A Lack Of “Conviction”
October 7, 2016 (Fault Lines) — A couple of weeks ago, I wrote several posts about HBO’s “The Night Of,” a miniseries depicting the investigation and prosecution of a murder in New York City. I did not critique its quality as a drama, but its portrayal of lawyers and what they do in criminal cases. I found it inaccurate in many ways, including procedure, evidence and ethics.
My editor at Fault Lines then suggested that I continue the project with other shows. I rejected a couple, including a serial documentary on serial killers.
Finally, I decided to write something about the new ABC show “Conviction,” if only because its premise is difficult to believe. In one breathless sentence: The daughter of a former President, Hayes Morrison (Hayley Atwell), is a law professor who sleeps with her students and is charged with possession of cocaine, until the elected District Attorney of Manhattan, Connor Wallace (Eddie Cahill), blackmails her into leading a conviction integrity unit in exchange for dismissing her case, and so that her mother (Bess Armstrong as Harper Morrison), who is running for the Senate, will not be defeated and disgraced. First of all, who has ever heard of a former President’s wife successfully running to be a United States Senator from New York? … okay, that part happened.
A conviction integrity unit is a division of a prosecutor’s office that reviews cases for evidence of innocence or legal errors that undermine the integrity of the convictions. The units are a fairly recent phenomenon that developed after the advent of independent innocence projects. Here in Harris County (Houston), Texas, where I am Chief Public Defender, we work closely with the Conviction Integrity Unit of the District Attorney’s Office. To my knowledge, none of their lawyers were blackmailed into accepting their jobs to avoid outstanding criminal charges.
I did not see Conviction on the Monday night it premiered because, well, I forgot. However, the next day, I watched it through the ABC application on my I-Phone while staying at an Embassy Suites in Norman, Oklahoma. I think it really enhanced the experience.
The first episode had no courtroom scenes, if you exclude the part where Hayes Morrison meets DA Wallace in a holding cell so immaculate it would probably rent for $5,000 a month in Manhattan. The lack of law stuff really cut down on my opportunity for criticism, but I do know enough about conviction integrity units to know this is not how they work. First, the DA gives Morrison five days to meet her staff, choose a case, and solve it to provide a “happy ending.” Impossible, yes, but it allows the show to be divided in five “time is running out” sections.
Next, the unit’s method of choosing a meritorious case did not ring true. They picked a young African-American man (Maurice Williams as Odell Dwyer) who was convicted of shooting his high school girlfriend to death . Although Dwyer seems nice enough, the unit begins with zero evidence that undermines his conviction. That is the exact opposite of the way cases are chosen for review in real life.
By the third day, the evidence against Dwyer is even stronger. Hayes wants to quit the unit and “go braless and read Infinite Jest.” No umbrage to its late author (who, like the DA, is also named Wallace), but nobody ever finished reading Infinite Jest (1,079 pages). I read half of it and then cowered in a fetal position, pondering why adolescent tennis players used Pledge as a sunblock or that some chapters were dedicated to adult diapers.
The lead characters are the least credible on the show, but they are extremely attractive and photogenic to make up for it. DA Wallace looks like the Pierce Brosnon version of James Bond. Hayes Morrison is the beautiful British actress Hayley Atwell, who also faked an American accent on the cancelled ABC show “Agent Carter.” The two occasionally lustfully look at one another, but any implication of sexual relations is likely to come later in the series, about the time it gets cancelled. Again, I am not an entertainment critic, but USA Today called Conviction “guilty of mediocrity.”
There is no reason to believe DA Wallace could not have found someone both willing and competent to lead the unit. He claims it was because Morrison won 95 percent of her cases. Unless “won” means something other than dismissed, acquitted or reversed, that is really hard to believe. Otherwise, winning 95 out of 100 cases makes her the most successful criminal defense attorney of all time. Maybe she had only three cases, of which she won 2.85.
My favorite line: “Hey, you’re that President’s daughter.” Favorite scene: cutting a dead pig in half, dragging it to the woods, covering it with blood to see whether it could attract flies at night – apparently not. That pig, and a pistol found eight years after the crime, were all it took to set Dwyer free. You do not even need DNA to exonerate prisoners anymore, just five days and a bunch of good-looking lawyers and investigators with some really weird motivations for doing their work.
I will check in again to see if there is actually any courtroom drama on this show. Otherwise, I am moving on. Maybe, I will finally watch “How to Get Away With Murder.”