SVU’s Season 16 Premiere!

SVU came back with a bang! Tonight’s episode was a fast, twisty roller coaster of a story that wove the harrowing real-life issue of sex slavery with a touching glimpse of Olivia’s newfound motherhood. The result was a flat-out terrific premiere that showed, once again, why fans can’t get enough of SVU.

Recap:

Olivia has just settled into motherhood with her adopted baby, Noah, when the arrest of a fourteen-year-old prostitute throws her world into chaos. The girl works for a terrifying sex trafficking ring involved in the death of Noah’s prostitute mother. But Olivia and her team dig deeper: finding more underage girls, a gaggle of muscle-bound pimps, and a shady Uber-like cab company transporting the girls around town to service middle-aged married men.

Nick goes undercover to try to gain a pimp’s trust – but soon witnesses are getting killed left and right. (Olivia’s going to need more than her baby wipes to clean up all that blood.) The gang even takes a shot at Noah! Mama Bear Benson is now on the war path.

Our newest detective, Sonny Carisi, makes it 39 minutes into the franchise before he’s enlisted to go undercover in a prostitution sting. He almost gets killed, but Ice-T rushes into the motel room and they arrest a prostitute-turned-enforcer named Selena. Is she a victim or victimizer?

Selena won’t talk – until Olivia finds Selena’s young son, living in a mansion in a slum in Mexico. Turns out, all of the underage prostitutes come from a single Mexican town, where pimping is the local business. The girls were all kidnapped from their homes, brought to New York, and sold. The pimps keep any babies the prostitutes had as leverage to keep the girls compliant — Selena’s included.

Olivia promises Selena she’ll see her son again if she talks. Selena admits that the guy who runs the Uber-like cab company is “Angel,” the head of the sex slave ring. Our detectives go to arrest him, but when he threatens Noah (and reaches for a gun), Ice-T shoots him through the heart. Selena is tearfully reunited with her son.

Olivia goes home, hugs her baby, and tells him that everything is okay now.

Verdict: A

What They Got Right:

Tenancingo is a real city known as the sex-slave capital of Mexico. It is said to be the single largest source of sex slaves who are sent to the United States. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s New York field office arrested 32 sex traffickers last year; 26 of them were from Tenancingo. Boys in Tenancingo grow up aspiring to become pimps. Girls are seduced or kidnapped into a life of sex work. Slums sit in the shadow of huge mansions housing the families of sex traffickers. The girls’ babies are kept as collateral, to keep the girls compliant.

Kudos to SVU for shining a light on this dark place in the world.

On a personal note: I loved how Olivia’s newfound motherhood enriched and challenged her work as an investigator. As a working mom myself, I’ve had that exact experience – where a binkie falls out of my briefcase as I’m talking about sex crime prosecution. It was very real. And I loved how Olivia used her mommy instincts to get a break in the case. She focused on the children the prostitutes had left behind in Mexico and the mothers’ instinct to protect them. No one knows the power of motherhood like a mom.

What They Got Wrong:

What has SVU got against Uber? Did showrunner Warren Leight have to wait too long for a black car to arrive? In real life, Uber has weathered a few scandals, but none of their execs have been accused of running a sex slave ring. In fact, if you google “Uber and Prostitution” the first article you get is an adorably geeky Uber blog post about how high-prostitution and high-crime areas are generally correlated with more Uber rides. Uber may be the algorithm capital of the world.

Everyone went undercover, fast. Nick cozied up to Joaquin. Carisi canoodled with Carmen. In real life, you have to work with a gang for a long time, establishing credibility, friendship and trust, before you can make any real impact or connections.

Also, why has Carisi cycled through three districts in the last year? I’m guessing: the moustache.

What did you think, SVU fans? Is Olivia going to a be a great mom or what? Will Nick get out of uniform and back into the SVU soon? And, okay, Carisi may not be empathic, but shouldn’t Olivia at least appreciate the zeppellis? Leave your comments!

Oscar Pistorius Verdict

In light of today’s verdict, where the “Blade Runner” was acquitted of murdering his girfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, many people have asked me what I think of the trial. Here, in bullet-points, are a few quick initial thoughts.

*Pistorius was found not guilty of murder, but is still on the hook for negligence. The judge may find Pistorius guilty of a lesser charge, “culpable homicide,” aka manslaughter.  That charge can carry anything from a suspended sentence to a long jail term. The judge will announce her decision on the culpable homicide issue tomorrow.

* She will apply the test of what a “reasonable man” with Pistorius’s disabilities should have done. She tipped her hand, saying she was “not persuaded that a reasonable person with the accused’s disabilities would have fired four shots” into the bathroom. Pistorius could have called security or went to the balcony and yelled for help.

* South Africa itself has been on trial, especially the police and criminal justice system. The police bungling of this high profile case makes you question what kind of mistakes happen under the radar in everyday cases. The case showed the worst of the police: mishandling of evidence, even evidence of the police stealing Pistorius’s watches.

* The judge had to decided whether this case is about domestic violence or residential crime – twin demons that haunt the country.

* Judge Thokozile Masipa is a black woman who was raised in a poor Zulu township, and studied law under apartheid. The fact that she holds this rich white celebrity’s fate in her hands shows how far the country has come since apartheid. She has been hailed for the calm and dignity she brought to the proceedings.

*Pistorius is South Africa’s OJ Simpson. His trial exposed the lifestyle of a celebrity and also made him they symbol of all things wrong in their country. It showcased the rich’s fear of the poor, racial tension, violence against women, gun violence, and the privileges of a wealthy white defendant.

* While Pistorius’s high profile trial has transfixed the world’s media, little focus has been given on how to prevent violence against women and girls,

* South Africa has some of the world’s worst rates of violence against women, and the highest rate of women killed by an intimate partner. A woman is killed by her husband or boyfriend every eight hours. The rate of intimate femicide, the killing of women by their partners, is five times higher than the global average.

*Research shows that partner violence and rape are fundamentally related to unequal gender norms, power inequalities, and ideals of manhood that support violence and control over women

* A 2013 Unesco report found South Africa’s sex education failed in a number of topics, including gender rights and age appropriateness. Children on South African playgrounds play a game called “rape rape” where boys chase girls and pretend to sexually assault them.

*An estimated 500,000 rapes take place every year in South Africa. In 2012, Interpol named South Africa the rape capital of the world. Still, fewer than 1% of rape cases are reported to the police. There have been reports that police stations are running out of rape kits, which are needed to collect evidence.

* A South African report attributed the low report and conviction rate to the public perception of the police post-apartheid, where police are regarded as a symbol of oppression.

For a more thorough analysis, check out these excellent articles, from which I took much of the above information and analysis: “The Problem of Violence Against Women in South Africa,” by Lydia Smith writing for the International Business Times, and “How the Oscar Pistorius Trial Became a Mirror on South African Society,” by David Smith writing for the Guardian.

How could she marry him? Why Janay Rice and so many domestic-violence victims stand by their man.

Of all the figures in the Ray Rice scandal, his wife Janay is the most mysterious.  Ray himself?  An irredeemable villain.  NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who initially gave Ray a paltry two-game suspension?  A coldhearted businessman protecting his bottom line.  But what about Janay Rice, the woman who said “I do” to the running back a few weeks after he beat her into unconsciousness?  Inexplicable.

In fact, 80% of domestic violence victims are back together with their abusers by the time of trial, and don’t want charges brought.  As a DV prosecutor, I saw this over and over.  I’d meet a woman the day of her attack. She’d be bloody and bruised and ready to send her assailant to jail. Two months later, on the day of trial, she’d be cuddling her abuser in the back of the courtroom. “Please, Ms. Leotta,” she’d say. “I don’t want him to go to jail. I love him. Drop the charges.”

If Janay Rice had been mugged by a stranger, she’d wanted him arrested.  But being beaten by a man you love is a very different thing.

Three months after the brutal assault, Janay appeared at a press conference with Ray.  In the intervening time, she’d gone from being his fiancée to being his wife.  She said, “I deeply regret the role I played in the incident that night,” a line which had obviously been scripted for her, and which was promptly tweeted  out by the Ravens.  Ray proceeded to apologize to a lot of people –  including his coach, his fans, and everyone affected by “this situation that me and my wife were in” – but, glaringly, not to the woman he cold-clocked in that hotel elevator.  She sat by him, eerily stoic, ready with her lines.

Here’s my guess.   After Ray hit Janay he was very, very sorry.  He apologized, repeatedly.  He was far nicer to her than he’d been in, say, the year before the beating.  He promised he would change — and she wanted to believe him.  This is the cycle of domestic violence :  after a beating the batterer is the sweetest he can be.  He brings home gifts, promises, and his best behavior.  In this “honeymoon period,” the victim is thoroughly wooed.  She wants him to be better — he’s the father of her child! —  and she wants to be the one who can help him make that change.  She takes him back, hoping for the best.  But if there is no intervention, the tension in their relationship will build again — until the next beating.  And domestic violence doesn’t go away quietly; it spirals upward, with each incident getting more violent and brutal.

But hope springs eternal.  Love.  Forgiveness. Metamorphosis.  Happily Ever After.  In this case, Ray had even more lure than the typical abuser: the promise of a multi-million-dollar NFL salary. The wealth to buy the massive diamond ring Janay wore during that awkward press conference.   The kind of lifetime financial security that few women can hope for—and that Janay, perhaps, could not resist.

Eventually, Janay said she didn’t want to go forward with criminal charges — but the state went forward anyway, as states may do.  Ray was indicted for aggravated assault on March 27th.  He and Janay were married the next day.  This was not a coincidence:  New Jersey has a spousal privilege, by which a wife cannot be forced to testify against her husband, although a girlfriend can. Ray and Janay may have been deeply in love, but I bet the reason they got married was so she couldn’t be forced to testify against him.

But Ray didn’t realize there was video still lurking out there, and one video is worth a thousand pages of sworn testimony.  I’m not a big fan of tabloid journalism, but we should thank TMZ.  Thanks for shining a light where few news outlets, even in 2014, are brave enough to look.  Like the video recording in the Donald Sterling case, this two-minute clip took a snippet of unrehearsed reality and got America talking about an uncomfortable reality that still prevails when powerful men think no one is watching.

I hope the NFL expels Ray Rice.  The league could make big difference.  Courts are a blunt tool – carrying the high standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” and tending toward probationary penalties even if there is a conviction.  But the NFL has a sharper tool: the tool of public opinion. If Ray loses his job, millions of American boys will see that  this is unacceptable, that no matter how well you play ball, you may not hit the person you love.  That message would also make a difference to millions of female football fans.  Ray Rice says he wants to be a role model, and he should be: by modelling the fact that if you commit such a craven assault—however rich or successful you may be—you will lose your riches, and you will go to jail.

Most of all, I hope Janay is doing okay.

Lessons from a Sex-Crimes Prosecutor — by Heide Herrmann

My friend, Heide Herrmann, is a sex-crimes prosecutor at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia (the same job I held before becoming an author).  She has handled some of the office’s most high-profile sex-crime cases, but is known for bringing incredible diligence, compassion, and good judgement to every case that crosses her desk. Heide is leaving the USAO to work for DOJ’s Consumer Protection Branch.  Her recent Facebook post about the lessons she learned from the job really resonated with me.  In a few lines, she captured a lot of what the job is about.  Her post is reprinted below. Good luck with the new job, Heide, and thanks for making the city a better place: one day  and one person, at a time. – Allison

As I embark upon my last week as an Assistant United States Attorney, below is a list, in no particular order, of a few of the lessons I’ve learned over the last six years or so. Some more trite than others.

1.  You gotta fake it ’til you make it.

2.  Everything about being a prosecutor is scary as hell. And it’s how I now know how brave I am capable of being.

3.  When a person tells you that you can’t possibly understand how she feels, she’s right. But you should still try.

4.  I can’t fix all of the problems for all of the people I meet. But every day, there is at least one thing I can do to make one person’s life a little easier, safer or better.

5.  No means no. Unconscious means no. So drunk that she can’t walk or talk means no. If that seems obvious to you, good. Teach it to your sons anyway, because apparently it’s not obvious to everyone.

6.  If a car runs you down in the middle of a crosswalk, it’s the driver’s fault, not yours. But you still look both ways before crossing. Young women — please think about how much you drink, and whether you’ll still be safe if you have another, and another, and another. If a man assaults you it’s his fault, not yours, but I’d rather you never find yourself in that situation.

7.  Hug your children. Tell them how important they are. Talk to them, listen to them, love them, protect and appreciate them. If you already do that, good. Do it more. You’d be surprised how many children have no one who gives them the most basic care and kindness. I don’t want to tell you more, because then it’ll hurt you, the way it hurts me.

8.  There is no group of people more concerned about doing justice, protecting the vulnerable, and maintaining the highest level of ethical and professional standards than the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. I will always be proud to have practiced alongside these heroic prosecutors, and to have served the citizens of the District of Columbia.

SVU’s Season 15 Finale: “Spring Awakening”

Congratulations, SVU! Not only was the show renewed for a sixteenth season, it delivered one of its best episodes for this season’s finale. “Spring Awakening” showed some admirably authentic police details while provoking the full spectrum of emotions. Earlier this week, showrunner Warren Leight tweeted out a picture of Kleenex, warning fans to prepare. He was right.

Recap:

Nick is hauled to jail for beating up Simon, the child-torture fetishist who was acquitted last episode. Fueled by its recent Twitter #fiasco, NYPD charges Nick with a felony, and he’s locked up on $500,000 bail. Munch returns to bail Nick out and give a fatherly pep talk. Amanda, who often shows serious disregard for the law she’s sworn to upheld, saves her lover by threatening Simon’s wife. If Simon doesn’t drop the charges, Amanda snarls, she’ll make sure he goes to jail forever. Oh, also, Simon is online offering to let men rape his wife if they email him kiddie-torture-porn pictures. Simon promptly says he threw the first punch, and the charges against Nick are dropped.

Let’s hope Nick signs up for some anger management classes, Amanda signs up for some ethics training, and Simon falls down an elevator shaft.

Meanwhile, a German tourist hires a prostitute named Ellie to visit his hotel room, but is instead robbed, beaten and raped by her pimp, Tino. Murphy poses as an Irish tourist looking for love, and nabs the duo. But then the German goes to a lineup and identifies the wrong guy as the pimp. Tino is set free, and Ellie won’t testify against him. “He’s my gangster, my daddy,” she hisses through heroin-brown teeth. Even the prospect of going through drug withdrawal in jail isn’t enough to make her turn on her pimp.

That is, until DNA results show that Ellie is the mother of baby Noah, whom Olivia rescued from child pornographers a few episodes ago. Olivia has been following Noah’s path through the foster care system – and slowly falling in love with him – but now must use him as a tool to flip Ellie. When Ellie is reunited with her baby, who she thought was dead, she vows to get clean and testify against Tino, who sold the baby to the pornographers. [Read more...]

SVU Episode #15-23: Thought Criminal

“Do you want to live in a world where you can be put in prison for what’s in your head?” That’s what the outraged defense attorney asked our ADA in tonight’s episode, and it’s the real-life question raised by the horrifying “Cannibal Cop” case. As technology is increasingly used to explore our most secret desires, it’s an issue that will be debated and litigated for years to come.

Recap:

A photographer named Simon, who specializes in photos of children, secretly fantasizes about torturing and killing little boys. He discusses this extensively in Internet chat rooms, which eventually leads to police attention. Murphy and Amanda go to his showroom for an undercover chat, with Murphy posing as a rich guy who wants to participate in Simon’s activities. After they ditch Amanda, the men discuss kidnaping a boy to torture and kill. Ice-T plays a guy willing to do the kidnapping for a price. Simon is all in, and shows Murphy and Ice the soundproof torture chamber he’s built – across the street from a school – complete with restraints, butchers knives, rotating saws, operating tables, and industrial grade drains and sinks.

[Read more...]

SVU Episode #15-22: “Reasonable Doubts”

In this powerful episode, SVU captured in one hour much of the pain, controversy, and ambiguity of the decades-long Woody Allen / Dylan Farrow child-sex abuse case. The show explored how hard these cases are to prosecute, and how the effects of abuse linger forever in a child’s life.

Verdict: A

Recap:

A director named Frank leaves his middle-aged actress wife, Katherine, and takes up with her barely-legal sister, Rose. In the midst of an acrimonious divorce, Frank and Katherine’s little girl, Chelsea, tells her mother that Frank molested her. Mom takes her to a pediatrician, who loops in the police. Our detectives try to figure out whether Katherine is using Chelsea as a pawn in the divorce, or whether Frank is a serial pedophile. They conclude the latter, and charge him with sexually abusing Chelsea. Frank skips town in the middle of his trial, and, a la Roman Polanski, flies to Paris, where he publicly paws Rose. He is convicted despite his absence. Katherine takes a public victory lap, while Chelsea grimaces at the assembled paparazzi.

This story mirrored the Woody Allen scandal. In 1992, Allen left his wife, Mia Farrow, for Farrow’s 20-year-old daughter Soon-Yi Previn. The same year, Farrow’s 7-year-old daughter, Dylan, reported that Allen molested her. Unlike tonight’s show, Dylan’s charges were never adjudicated in a criminal court. The DA declined to prosecute, noting how hard a trial would be on Dylan.

Allen sued Farrow for custody of Dylan, which he lost. You can read the judge’s scathing condemnation of Allen’s conduct. That judge concluded that “we will probably never know what occurred” that day. [Read more...]

SVU Episode #15-21: “Post-Mortem Blues”

One week after SVU’s heroine survived the ultimate physical danger, the show plunked her in the middle of a legal and emotional dilemma almost as dangerous. I admit, I had doubts about the premise of “Post-Mortem Blues.” How could this heroic woman be blamed, much less charged with a crime, for the suicide of monstrous Lewis? But the SVU writers showed why they’re the best in the business, demonstrating how skeptical eyes can interpret things differently and the ambiguities to be found in facts that seemed so clear.

Verdict: A-

Recap:

In the midst of kidnapping Olivia and a little girl, Lewis shoots himself in the head. The SVU detectives are running up the steps to rescue Olivia, and are listening to her plight on their police radios, just as Lewis kills himself. His blood spatters her face.

Lewis deviously manages to haunt Olivia even after he’s dead. He shot himself with his left hand, staging the scene to look like Olivia did it. With all the Russian Roulette they played, the M.E. can’t say who pulled the trigger. The little girl was looking away when the shots were fired. Internal Affairs investigates Olivia, wondering if she actually killed Lewis.

Thereupon commences a massive legal nightmare. A sultry defense attorney is appointed to defend her. All of Olivia’s colleagues are called to testify against her; they privately discuss whether to perjure themselves on her behalf. Barred from working, Olivia spends a lot of time with her psychologist and drinking wine. [Read more...]