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Oct 04 2016

ABC’s New Show “Conviction” Is Guilty of Being Terrible

It would have been impossible to imagine say 5 years ago that the exoneration of the wrongfully convicted has become so mainstream and commonplace that it would be the subject of a network prime-time drama. But tonight, ABC unveiled “Conviction” starring Hayley Atwell in the lead role as a lawyer heading the NY County DA’s newly-formed Conviction Integrity Unit. The show does not pass up on any cliche from the typical TV police procedural show – the love-hate relationship between the DA and his appointee; the trite speeches about justice and “doing the right thing”; and the last minute mystery witness who provides the essential clue to solving the case – right in time for the last commercial break. But it isn’t the old worn out formula that hurts the show, it’s the show’s flippant attitude towards Conviction Integrity Units (and reality) that really sinks the ship.

For starters, Hayley Atwell’s character is selected to run the unit under some – let’s call them unusual – circumstances. She has just been arrested in NY County for possession of cocaine after a night of partying when she is visited by the NY County DA whose apparently an old flame (of course). Here’s the deal he is willing to make: He will drop the charges and make the case go away if she agrees to take on the job of head of CIU. Sure she’s qualified – graduating at the top of her Harvard Law School class and winning 95% of her cases as a defense attorney, a percentage rate unknown by any lawyer in the criminal defense community besides Perry Mason. But the real reason why the politically ambitious DA wants her at the helm is that her father was recently President of the United States and her mother is running for the US Senate. (Sound familiar?) Her Mom informs her that the DA told her that if she fails at the job he will upgrade the charges against her to possession with intent to sell – and he’ll push for jail time. Nothing like being extorted through the use of a wrongful conviction to get you to head the wrongful conviction unit. So to save herself and her mother’s campaign, she reluctantly takes the job. Oh but there’s a catch – the DA told her she has only five (5) days to work on each case because, you know, budget constraints. At the end of the 5 days- 5 days! – she must decide whether to vacate or uphold the conviction.

convictionWhy are you still reading this? That last paragraph should have put you off of this TV show forever. But alright you want more I guess. In typical TV fashion, the next ten minute section is devoted to her just phoning it in. Telling her appointed right-hand-man (who was of course passed over for the job) to do all the legal work as she intends to just be a figurehead; texting through meetings; and leaving briefings in the middle of someone’s sentence because she has to attend a fundraiser. But then, her forensic specialist (a tough gay ex-con with a heart of gold), yells at her for her indifference and it turns her around – cue the crescendo of sappy music as she leaves her mother’s fundraiser to go straight to Riker’s to speak with the defendant in the CIU’s first case. Never mind all the factual errors implicit with that scenario – the defendant would not be at Riker’s Island, he would be in some Upstate prison and of course you can’t just waltz in to a penitentiary at 10PM to chat with an inmate, even if you are wearing Louboutins. The rest of her team is rounded out by a detective who says she sees her role as making sure that cops don’t get disrespected (at least that’s accurate) and a paralegal who, when she was a child, accused someone of a crime only to have that person be exonerated years later. Get it – she’s atoning for her sin.

It is the writers of this show who must atone however. Here is what they do to get you to understand how “wild and crazy” this former First Daughter is: (a) She tries to get herself fired by snorting fake coke in front of her boss;(b) She tells a detective who worked the case back in the day that she will let him feel her breasts if he hands over his notes; (c) she is on probation from her University teaching position for sleeping with several of her students and (d) In the middle of a full team meeting, some lackey brings in a rack of dresses her mother wants her to try on right away for the fundraiser, so she strips down to a bra and panties in the conference room and continues the meeting while she tries on the dresses.

Of course, on Day 5, it all works out. They track down the ex-girlfriend of a guy who used to live with the victim’s mother. Wouldn’t you know it? All these years later she still kept hidden a gun he had tucked away in a drawer. Of course, it was the murder weapon in the CIU case. Cue the sappy music again as the innocent young man is freed and hugs his Mom. Cut to her walking back in the conference room (fully dressed this time) looking over the piles of new case and saying “Who’s next?”

These are just the quick highlights, there are way too many wrong statements and scenarios to mention. To make viewers think that the Manhattan DA would blackmail someone into heading a CIU is ludicrous. To make viewers think its this easy to exonerate a cold case in 5 days is obnoxious. To make viewers watch this on the eve of Wrongful Conviction Day is criminal.

10 comments

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  1. Gloria Wolk

    I’m glad I didn’t waste my time (and stress my gut) by watching this. Seems more like SNL–a spoof (but not funny).

  2. P. Mason IV

    I haven’t watched a network TV show since Seinfeld.

    On another front, in NYS does a defense attorney have the right to see the Grand Jury transcript (whether or not there was any action by the Grand Jury) ?

  3. Innocent Bystander

    Mr. Mason’s question was not rhetorical.

  4. Gloria Wolk

    No state and not within the federal courts does a defense attorney have the right to see the Grand Jury transcript. But a defense attorney can request it, and then it’s up to the judge. Here’s an example: http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/ny-judge-will-not-release-grand-jury-transcripts-chokehold-death

  5. Oscar Michelen

    Weird – I thought I had submitted a reply to that. Gloria is correct Grand Jury proceedings are secret because they are part of the DA’s office not the court system. In NY you only get the Grand Jury minutes of any witness the DA intends to call at trial and only then do you get it right before jury selection. All you are allowed to do in NY is file a motion to have the judge inspect the GJ minutes but that is pro forma and almost always the judge finds that the minutes are enough to show that the indictment was properly procured.

  6. Innocent Bystander

    Yes, I knew they were generally secret. However, I was not sure if the defense lawyer was entitled to access. It would be a treasure trove for the defense.

    The fact that the GJ indicts does not tell the defense lawyer how strong or weak The GJ finds the case. The minutes do. It would be very handy to have in negotiating a plea. Also to learn the vote tally would be important as well. If you learn it’s 23 to 0 and no questions by the GJ verse 12-11 and aggressive questioning by certain members of the GJ I think it would be mighty helpful.

    It’s not fair IMO to get the minutes just before trial. It would be important to read in evaluating the strength of the DAs case.

    Does the defense get to learn if there was no action by a first grand jury if the DA goes to a second and gets an indictment ? Or does the defense lawyer just learn that her client was indicted ?

    1. Oscar Michelen

      The secrecy of the Grand Jury is one of the causes of wrongful convictions. NY criminal defense lawyers, bar associations and others have been fighting for more Grand Jury transparency to no avail. The defense is notified if there is “No true bill” which is the legal phrase for no indictment. You don’t even get all of the minutes of the Grand Jury at trial – just the minutes of the witnesses who testified at the GJ that will also testify at trial. Its shameful. While the public generally perceives NY as liberal state in terms of criminal defense, it is in fact one of the most conservative as far as discovery. California for example, gives the defense the “murder book” very shortly after arrest – this is the list of witnesses interviewed as well as the police reports of their investigation. In NY you don’t get any of that until well after indictment when there is some disclosure and then you don’t get the prior witness statements and all the police reports until just before jury selection.

  7. Innocent Bystander

    Also I don’t know what you mean by the GJ is “part of the DA’s office.”

    The GJ seems to be its own constitutional entity as set forth in the NYS Bill of Rights. I get that it may be administered by the court system and, de facto, has arguably been co-opted by the DA but I don’t see how you get to it’s “part of the DA’s” office. Care to elaborate on what exactly that means ?

    Also can you explain with a straight face why it makes sense from a fairness standpoint for the ADA to act both as the person presenting the governments case and the “legal advisor” to the GJ ?

    1. Oscar Michelen

      What I mean is that the DA’s Office empanels the GJ and runs it entirely by themselves. While a judge is technically assigned to oversee the Grand Jury process, he or she is only called in if there is any issue raised by the defense about impropriety or preventing the defense to present evidence before the GJ. The DA handling the presentation decides which questions that a GJ asks are proper and appropriate. If the defendant elects to testify, his lawyer must sit next to him silent as a potted plant – he is not even allowed to object to improper questions asked by the DA presenting the case. The defendant must testify in narrative form and not in response to his lawyer’s questions and then he faces being cross-examined by the DA. The Grand Jury Room is usually somewhere in the courthouse but only the DA’s office has access to it – there are no court officers, court clerks or any other court personnel that have anything to do with its operation. It is ver yone-sided and unfair including in allowing the DA to act as legal advisor and advocate.

  8. Innocent Bystander

    Thank you for your reply.

    I’m aware of how it works generally just not certain details. I’ve served on a NYS GJ. IMO the NYS GJ as flawed as it may be in its present incarnation is for a number of reasons preferable to a preliminary hearing.

    And I think NYS is better than the federal system because I believe in NYS the DA is required to present exculpatory evidence whereas there is no such obligation in the federal system:

    http://abovethelaw.com/2014/07/new-york-is-a-great-place-to-be-indicted/

    I do think we need in NYS what they provide for in the Hawaiian state constitution:

    “GRAND JURY COUNSEL

    Section 11. Whenever a grand jury is impaneled, there shall be an independent counsel appointed as provided by law to advise the members of the grand jury regarding matters brought before it. Independent counsel shall be selected from among those persons licensed to practice law by the supreme court of the State and shall not be a public employee. The term and compensation for independent counsel shall be as provided by law. [Add Const Con 1978 and election Nov 7, 1978]”

    As for having your client testify, IMO you may be overrating the risk at least if you think the jury might be sympathetic to your client, at least in my limited experience. If the jury is sympathetic to the defendant they don’t really care how hard the ADA hammers the defendant and may even be turned off by it and if they aren’t they will likely indict with or without the defendant testimony.

    Among the factors out of your control but I think important (and somewhat absurd in effect) is what day your case is presented. Friday (and Monday) is best for a defendant because less jurors show up. The less jurors the harder it is to get an indictment. If you have a full jury of 23 you need 52% (12 people out of 23) to indict. If you only have 16 present (the minimum for a quorum to hear cases) you need 75% (12 out of 16); five people can block an indictment.

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