This week’s CONVICTION tackles one of the few hot button criminal justice issues that the show hasn’t really touched on yet – the death penalty. As such incendiary plot devices go, the show handles the issue with more delicacy than it has in episodes past. (Looking at you, “#StayWoke” and “Dropping Bombs”.) But it also doesn’t really do much in the way of attempting to be even-handed, either. The Conviction writers definitely seem to be pretty firmly on the anti-death penalty side of things, and the case-of-the week seems almost purposefully structured to be as emotionally manipulative as possible on the issue. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but Conviction hasn’t usually been in the habit of weighing in so strongly on one side of whatever issue a given case is meant to explore. In “A Different Kind of Death” it does.
Wallace assigns the CIU team to the case of Earl Slavitt, a death row inmate who was convicted of murdering Tom Simon. Simon was an Assistant U.S. District attorney and one of Wallace’s best friends. He’s hoping that Hayes & Co. will be able to help make sure that Slavitt did in fact commit the crime he was accused of. Simon did not believe in the death penalty, and both Wallace and Simon’s widow want to make sure the punishment is appropriate. They’ve got 5 days until he’s scheduled to be executed, which adds an extra dollop of tension on top of the CIU’s normally packed timeline. You have to solve it in time now, or this guy dies. Perhaps this would have felt more compelling if the other cases hadn’t had this completely artificial timeframe tacked on when they didn’t need to? It’s hard to suddenly find this time-bound framework extra compelling now, even if it is literally a matter of life and death.
Wallace decides that he’s going to work the case with Hayes and her team, since he’s the boss, it’s a death penalty case, and the victim was a friend of his. This is only slightly awkward; since he and Hayes are currently embroiled in a standoff over the fact the he lied to her about his Department of Justice investigation. (He’d made a deal with Hayes’ parents to take a federal judgeship in exchange for taking the fall for Hayes’ illegal document sharing during a case they tried against each other.) Hayes is being aggressively, hilariously angry toward him, and it’s the sort of pointless, ridiculous soapiness that Conviction loves to indulge in. At some point, you just have to start enjoying it.
The hovering prospect of the death penalty gets everyone on Team CIU extra worked up this week, particularly Frankie and Tess, who is armed to the teeth with stats about how many innocent people have been exonerated while on death row. 156 since 1973, to be exact. At first her intense knowledge on this subject seems kind of convenient, until you remember that Tess actually used to work at the Innocent Project and would therefore not only know all these statistics cold, she’d also undoubtedly have strong feelings on this issue. (She does.) Sam doesn’t take a position, but feels that they have to follow the law as it stands now. And Maxine’s more interested in the investigation angle of cases. For her part, Hayes is vehemently anti-death penalty, insisting that it’s hypocritical and immoral and unconstitutional. Her position is as strident as Tess’ was, only Hayes doesn’t have the Innocence Project background to explain hers. She’s so over the top about it, that you have to wonder for a minute if she’s just trying to be contrary with Wallace, but her stance is a genuine one. We just have no idea where it’s coming from. It would have been interested to see how she got to her clearly very fiercely held opinion, but we don’t have time for that this week, I guess.
Slavitt was originally convicted on a fraud charge for embezzling money from his boss. He served three years. Tom Simon was the ADA who prosecuted his case. The conventional wisdom is that Earl wanted revenge, and shot Simon a week after he was released from his three-year prison stint. He was sent back to prison for attempted murder, which became federal capital murder after bullet fragments in Simon’s brain shifted, and he died. Earl has maintained his innocence all the while.
Anyway, Frankie and Tess discover an unopened letter while going through the files the received from Tom’s wife. It’s typed and unsigned, but it takes credit for shooting Simon and knows details that were never in the press. It’s a bit hard to believe that over the course of three federally mandated appeals and subsequent investigations that there would still be bombshell evidence like this just sitting in a folder, but this is Conviction, so of course there is. DNA is eventually discovered on the letter, and it’s matched to an ex-con named Harold Redding, who conveniently enough used to be a hit man. Less conveniently, he is also dead, so they can’t ask who paid him to murder Simon.
Wallace and Hayes head to Indiana to interview Earl. The Americans’ Richard Thomas is our special guest star this week, a savvy bit of casting that provides us with a defendant who manages to look soulful, serious, and possibly a little bit devious all at the same time. Thomas is great at selling Earl’s pain – his desperation for any shred of hope, his need for Hayes to believe in his innocence, the sort of air of longtime suffering that hangs around him like a blanket. It’s hard not to look at him and just assume he should go free. He’s a great everyman, and it’s only a shame that his scenes don’t have more variety in them.
There are many twists in the Slavitt case, including several red herrings that make it appear as though the execution must be stopped and adds extra layers of intrigue to the entire prosecution. A woman named Nina that Earl used to work with produces a letter that proves his boss was actually the one who committed the original he was convicted for. Everyone wonders if upstanding ADA Simon was actually taking bribes in exchange for certain verdicts. The team feverishly attempts to track down banking transactions, so they can figure out who paid off the hitman. The judge grants a stay of execution, which is immediately overturned by the Supreme Court, thanks to a challenge from Bill, the prosecutor who was second chair on Earl’s case, and a real jerk.
Despite the CIU’s best efforts, the execution is set to go forward. Earl is given his last meal, and escorted to the execution chamber. Hayes and the rest of the team are still attempting to connect the dots about where the hitman money could have come from. They finally put it all together – and the answer is Bill. Yes, Simon’s second chair paid off a hitman to murder his coworker, because he was the one actually taking bribes. He challenged the stay in Earl’s execution because he wanted to make sure he died before anyone could find out what he did. Yikes. Bill is as bad a person as any convicted criminal we’ve ever seen on this show. Unfortunately, Hayes’ realization comes too late, and by the time she gets through to Wallace with the news that he has to have the execution stopped, it’s already over. Earl is dead, and Hayes couldn’t save him.
The ultimate resolution of this week’s case is both surprising and heart wrenching. But nine episodes into its first season Conviction still suffers from the problem that every single one of the cases they’ve investigated has featured a defendant that turned out to be innocent. Yes, the tragedy of “A Different Kind of Death” is that Earl didn’t commit the crime he was convicted of, and it didn’t matter in the end, but it’s still a rather troublesome pattern. Sometimes the bad guys actually do go to jail, right? On the flip side, Earl’s case is a strong statement about the ways that capital punishment is not a 100% foolproof way to dispense justice, and knowing that an innocent man has died for something he didn’t do mere minutes before he might otherwise have been saved is very emotionally affecting. It’s certainly the first episode of this show that I think will stick with me past Tuesday morning.
Much of this episode – and this case – is also used as a reason for Hayes and Wallace to start hashing out some of their relationship issues. Thanks to an adjoining set of hotel rooms, they end up having several heart-to-hearts through their shared door, and Hayes becomes increasingly emotionally honest as the case deteriorates. They discuss the status of Wallace’s relationship with Naomi (she’s transferring to the NYC office of her firm to be with him); why he and Hayes never been able to work romantically together (she’s too impulsive, he’s too calculating); and if commitment still freaks her out (depends on the person). This episode is the most screentime that these two have shared in weeks, and while their chemistry still isn’t exactly explosive, this is the most genuine their connection and relationship has ever felt.
Of course they end up in each other’s arms by the end of the episode, because this is really a soap opera and not actually a show about the problems with America’s justice system. Their grief-fueled makeout session feels pretty inevitable, since Hayes’ allows so few people in emotionally that it makes all kinds of sense that she’d turn to Wallace for comfort in the aftermath of such a devastating loss. And also because this show not-so-secretly really wants to be Scandal, and that’s exactly what Shonda Rimes would do.
Season 1, Episode 9 (S01E09)
Conviction airs Mondays at 10PM on ABC
Lacy is a digital strategist by day and a writer because it seemed like a good start to her supervillain origin story. Favorite things include: Sansa Stark, British period dramas, and that leather duster that Aeryn Sun wears in Farscape.
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Lacy Baugher | Contributor