Welcome to the Unofficial Law and Order Casebook


Unofficial Law and Order CasebookWelcome to my blog, the Unofficial Law and Order Casebook. The Casebook will explore the world of Law & Order – its characters, stories, and themes. We’ll look at its episodes (cases), setting (jurisdiction), the police (law) and the attorneys (order). We’ll also look at different episodes to see if there’s a pattern to the themes. And along the way we’ll learn a little about the criminal justice system as portrayed by Law & Order. I welcome your comments and input as to topics to cover.

When Law & Order was abruptly cancelled in May 2010, it was the longest running crime drama in television history.  In spite of its untimely demise, the show has continued to be popular, as evidenced by the sales of Law & Order episodes on Amazon.com, blogs, twitter posts, and almost daily reruns somewhere in the United States.  The show’s effective pacing, realistic dialogue, and surprise endings—aspects that apply to a tightly woven crime story as well as television drama—all contributed to its popularity.

Law & Order was arranged in a series of vignettes, from the discovery of a body through the conclusion of a trial or plea bargained agreement.  Of course, we all know that a murder is rarely solved and prosecuted in 60 minutes, but the headings leading into each vignette gave locations and dates that showed the passage of place and time.  Unlike Perry Mason, where the person who was arrested and put on trial was never guilty, Law & Order kept its audience, and prosecuting attorneys, guessing as to the final outcome.  As happens in real life, sometimes the guilty party was acquitted, sometimes a person you just knew was innocent would be convicted, and sometimes the not so pretty arm twisting scenario of a plea bargain brought about a solution.  Both prosecuting and defense attorneys pulled out all the stops, including short cuts when they thought they could get away with it, to win their case. 

The district attorney’s office had the police investigation and related evidence on its side and so seemed to have the upper hand, but sometimes the police took short cuts, short cuts that often put the case in jeopardy.  And behind the scenes of each episode were police and legal consultants to keep the story as close to the law as could be managed in such a scenario.  And it’s because of this behind-the-scenes expertise and the way the episodes were managed that endeared the show to its fans. 

The plot centered on the police who tracked down and arrested the suspect and the legal system that then worked to convict (or not).  The police followed and gathered evidence, and then the lawyers and judge decided which evidence could be admitted at trial.  If the police made errors in obtaining their evidence or in interrogating the suspect, the results could be challenged.  It’s interesting to see the balance between the police and the justice system, something not all crime stories explore.

Law and Order: District Attorney’s Office

law bks-glassesLaw and Order: The New York County District Attorney’s office is responsible for the prosecution of violations of New York state laws.  There are 550 Assistant District Attorneys in the office plus numerous support staff such as paralegals, accountants, and secretaries. The New York County District Attorney (Manhattan) is elected for a term of four years.

In Law & Order, the Manhattan District Attorney was Adam Schiff. Retiring at the end of the 10th season after his wife died (“Vaya Con Dios” [10-24]), he had one eye on his staff, one eye on the electorate and both feet grounded in the law. He was assisted for purposes of the show by an Executive Assistant District Attorney (Executive A.D.A.) and an Assistant District Attorney (A.D.A.). As the show opened in September 1990, Ben Stone was the Executive A.D.A. and Paul Robinette was the A.D.A. charged with prosecuting the cases brought to them by the detectives of the 27th Precinct.

Stone was apparently hard to work for. In “Everybody’s Favorite Bagman” (1-6), Robinette had been working for Stone for eight months at the time and detectives  Greevey and Logan thought it was some sort of a record. For the most part, though, Stone and Robinette were shown as working well together, even though they didn’t always agree on the next steps in the prosecution of a case. Sometimes they worked it out among themselves; at other times Schiff stepped in to referee. Robinette left after three seasons for reasons not disclosed. Stone resigned in despair after a witness he had promised to protect was killed by the Russian mob in the season four finale “Old Friends” (4-22). Of the seven A.D.A.s in the show, Robinette was the only male; the other six were females.

After Adam Schiff retired, Nora Lewin was appointed as interim District Attorney by the Governor, and introduced to her staff by then Mayor Rudy Giuliani (“Endurance” [11-1]). She was the first and only female District Attorney in Law & Order, and, in fact, her appointment was contrary to real life as there has been no female District Attorney in New York County. She had been a law professor, and brought with her a professor’s sense of the application of the law. She left at the end of her interim term and Georgian Arthur Branch became the next District Attorney (“American Jihad” [13-1]). Branch tended to be more conservative than Lewin, a conservatism that caused a rift with A.D.A. Southerlyn that eventually led to her being fired by Branch. Branch unexpectedly left at the end of season 17 when actor and former U.S. Senator Fred Thompson decided to run for President of the United States in 2007.

Executive A.D.A. Jack McCoy was introduced in the season five opener “Second Opinion” (5-1) as he was moving into Stone’s old office. By then Claire Kincaid had replaced Robinette as A.D.A. and had opinions about McCoy’s reputation with his prior female A.D.A.s. The two buried the hatchet at the end of their initial meeting and got along well for the remainder of Kincaid’s tenure in the office, so well that there were rumors of an affair between Kincaid and McCoy.

McCoy was tough, brash, and a win-at-all cost kind of a guy, much less polished than the smooth Stone. He also tended to take short cuts when a case was not going his way, short cuts that at times worked against him to cost him a conviction. He became a fixture of Law & Order, serving 13 years as Executive A.D.A. before being appointed to, and then winning election as, District Attorney after Branch left. The same cannot be said for A.D.A.s Claire Kincaid, Jamie Ross, Serena Southerlyn, and Alexandra Borgia.  Each lasted only two or three seasons before being caught in the show’s “revolving door.” Connie Rubirosa was McCoy’s A.D.A. when he became District Attorney in season 18, and stayed on to support the new Executive A.D.A., Michael Cutter, through the end of the show in season 20.

The District Attorney’s office worked tirelessly in the pursuit of justice for the victims and convictions for the criminals they prosecuted, often working late at night amid containers of take-in Chinese food. The E.A.D.A.s and A.D.A.s may not have always agreed with each other as to the direction a case should take, and so sought clarity and direction from the District Attorney, but their goal was always to win the case for the People and uphold the LAW. The cases often took strange twists and turns, and the D.A.’s office did not win all the cases, but they always gave it their best try. And their best tries created good drama for television and for the millions of fans who watched Law & Order for those 20 years.

Law and Order: Police

Law and Order: The City of New York’s Police Department (NYPD) consists of 34,500 officers spread over 76 precincts in the city’s five boroughs. Established in 1845, the NYPD is one of the oldest police departments in the United States.

Detective's Badge and IDIn Law & Order’s New York City, as in real life, the police were responsible for upholding the law and catching the lawbreakers. Manhattan’s hypothetical 27th precinct was initially led by Capt. Donald Cragan followed by Lt. Anita Van Buren in season four through the end of the show (season 20). The detectives worked in teams of two to investigate the homicides or attempted homicides they were assigned to. Once a suspect was arrested, the case went to the district attorney’s office for prosecution.
Sgt. Max Greevey and Detective Mike Logan were the first two detectives to roll out of the 27th precinct in the show’s opener on September 13, 1990, “Prescription for Death” (1-1). Tracking down the cause of Suzanne Morton’s death in Urban Medical Center at the insistence of Suzanne’s father, they discovered suspicious circumstances which eventually led to Dr. Edward Auster, Chief of Medicine.  Along the way we discovered that Cragan and Greevey had been partners, and that Cragan had been an alcoholic. We also learned that Greevey had little faith in the medical profession because he had once received an incorrect diagnosis.

Logan had three partners in the first 2 ½ years. Greevey was shot and killed in “Confession” (2-1) at the beginning of season two; his replacement, Sgt. Phil Cerreta, was shot and wounded in “Prince of Darkness“ (3-8), and took a desk job at the 110th precinct in “Point of View” (3-9). His third partner, Lennie Briscoe became one of the best loved characters of the show and had one of the longest tenures in Law & Order history, retiring in “C.O.D. “ (14-24) after 12 years when actor Jerry Orbach became too ill to continue. Logan himself lasted five years, ending his tenure in the 27 by punching a city councilman in the face and getting exiled to Staten Island, giving way to Detective Rey Curtis (seasons 6-9), followed by Detective Ed Green (seasons 10-18). After Briscoe retired, Green had three partners in four years (Detectives Fontana, Cassidy and Lupo) before he finally called it quits in “Burn Card” (18-14). Detectives Cyrus Lupo and Kevin Bernard finished out the show’s run.

The detectives were shown answering calls at all hours of the day and night, and then working day and night until the criminal was caught. It seemed they had little time for personal lives, and that was how it was for all the characters on Law & Order—the show was about the story, not the characters. Nonetheless, glimpses of the characters’ lives were occasionally shown and we learned that Briscoe was a recovering alcoholic who liked the ponies, Green enjoyed trips to Atlantic City, and Curtis’ world revolved around his wife and three daughters. Lupo attended law school at night at Brooklyn College and Fontana always seemed to have a wad of bills on him, though his source of wealth remained a mystery. But though whatever was going on in their private lives sometimes spilled over to the office, such as when Van Buren was battling cancer, their primary purpose while on duty was to catch the bad guys, and catch them they did—for 20 years!

Law and Order: Jurisdiction

NYC EmpStLaw and Order Jurisdiction: The television show Law & Order was based in the borough of Manhattan, in the hypothetical 27th police precinct, initially with Capt. Donald Cragan in charge followed by Lt. Anita Van Buren in Season Four. Why New York City for the show’s jurisdiction?

New York City is a vibrant city of over 8 million people (2012 estimate), the largest city in the United States, and one of the largest cities in the world. It is a cultural and financial hub, home of Wall Street and the U.S. stock market and the United Nations. It boasts one of the world’s largest natural harbors. The city consists of five boroughs: The Bronx, Manhattan, Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens. Each of the boroughs is large enough to be a county in New York State.

New York City is culturally, demographically and economically diverse. From gangs to mob connections to financial institutions and government, the city provides a rich backdrop for a crime drama, a crime drama needing interesting characters, settings, and motives. Yet until Law & Order began in 1990, few TV crime dramas had physically been set there, so David Wolf was taking a change filming his new show on location instead of in Los Angeles, the hub of movie-making. But as Kevin Courrier and Susan Green pointed out in their book Law & Order, The Unofficial Companion, David Wolf liked the atmosphere and the weather in New York City. A winter scene in New York City had real snow. The lighting was even different from that in Los Angeles–sharper, grittier, less sun-washed. There’s nothing like the skyscrapers in New York City…plus it was Wolf’s home town.

New York City makes a perfect jurisdiction for Law & Order. In addition, the entire east coast is available as backdrop for stories, whether it be New Jersey, Pennsylvania or Baltimore (cross-over with Homicide: Life on the Street).

I was pleased to learn that the show was filmed entirely in the city it was depicting, just as I was disappointed to learn that another show about New York City (CSI:NY) has had a lot of its scenes filmed in Los Angeles. Looking back at episodes of Law & Order versus, say, CSI:NY, I have gotten to where I can sometimes see those differences Courrier and Green were talking about. It’s another example of the authenticity I believe Wolf was striving for, an authenticity that makes Law & Order such a delight to watch.

Law and Order: Aftershock

pouring beer Law and Order “Aftershock”. Although the Law & Order story was everything, along the way its writers gave us occasional glimpses of the personal lives of the main characters.  One of my favorite episodes is, curiously enough, not the one with the most legal twists, but an a-typical story that revealed a lot about the characters.  The season six finale, “Aftershock,” started with a body and ended with a car accident that produced another body.  The first body, however, was not a law-abiding citizen but instead that of a convicted criminal who had been executed, an execution witnessed by Executive Assistant District Attorney McCoy, Assistant District Attorney Kincaid, and Detectives Briscoe and Curtis.  After the execution, the episode focused on how each of them reacted to the experience.   They all ended up doing a lot of talking, primarily about themselves, as they dealt with death in different circumstances than usual. 

How did they spend the remainder of the day?  Jack McCoy went to the office for a briefing, to lunch with police psychiatrist Dr. Olivet, and then to a bar where he drank and played darts with two of the bar’s regulars.   Claire Kincaid took the rest of the day off, talking with her step-father and Lt. Van Buren about whether she wanted to continue as a district attorney.  Lenny Briscoe went to one of his favorite haunts, the race track, where he had a disappointing lunch with his daughter Cathy before finding his way into the same bar as McCoy.  There he was so morose he started drinking again.  Rey Curtis, a married man, wandered into a park, and ended up having lunch and an affair with a strange woman he met there.   At the end of the evening, Claire Kincaid went to the bar to drive McCoy home, but McCoy had already gone, so she extended her offer to Detective Briscoe who by now was quite drunk.  On the way, Claire’s car was hit on the driver’s side by a drunken driver and the episode ended with Briscoe standing over an unconscious Claire.  Her fate was revealed in the first episode of the seventh season.

The writing for this episode was not always the best, and there were some inconsistencies (of all the bars in Manhattan, how did McCoy and Briscoe end up at the same one), but if a viewer wanted to connect a little to the Law & Order characters just once, this episode filled the bill.

One thing Law & Order wasn’t, and that was boring.  While the format was consistent, the plots never were.  Some were inspired by true stories, others pure fiction.  But the endings rarely failed to surprise.  It’s easy to see why the show won so many awards, but the award that was probably the most precious to its creator, Dick Wolf, was undoubtedly the loyalty of the fans.  It was a loyalty that carried the show through 20 seasons to become the longest running crime drama in TV history.

For me, above and beyond the awards were the Law & Order stories, which always entertained and even informed at times, and the characters who made the stories come alive.  I never tire of them.  I may be living off reruns these days, but wonderful reruns they are.

Law and Order Rules of Evidence

Jail barsLaw and Order is all about the law—how it is kept and broken and how the perpetrators are discovered and prosecuted. In the show, three legal areas that the police and attorneys have to be on the lookout for have to do with:
• Police investigation
• Rules of evidence
• Plea bargains

Investigation.  Police must follow strict rules in gathering evidence and interrogating witnesses.  If these rules are violated or stretched too far, they risk having the evidence thrown out of court, and the suspect perhaps walking free.

Proper interrogation methods:  In “Confession” the properly obtained confession of Sgt. Greevy’s murderer and the location of the murder weapon were in danger of being thrown out because Detective Logan had improperly coerced the confession at the time of arrest by threatening to kill the suspect.  In the end, the tainted evidence was ruled admissible because the gun would have been inevitably discovered during the course of the investigation.

Proper use of warrants:  In “Guardian”, detectives Logan and Briscoe held a warrant for 16 hours until they could arrest the suspect in his car; it’s really the car they wanted to search, but they didn’t have probable cause for a search warrant for the car.  In a discussion between the attorneys in judge’s chambers, the judge granted the defense motion to suppress evidence gleaned from the car and dismissed the charges brought because of the evidence.

Evidence.  Evidence is generally either admitted or thrown out; it’s seldom half in and half out.

In the episode titled “ID”, detectives Briscoe and Curtis were looking through an apartment (without a warrant) and discovered a gun on the shelf of a closet above the clothes rack.  The judge later threw the gun out because it wasn’t really visible from the front of the closet.  The detectives would not have discovered the gun if they hadn’t searched the shelf.

In a similar situation in “School Daze,” detectives Briscoe and Green pressured a school psychologist to disclose the name of a student she suspected of planning to shoot others.   Because the information was obtained without a warrant, even though there were time constraints, the judge threw out all the evidence the detectives gathered against the student.  Fortunately, they were able to discover additional evidence that ultimately led to the re-arrest of the student and subsequent conviction.

Most of the time, however, the police followed proper procedures and obtained a warrant before the search.  This means that all evidence was admitted, doesn’t it?  Not necessarily.  Thinking about moving the plot along with an anonymous phone call?  In “Intolerance,” an anonymous tip regarding the type of gun used in the murder of a high school student led the detectives to obtain a warrant to search a home, and a gun was found which matched the description of the murder weapon.  Later, however, the defense attorney successfully had the warrant declared invalid and the gun suppressed.  The reason?  The anonymous phone call was improbable and did not present sufficient evidence for a proper warrant.

To have a realistic episode, you need to know what will happen to the evidence when the case goes to trial and make sure there’s a warrant on hand before conducting a search, unless the intent is to have the evidence thrown out. 

Plea Bargains.  Does the episode include a character who accepts a plea bargain?  What’s his or her motive?  Plea bargains were sometimes initiated by the District Attorney’s office and sometimes by the defense.  Occasionally the suspect, seeing that the trial was going against him/her or wanting to protect someone, would ask for a plea.

Using witnesses as leverage: In “Sweeps” Executive A.D.A. Stone threatened to charge Ross Fisher’s son Scott and Fisher’s ex-wife as accessories to the murder of Dr. Vinton unless Ross Fisher told the truth about how he knew the location of the television show.  In the end, it turns out that Scott was the one who told his father because the TV host, Rick Mason, told him (Scott) in advance.

Using evidence as leverage:  In “Bitter Fruit” McCoy bluffed his way through a motion to dismiss into a plea bargain session where the suspect, Karen Gaines, finally accepted a plea for Man I with a sentence of six years.  The irony of the case is that McCoy didn’t really have a solid case; it was all hearsay and inadmissible.

Suspect requests a plea:  In “Everybody’s Favorite Bagman,” Anthony Scalise was arrested and charged with assaulting Councilman Halsey.  His attorney sought to plead to reduced charges even before the court date was set.  After the Councilman died, Executive A.D.A. Ben Stone and Scalisi’s attorney bargained the charges down to involuntary manslaughter with sentencing dependent on the information gleaned from a wire Scalisi agreed to wear.

These are only a few examples of how rules of law, investigation, and evidence were used to determine “who-dunit” in Law and Order.  That doesn’t mean the guilty party was always convicted.  Not necessarily so, in the case where there was a conspiracy to commit murder and the trigger man was the only one who could be held accountable.  Alternatively, sometimes both the actual killer and the shadowy figure or organization behind the killer were caught.  Along the way, sometimes evident and at other times behind the scenes, was the LAW—the rules that keep order in a civilized society.