would not usually know, like the purple egg-shaped vibrator.  They corroborated each other, without giving verbatim stories. And many of the details of this case were exactly the kind of details that would come out in a real case of child sex abuse: like a kid mysteriously coming home without his underwear (an occurrence I heard several times in my caseload) and the suspect changing his stories.  “I was never alone with kids” became “I was alone with the boy because he fell in the toilet, and he was embarrassed, so I threw his underwear out and, uh, I never told his mom.” Often, predators do not give full confessions, but are caught in a web of lies and inconsistencies. 

The episode also nailed many of the real-life procedures by which kids are questioned.  Most child victims are taken to a child’s advocacy center, which is designed to put them at ease.  The décor is bright and cheerful, the furniture is child-sized, the place is quiet and filled with toys and kids books.  Detectives there very often use gingerbread drawings like the ones Olivia and Amanda used to have the kids describe what happened.  Often, children have their own terminology for anatomy and sex acts, like tonight’s “super-special magic egg.”

And the show authentically captured many of the feelings that sex-offense professionals experience.  Olivia felt like she was playing “Whac-a-Mole,” convicting one predator just to encounter another, over and over.  Amanda’s doubt underscored another truth keenly felt by sex investigators: that a mere allegation can ruin on a defendant’s life.  And the women’s debate intelligently captured a conflict inherent in many SVU-type cases, where professionals must walk a precarious line between protecting the community while protecting suspect’s rights, while trying to find the truth.

You can see the practical urgency of this in the real cases behind tonight’s show.  Jimmy Saville (whom Ice-T mentioned) was a popular British TV host.  He was also a predator, alleged to have sexually abused hundreds of children and adults, both male and female, via a career that involved visiting kids in schools and hospitals and granting their wishes.  Earlier action by authorities and TV execs might have prevented the victimization of hundreds of kids.  On the other hand, The Voice judge Cee Lo Green was accused of drugging and sexually assaulting a woman –  before the DA decided not to press charges, noting that the same woman dated Green for months before, and had made a similar claim against him a year earlier.

Kevin-clash-emmy wikipediaAnd we’re all familiar with the charges made against Elmo creator Kevin Clash.  Most recently, three young men brought charges against Clash, claiming that he molested them when they were underage.  A judge dismissed the charges on the grounds that too much time had passed between the alleged acts and the charges.  What really happened between the parties is unclear, as is the future of Clash’s career.

 

 

 

 

What they got wrong:

You knew how innocent tonight’s music coach was by how earnestly he denied the charges, right?  He just couldn’t believe anyone would accuse him of that.  Don’t be fooled. In real life, predators are excellent liars.  I think they even convince themselves.  I’ve had sex-offense defendants earnestly insist they never touched a girl – after DNA tests conclusively proved they fathered a baby with the victim.  Jimmy Saville went to the grave vehemently denying any sex abuse – despite massive evidence and witnesses to the contrary.

Olivia and Nick were so outraged at the coach’s statement that they stormed out of the interrogation room.  “Wait!” the suspect cried, “I want to talk to you!”   “You had your chance,” Nick snarled, before slamming the door.  Hang that in the Bad Detective Hall of Fame.  Any time a defendant is willing to talk, a good cop listens.  Even if he’s not telling you the truth, even if you don’t believe him.  Give him enough room to spin his lies, and he just might tangle himself up in them.

Amanda sounded shocked when she announced that medical tests were “inconclusive as to sex abuse.”  That is actually very common.  Children who are sexually abused bear many psychological scars but few physical ones.

“He’s four years old,” the ADA said.  “No judge will find him swearable.”  Not true.  While competence is often an issue for child witnesses, the question is basically: can the child tell the difference between the truth and a lie?  If she can, she can be a witness, whatever her age.  Usually, the very first questions a detective in a Children’s Advocacy Center asks concern the child’s ability to distinguish truth and lies.  When Amanda finally asked Cooper that — in the last ten minutes of the show – it was seriously bad form.  Think of all the heartache she could have saved if she’d just asked that at first!

After the kids confessed that they’d lied, ADA Barba advised the detectives: “Go ask the coach about it.”  No.  Do not keep collecting evidence. Go to court.  Go directly to court.  Do not pass “Go.”  Do not collect $200.  Inform the court and the defendant that all of the victims have recanted.  Prosecutors have a duty to turn over any evidence that shows the defendant might be innocent.  In this case, where the defendant is sitting in jail awaiting trial, this information was urgent.  Besides, no decent defense attorney is going to let his client be interrogated by the detectives at this point.

Finally, was I the only one shaking my head when the bad guys turned out to be the two teenage girls?  I guess I should be relieved that we got through five full episodes before SVU’s instinct to blame the cute girls kicked in.

What do you think, SVU fans?  Leave your comments!

 

Comments

  1. Did the jimmy savile thing make the news in america?

    I assumed it was only widely reported in the UK because he was only famous here, but then they mentioned it on last nights SVU

  2. I had the same “oh no, the pretty, young girls did it again” moment and I thought the whole set-up/elaborate plan carried out by the girls was too far fetched. But other than that I enjoyed this episode a lot.
    I liked that the detective could come to different conclusion while view the same evidence and the squabbles that came out of that. I especially liked the ending, when Rollins called out Barber and the others as they tried to not accept responsibility. “Keep telling yourself that…”

    Great ending.

  3. Great recaps. You did well with the realistic analysis on several topics. But there’s one thing I don’t understand. Since you mentioned the Weiner,Trayvon, and Kenneth Moreno references in previous recaps, why not mention the McMartin preschool trial as the basis for this story?

    It may be from the 1980s, but it was a large-scale case and an extremely important case that most professionals involved in sex crimes and child abuse should know of. It was even made into a movie (“Indictment”). The SVU writers were blatantly referencing McMartin here. As a specialist in this area, it’s important to note the episode’s main inspiration for the average person who may not remember this significant trial.

  4. Allison, I’m sorry but I’ve got to disagree with you that earlier action by the authorities in the Jimmy Savile case might have prevented the victimisation of hundreds of kids. These offences all took place before 1990, until a change in legislation in 1994 a rape conviction could not be secured without corroborative evidence, so most of these cases wouldn’t have gone forward. Also complaints were not protected by rape shield laws (changed 1999 and came into effect in 2000) and perhaps more importantly they wouldn’t have been granted anonymity (changed 1992). Savile wasn’t just a popular TV host, he was national institution. He was on TV from 1960 and on BBC 1 hosting Top of the Pops since 1964 and Jim’ll Fix It from 1975 to 1994, and even before that he was a celebrity as a DJ on Radio Luxembourg. He was on Radio 1 from 68-89. I remember growing up in London in the 80s, everybody watched Top of the Pops and Jim’ll Fix It. The media would have vilified a complainant and reported every scandalous detail about his or her life.

    Whilst its true that the police failed to pursue early complaints, those complaints had no realistic prospect of success. A good example is the male who accused Savile of buggering him in 1963. Buggery was illegal until 1967. He would have no proof to support the allegation and he would have been branded a practising homosexual to boot. He could easily have ended up being prosecuted.

    • Thanks for your comment and all your attention to this case, Stefi. Interesting (or horrifying) point about a male rape complainant being branded a criminal “practising homsexual” in the 60′s.

      • Allison, the situation was even worse for females because buggery was still an offence between heterosexuals until the mid 90s (amended 1994 and came into effect in 1995), so any female rape complainant who had consensual anal sex over the age of 18 runs the risk of being charged with the sexual offence of buggery. So as you can imagine if the defence pass on evidence that a female complainant who alleges rape per vaginam vel per anum has a penchant for taking it up the arse, the prosecution would have to take a view as the whether to press charges against the complainant. If they decided against it they can guarantee the defence will adduce it in evidence. The complainant obviously would have a right not to self-incriminate but unless the Crown concede that the complainant had voluntarily engaged in buggery, the defence would argue abuse of process. It would be an insurmountable obstacle to a prosecution unless the Crown had incontrovertible corroborative evidence of rape, which is highly unlikely.

  5. I think the conspiracy between the two teenage girls involving their brothers was absolutely ridiculous but teenage girls making false allegations of rape happens, and not infrequently. In fact, there has just recently been a case in England were a famous soap star, Michael Le Vell was falsely accused of rape by a teenage complainant who claimed he had promised to make her star. I think that might have been part of the inspiration for this episode. That case should never have been brought to trial and only was because Alison Levitt QC, Principal Legal Advisor to the Director of Public Prosecutions overruled the Chief Crown Prosecutor, Nazir Afzal, who made the correct decision that there was no realistic prospect for a conviction. Levitt has rightly come in for a lot of criticism for being overzealous. Again, I thought I saw echoes of that in this episode.

  6. FYI – this episode was raised for discussion on a listserve for professionals in Children’s Advocacy Centers. The Executive Director of the National Childrens’ Advocacy Center (NCAC) found your blog and shared a link to it because he was so pleased with your analysis and your reference to the work of Children’s Advocacy Centers in today’s investigations. Thought you’d like to know that!

  7. Indeed, the evil teenage girls are getting boring, but what I did like about this ep. was an innocent perp and faulty detectives. The original L&O had that every now and then; a suspect who was actually innocent, or an unsatisfactory outcome. SVU does not seem to this a lot, and it keeps things a surprise. Seeing a nice, wrapped-up happy end every week gets boring.

    • Carl N. Brown says:

      The evil teenage girl really is getting to be a tired plot point. What horror movie memes (besides sweet innocent girls turning out as the villianesses) are left? Sweet innocent girl turning out to be a forty-year old midget and a villianess (Orphan 2009), or turning out to be a guy and a villian (Deadly Blessing, Sleepaway Camp)?

  8. Carl N. Brown says:

    Why don’t dismissal of charges hearings get real life publicity, or are they like newspaper retractions, buried by accusers too proud to publicly admit error?

  9. Allison – Good analysis of a somewhat typical child sex abuse scenario. The one aspect I will disagree where the show didn’t get it right actually was the portrayal of the child advocacy center. While the scene was shot at the CAC (specifically Safe Horizon’s, NYC’s CAC) the interview was conducted by the detectives and not an independent forensic interviewer which is the case in most parts of the country. Law enforcement and social services workers who investigate cases and also conduct interviews often don’t have the chance to become as expert, as proficient, and even unbiased in the art of interviewing a child. Using a variety of national protocols such as NICHD or CornerHouse, these professionals who are regularly peer reviewed, supervised, and focus just on what the child says, has an innate ability to perhaps avoid some of the pitfalls that overtook our fictional detectives here. It may not make for as good TV (but Dick Wolf has used external shrinks for years to examine the defendant) the least we could have had was a good forensic interview. Guess that’s why I stopped watching years ago.

    • Carl N. Brown says:

      To do it as you wish (realistically) they would have to hire another actor to play the independent forensic interviewer. I don’t think they always have the detectives in the mix for dramatic punch (“good TV”); I suspect they are often just using resources (actors) at hand within time constraints of TV (they would have to add a scene for the interviewer to brief the detectives, so there they may actually be doing it for good TV after all).

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