Was that … sexual tension between Alec Baldwin and Detective Olivia Benson? Cassidy, watch out! Tonight’s episode was a tight and realistic riff on the Tawanna Brawley case. It was also Mariska Hargitay’s directorial debut. I think she hit it out of the ballpark – maybe even to Jupiter?
A beautiful young Muslim woman named Heba is found injured and raped in Central Park. At first, she claims that she was assaulted by two white strangers who shouted anti-Muslim slurs. The city is shocked by the hate crime.
Olivia races against a swaggering journalist played by a swaggering Alec Baldwin. Alec’s sources are better than the SVU’s. Soon, he discovers that Heba wasn’t raped in Central Park! “HOAX” screams his front-page headline the next day. Heba’s family enlists the help of a pulpit-pounding minister (why not an imam? because the minister is a regular guest star on SVU), who denounces the NYPD for leaking the case and disgracing Heba.
It turns out Heba was raped, just in a different manner - by her brother’s rich boss and the boss’s friend, after the boss invited her to an “after-party” in his penthouse office. Heba initially lied because she was ashamed to tell her parents she went to see a man by herself and drank champagne. The fibers found on her clothing belong to the goat-skin rug in the boss’s office; the semen inside her belongs to the two cocky real estate brokers.
The men claim consent; the case goes to trial; and a mistrial is declared after Alec finally looks in Heba’s dewy eyes during her testimony, realizes she’s telling the truth, and writes a front-page story saying so. The jurors admit they read the story despite their instruction not to read press coverage, and the judge dismisses them. A retrial is avoided when the cocky boss pleads guilty to a misdemeanor and throws his co-conspirator under the felony bus.
One final twist: the rapist/boss’s family has powerful connections to Alec’s newspaper, and Daddy is the one who pushed Alec to write the HOAX story. Shamed by Olivia’s withering glare, Alec posts a story describing the whole sordid business, then resigns from the paper. “I’ve got balls as big as Jupiter,” he crows from his barstool later that night, while Olivia coyly holds up a finger to order a second round of drinks for them.
What they got right:
The Tawana Brawley case rocked the country in 1987, when the young African-American woman claimed she had been gang-raped by several white men then left to die in a garbage bag covered in dog feces. She wouldn’t cooperate with prosecutors, retained Al Sharpton as her PR man, and accused a local prosecutor of being one of the rapists. It was all a hoax. According to NPR, “”a special state grand jury later determined that Brawley had fabricated her claims, perhaps to avoid punishment for staying out late.” In 1998, the prosecutor successfully sued Brawley and Sharpton for defamation.
Did you suspect that the dad and the brother had sexually assaulted Heba, then framed it as a hate crime to deflect blame? Then perhaps you’ve heard of the case of Shaima Alawadi, an Iraqi immigrant found murdered in her San Diego home. A note next to her body read, “This is my country. Go back to yours, terrorist.” Reacting to the apparent hate crime, a Facebook page called “One Million Hijabs for Shaima Alawadi” was launched. In a few days, over 12,000 women posted pictures of themselves wearing a head scarf. Later, the police arrested Alawadi’s husband and charged him with killing her and planting the note himself.
The hajib Facebook page was the one heartening thing to come out of the tragedy.
Tonight’s episode also got a lot of the details correct. Olivia knew that victims of sexual assault initially omit details of their assault 50% of the time. The concept of “rolling disclosures” is familiar to every sex-offense detective. The way Nick and Finn used a Q-tip to swab the inside of the suspect’s cheeks, then put the Q-tips in a long white box, is exactly how detectives swab for DNA when executing warrants on suspects in real life. Carpet fibers left on clothing or shoes can be tested and matched to carpet in a given home, and DNA analysis can tell what type of animal a hair comes from (although I didn’t see any smoking-gun goat hairs in my prosecutions. Goats again! Why does it always come back to the goats on SVU?).
And the difficulties in prosecuting a case like this were well articulated. It’s very hard to make a case when a victim has lied so enormously in the beginning. The fact that Barba was able to get a misdemeanor plea out of one defendant and a felony conviction out of the other speaks to his legal skills (and, maybe some dramatic license in the overwhelming quantity of corroborating evidence the police found). After the victim lied and deliberately faked a crime scene, I’m not sure this case would be winnable in a real courtroom. And Barba was right about how the plea went down. Although the rich boss was the worst offender, every criminal attorney knows that, “The first one in the life boat gets the best seat.”
What they got wrong:
Besides Woodward and Bernstein breaking Watergate, I’ve never seen a case where a single journalist is so important to coverage. In real sex-offense cases, it seems, everyone is interested or no one is. And no way would Alec quit at the end. A grizzled veteran reporter like him would have seen hundreds of cases far worse than this one.
What do you think, SVU fans? Would you believe a rape victim’s subsequent story if she were initially caught in a serious lie? Are goat hair accessories going to be all the rage? And can Olivia personally vouch for Alec’s planetary dimensions? Leave your comments!