I wasn’t prepared for the emotional gut-punch that was this week’s Conviction. Given everything that’s happened over the past week — let alone the past few years — it all felt a little too real, a little too raw, to open at the scene of a protest for racial equality that ends in the shooting death of a police officer. But this is TV at its best, when it forces you to confront the hard truths and uncomfortable realities of the world we’re living in.
The aforementioned rally is a flashback to an event six years in the past and serves as an introduction to the CIU’s current case of the week. As the city responds to the recent killing of an unarmed black teenager by a white cop, Hayes decides it’s the perfect time to revisit another racially charged case: the death of Sgt. Kelsey Blake, the officer who argued with the organizer of the episode’s opening demonstration just before being shot in the neck and dying of her injuries. The original prosecutor in the case against Porscha Williams — convicted of Blake’s murder and sentenced to life in prison — would have you believe those events to be causal, but the CIU isn’t so sure.
Case No. 6: Porscha Williams
Williams, a black activist committed to nonviolence and described by the show as inspiration for the Black Lives Matter movement, was convicted in less than three hours by an all-white jury in Albany, where the trial was moved. The basis for the guilty verdict? Eyewitnesses who said they saw her with a gun at the rally, one witness who claimed he saw her fire the shot, and the presence of gunshot residue on her hands.
What makes “#StayWoke” the series’ best so far is how it focuses on the differing perspectives of the CIU team — especially Maxine (played by Merrin Dungey), who’s given a chance to shine as she’s forced to reconcile her past as a cop with her identity as a black woman raising a son in today’s America. Her interactions with Williams (Susan Heyward, Vinyl, Powers) are some of the hour’s best scenes, which see the two women clash over what it means to be black and fight for equality. In one noteworthy exchange, Maxine seems to admonish Porscha: “Sometimes when you shout, the message gets lost.” Porscha, for her part, is quick to bite right back: “And when we sit quietly in our place, they ignore us.”
The CIU gets to work re-interviewing the eyewitnesses who helped put Porscha behind bars, while Frankie uses the power of social media and technology to create a 360-degree view of what really happened at the protest that day. That’s how they learn Charlie Rossmore, the witness who testified he saw Porscha fire the shot, was actually bashing in a cop car with a baseball bat at the time — a block from where the shooting took place. As it turns out, he lied to give himself an alibi for the vandalism he committed.
NEXT: The “other-race effect”
Frankie’s visual representation of the rally also reveals the presence of a Porscha “look-alike” who could potentially explain why the other eyewitnesses put the gun in Porscha’s hand (photos of Layla at the rally show a holster on her hip). This sets up another powerful scene after the team identifies the woman in question as Layla Benson, who’s got a rap sheet for assault and possessing an unlicensed firearm. Frankie and Maxine, two individuals of color, are quick to point out Layla doesn’t really look like Porscha at all — but Sam and Tess, who are both white, insist she could be their client’s sister:
Tess: “Cross-racial IDs are notoriously difficult. It’s been scientifically proven.”
Maxine: “Oh, so as long as there’s science behind it, it’s okay to say that we all look alike?”
Though Layla (who ends up being a red herring for the CIU) might explain away the inaccurate eyewitness testimony — no matter how racist the “other-race effect” might be — there’s still the existence of gunshot residue on Porscha’s hands that has yet to be rationalized. Frankie sets up an experiment to find out why only 50 particles of residue were found. Apparently, if Porscha had indeed shot Blake at such a close range, the GSR should easily have been 1,000 or more. He lights a match and lets the smoke cover his hand, later testing positive for about the same level of GSR particles found on Porscha. Simply put, the GSR evidence is out.
It’s during the aforementioned scene we learn more about Tess’ background. Earlier in the episode, we saw her acting a bit jittery at a coffee cart outside — but as it turns out, the guy who runs said coffee cart is actually the person who spent five years in prison for the murder of Tess’ aunt, thanks in large part to her ID. (His conviction was eventually overturned on account of DNA evidence.) Because Tess was 12 years old at the time, she didn’t testify in open court, so the man has no idea who she is. Tess has been going to the coffee cart every day, leaving large tips that don’t go unnoticed, which leads him to introduce himself. The guy’s name is Matty… And am I the only one who detected a vibe between the two? Surely Tess won’t date him (or become friends with him) without telling him who she really is, right?
But I digress. Though Porscha’s all but exonerated at this point, it takes her revealing she spent two hours face-down on the ground after the shooting, hands zip-tied behind her as she breathed in fumes from the medical examiner’s van, to really seal the deal on her innocence. Yep, Blake’s body spent two hours at the scene in the M.E. van’s cold storage, but the vehicle was found to have a cooling leak the next day. If the A/C units were, in fact, broken, it could have affected both the rate of decomposition and the wound’s diameter. Confronted with this information, the M.E. admits that what he thought was the bullet’s exit wound was quite possibly the entry wound — and since Porscha was standing in front of Blake, she couldn’t have killed her. Score another one for justice, as we later see Porscha being released from prison into the waiting arms of her husband and daughter.
NEXT: The guilty always run
Knowing the real killer was behind Blake, her husband (a fellow police officer) briefly becomes a suspect, at least until the CIU realizes George Stayner — one of the eyewitnesses who said he saw a gun in Porscha’s hand — was also standing behind Blake’s widow and two other cops. He was a security guard back then and had a 9mm registered in his name, the exact weapon used in Blake’s shooting. Maxine and Sam confront George, who immediately makes a run for it (the guilty ones always run, don’t they?).
George pulls a gun on our CIU heroes, but Maxine uses her police training to talk him down. He tearfully says he didn’t mean to kill anyone and only pulled his weapon that day because he was scared. Though he eventually lowers the weapon, he admits, “The cops are gonna want me dead ‘cause I killed one of theirs. The blacks in prison are gonna kill me for what I did to Porscha.” I immediately yell “Don’t do it!” at my TV, but sadly, George doesn’t hear my plea: He puts the gun to his head and pulls the trigger.
Some other stuff happens this episode with Hayes, Conner, and Naomi (the outside counsel Conner hired last week, who just so happens to the ex-girlfriend of BOTH Hayes and Conner), but given the seriousness of this week’s case, it seems a bit trivial to recap the messy relationship stuff. In a nutshell, Hayes and Naomi were thisclose to hooking up at one point during the hour, but in the episode’s final moments, a drunken Hayes finds her ex-lovers kissing in Conner’s office. Cue sad face.
What did you think of tonight’s timely episode? Sound off in the comments!
Episode 6 Case Notes:
- Hayes: “My brother let me out of the dog house and back into his apartment. The bed is more comfortable than my couch, but I do miss walking around the office naked.”
Tess: “I’m never sitting in any of these chairs again.”
- Porscha: “The truth is I am guilty. Guilty of trying to make a difference. Guilty of seeking equality. Guilty for wanting a real conversation between the police and the people of New York City.”
- Naomi: “I came straight from the airport.”
Hayes: “Is that how you’re doing it these days? Straight?”
Naomi: “Depends. You look great.”
Hayes: “I do.”
- Tess: “I really thought Layla and Porscha looked alike. Does that make me racist?”
Frankie: “No. That makes you white.”