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New 'docu-crime' shows feed an addiction

Would this TV writer actually enjoy watching the travails of real-life prosecutors and defendants on yet another batch of crime shows? Guilty as charged.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 16, 2002


My name is Eric. And I'm a crimeaholic.

It's an affliction that often leads to extended viewing of certain legal shows on cable: Discovery Channel's Justice Files, The New Detectives and FBI Files; A&E's Investigative Reports, Cold Case Files and American Justice; Court TV's The System and Forensic Files; HBO's Autopsy series.

The symptoms: falling into a trance at the sound of Bill Kurtis' voice and actual knowledge of who Dr. Michael Baden is.

Fact is, cable channels have fed viewer appetites for true-crime stories for years, unearthing oddball crime cases and legal tussles for hourlong documentaries, with lots of space for commercial breaks and heavy-handed narration.

It's a formula that appeals to penny-pinching cable outlets, which need only invest in some hardworking producers, an online database of newspaper crime stories and a charismatic host (or, in the case of departed CNN Headline News anchor and NYPD Blue star Andrea Thompson -- recently hired as a Court TV host on Saturdays -- an infamous face).

Network news magazines from 20/20 to Dateline NBC and 48 Hours also have mined this form. So it was only a matter of time before the networks figured out a way to repackage the stuff and hand it back to viewers thinly disguised as a new concept.

Which brings us to NBC's Crime & Punishment and ABC's State v., two network TV "docu-crime" shows coming this week that retrace court cases in similar ways -- offering crimeaholics a heady fix during summer months usually reserved for reruns and lame-o reality shows.

Crime & Punishment debuts at 10 tonight on NBC, focusing on the district attorney's office in San Diego, following a single trial over the course of an hour from the perspective of the folks who prosecute the cases. In all, NBC will create 13 episodes of the show, developed by Law & Order producer Dick Wolf using his hit series' familiar framework.

What's offered here is vintage TV docu-crime, featuring footage of surprisingly telegenic prosecutors gathering evidence, talking strategy with co-workers and loved ones (one prosecutor seems to make a crucial decision about her case based on advice from her husband) and presenting their cases before a jury.

In one case, prosecutor Dan Goldstein must prosecute a man accused of killing his estranged wife with no body, no murder weapon and no evidence of a struggle. Goldstein is armed mostly with statements the defendant made to nearly a dozen people that he wanted to kill her (for his closing argument, he wrote the defendant's threats on a lengthy sheet of paper that covered most of the wall).

In another case, deputy district attorney Jill DiCarlo must prosecute a man accused of sexually assaulting his girlfriend's then-4-year-old daughter. Her efforts are hampered by the mother's decision to sleep with her boyfriend after she knew about the molestation. (Warning: watching defense council ask the little girl if she's having fun, minutes after the tot has delivered emotional testimony on how she was molested, may turn your stomach.)

There's no narrator, and segments are often divided by graphics indicating where in the trial the action will begin. Each episode starts with a typical Law & Order flourish: a solemn narrator explaining the show's focus, before the trademark clanking sound signals the show's start.

For crime junkies, it's a heady mix of emotional testimony, heart-wrenching crimes and determined, successful prosecutors.

True to Wolf's fictional work, this series is unapologetically pro-prosecutor, with defendants mostly shown sitting in court during trial.

(MAJOR SPOILER ALERT: In the episodes provided to critics for review, no prosecutor loses a case.)

And, aside from the no-body case, the prosecutions seem like slam dunks, full of incriminating evidence the defendants can do little to refute.

No wonder prosecutors agreed to open their office to Wolf's cameras.

ABC's State v. offers much the same material, excavating cases at Arizona's Superior Court in Maricopa County over five hourlong episodes that air Wednesdays at 10 p.m., beginning this week. Narrated by legal correspondent Cynthia McFadden, the miniseries follows cases from pre-trial preparation to the verdict. ABC News access was guaranteed by a special order from the Arizona Supreme Court.

But unlike Crime & Punishment, ABC's series offers extensive interviews with defendants, defense attorneys and public defenders, and shows meetings in the judge's chambers and jury deliberations.

And the cases are much more ambiguous, from a mechanic who claims his roommate tried to kill him, forcing him to shoot first, to a young man who gets in an accident driving drunk down a poorly marked highway, killing his cousin in the passenger's seat.

In the case of the drunk driver, viewers see the defendant struggle with flashes of anger, damage to his legs, his aunt's heart attack and the two mortgages his parents must assume to pay his attorney. The prosecutor, convinced the driver is guilty of negligent homicide, seems to underestimate the jury's willingness to sympathize with him.

Most frightening of all: the subjective manner in which jurors decide cases, focusing less on the letter of the law and more on their own personal experiences. Watching one juror justify drunken driving by saying "everybody drinks" may bring a shudder.

State v. offers a more balanced view of the court system, highlighting cases where few may be sure the best verdict has come to pass.

Sneaking in among all this docu-crime is a new Court TV series, Dominick Dunne's Power, Privilege and Justice, hosted by the Vanity Fair columnist, that follows the gossipy twists and turns of cases involving rich defendants.

Also debuting at 10 p.m. Wednesday, Dunne's inaugural episode tells the story of Lita Sullivan, a black debutante from Atlanta presumably murdered by her wealthy, white, social-climbing husband Jim.

The motive: millionaire beer distributor Sullivan's realization that his dream -- acceptance into posh Palm Beach high society -- will never happen while he is married to a black woman.

Dunne merely voices segments inside the documentary, which actually is narrated by someone else. The Lita Sullivan murder took place in 1985, though it took until 1998 for authorities to amass enough evidence to attempt charging Sullivan.

In the end, Dunne's series unfolds pretty much like all the other docu-crime shows, gussied up with an extra bit of glamor, thanks to the wealth of those involved.

Which suits this crimeaholic just fine. Because, when it comes to real-life stories about people in real trouble, there can never be too many cases on the docket.

-- To reach Eric Deggans call (727) 893-8521, e-mail deggans@sptimes.com or see the St. Petersburg Times Web site at www.sptimes.com.

TV previews

-- Crime & Punishment debuts at 10 tonight on WFLA-Ch. 8. Grade: B+

-- State v. debuts at 10 p.m. Wednesday on WFTS-Ch. 28. Grade: A-.

-- Dominick Dunne's Power, Privilege and Justice debuts at 10 p.m. Wednesday on Court TV. Grade: C.

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