February 2, 2012

Crime: America’s Favorite Entertainment

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In the criminal justice system, sexually-based offenses are considered especially heinous. In New York City, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit. These are their stories.”

If this quote is not permanently engrained in your memory, you are probably not a Law & Order fanatic. If this is the first time you are reading and/or hearing it, then you may have been living under a rock for the past thirteen years. Of course I don’t mean to offend the innocent reader here but seriously, you need to check your TV Guide once in a while.

After this introduction, it is probably not surprising that one of my favorite shows has always been Law & Order. Though I love all the variations of the brilliant series, my favorite is undoubtedly Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, or just SVU for short. As has become evident to me over my time in law school, many of my classmates are equally enthralled by this series and SVU seems to be a favorite. The question I have always attempted to answer is why.

For those who are not already familiar with the show, SVU focuses on the Special Victims Unit of the New York City Police Department as they investigate crimes of a sexual nature. Of course, I may have already answered my question of why so many of us love SVU: Humans are oddly attracted to depravity and SVU gets some of the most depraved criminals imaginable, from the child pedophile to the violent serial rapist. Many of these episodes are ripped directly off current headlines and are actually based on true events.

Although the crimes depicted by the show may account for its popularity, I would like to offer one more obvious explanation — victims. Unlike other Law & Order incarnations, SVU’s victims often survive and as a result play important roles in the storylines. People enjoy connecting with other people and with victims still breathing and talking, fans of the show can connect with them more easily than with a black body bag.

Why do I care? Why should you care? Why should anyone care or try to explain why a TV show is popular? It’s simple — it matters. It matters because it’s not just about TV.  Our fascination with a show can actually help explain our fascination with certain crimes.

If you have access to a TV, newspaper, computer, radio or another breathing person, you probably recall the Florida murder trial of Casey Anthony, a twenty-something-year-old mother accused of killing her two-year-old daughter, Caylee Anthony. In July 2008, Caylee’s grandmother reported her missing after not seeing her for over a month. After months of searching, Caylee’s remains were found in a wooded area near her home.  While Caylee was still missing, Casey was charged with first degree murder, to which she pled not guilty.

After six weeks of trial, Casey was acquitted of first degree murder.  Though the prosecution had sought the death penalty, Casey walked away with nothing but a few misdemeanor counts of providing false information to police officers. More shocking than the verdict, however, was the coverage that preceded and followed it.  Almost every news channel aired continuous coverage of the trial. Because of all the media attention the trial received, the jury had to be sequestered for the entire length of the trial. Scot Safon, executive vice president of HLN, a cable network that covered the trial extensively, asserted that the draw for the case was the “very, very strong human dimension.” The Casey Anthony trial was even compared to the O.J. Simpson trial, which also received national attention and a verdict of not guilty.

Many explanations have been offered for why this case received such widespread national attention. Some say that Casey’s lies and calm demeanor made her a fascinating person to watch. It may have also been the psychological dimensions, especially the potential motive behind such a murder, which kept the nation infatuated with the case. The biggest draw of all, however, may have been the victim herself. For months, pictures of the beautiful blonde girl with angelic features and cute expressions flashed on our TV screens several times a day. Harder than forgetting Caylee’s face, was imagining her dead, wrapped in a blanket, left in the woods, potentially at the hands of her own mother.

Victims are keys to our obsession with certain crimes and it is their stories that we really care about. Murder is murder no matter who dies. But when the beautiful wife of a famous football player is murdered or a two-year-old girl is found dead in the woods, people seem to care a little bit more. With the victims in mind, we tend to think of the crime as that much more disturbing, and therefore that much more interesting. The problem is not SVU capitalizing on our fixation with victims.

The problem lies in our sole focus on certain kinds of victims. Though Caylee’s death was tragic, she was unfortunately not alone. Other children, from other states, races, social and economic backgrounds, went missing in 2008. National media coverage of their disappearances and/or deaths, however, did not follow, at least not to the extent that it did for Caylee. The question remains — why not?

(In case you were wondering, there is an SVU episode based on Caylee Anthony’s death.  It’s called “Selfish,” and yes, I suggest you Netflix it.)

Tamara Gavrilova is a second-year law student at Cornell Law School. She may be reached at [email protected]. Barely Legal appears alternate Fridays this semester.

Original Author: Tamara Gavrilova