Last year’s release of Making a Murderer took the Internet by storm, pushing the public’s fascination with true crime to new heights. As the story of Brendan Dassey — one of the subjects of the hugely popular Netflix documentary series — continues to make headlines, tonight’s Conviction takes inspiration from the show by exploring similar themes of mental health defenses in criminal cases, complete with a documentary film crew chronicling the CIU’s latest attempts at correcting a potential injustice.
Without further ado, let’s jump right into “A Simple Man.”
Case No. 7: Leo Scarlata
Subbing in for Making a Murderer’s Dassey is Leo Scarlata (Jason Furlani, The Affair), a man with diminished mental capacities (he reportedly has an IQ of 73) who has spent the past 15 years in prison for arson. Scarlata was convicted for burning down his family’s restaurant, which killed a homeless man who was sleeping in the basement and seriously injured a passerby who was trying to help him. Conner himself assigns the case to Hayes and tells her the CIU will be followed around by filmmaker Paul Slatkin, who’s working on a documentary about Leo’s incarceration.
The original prosecution argued that Leo snuck into the restaurant at 3 a.m., lit a rag, threw it into the deep fryer, and walked away. His supposed motive? Revenge. Apparently, Leo was mad at his two brothers for demoting him.
By now you know the drill, right? The CIU splits up to start investigating, with Hayes visiting Leo in prison. And, of course, he insists he didn’t start the fire (“I know the rules… I didn’t have matches or anything”). At the restaurant, Maxine and Frankie talk with Anthony, one of Leo’s two brothers who now runs the family business (Leo’s other brother, Vince, walked away after the fire). Because the restaurant’s kitchen was rebuilt to the same pre-fire layout, Frankie has an easier time reconstructing the fire’s origin and determines it didn’t start in the deep fryer after all. The fire began in one of three bins that contained discarded cooking oil — right where Carl, the good Samaritan, was found unconscious on the floor. Frankie posits that maybe Carl set the fire and stuck around to watch his handiwork a little too long, a theory quickly put aside by the discovery that Leo sent Carl letters from prison apologizing for the injuries he incurred. Why would he write to Carl if he wasn’t responsible?
Hayes revisits Leo to ask him that very question, but he explains he said sorry because “you’re supposed to” when someone gets hurt. Hayes asks him to swear he didn’t set the fire, and after a brief hesitation, Leo offers Hayes a pinky swear to stress his innocence. But the CIU isn’t as convinced. When Sam breaks into Paul’s computer (for selfish reasons, of course — he wants to delete a potentially damaging interview he gave for the documentary), he finds an interview in which Vince admits Leo set fire to a tree house once after being told he couldn’t live in it. The prior act parallels the narrative of Leo setting the restaurant fire and the footage, which Paul hid from the CIU, further suggests Leo’s guilt.
Hayes confronts Paul in Conner’s office, accusing him of presenting a story that supports his personal interpretation of Leo’s guilt versus sharing the facts as they are. (In the weeks after Making a Murderer’s release, creators Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos faced similar allegations.) Though I’d already decided Paul was pretty slimy at this point, he does argue some good points echoing the real-world issues concerning the rate of incarceration for disabled individuals:
“I’m trying to help Leo and in the process, hundreds of others like him who are being railroaded by the system because they lack the wherewithal to protect themselves. People with intellectual disabilities make up near 3 percent of the general population, but it’s almost triple that in the prison population. That is not a lie, that is a fact.”
It’s at this point the CIU takes aim at Vince, who’s revealed to have signed over his insurance payout after the fire to Powell & Associates, a firm notorious for money laundering. Hayes is able to blackmail Glenn Powell into telling her where Vince stashed his money, and as it turns out, the money was transferred to a high-roller casino called Ace’s Den. Vince had a gambling problem and was in pretty deep, and the insurance payout “saved his life,” Powell said. Confronted with this information, Vince says he “could never burn that place down,” and his wife reminds the CIU of Vince’s seemingly rock-solid alibi. She swears he was home when the fire was started, and the doorman at their residence confirms as much.
NEXT: For an arsonist, the guilty party breaks pretty easily
It’s at this point I became fairly certain Vince’s wife, Rita, is the guilty one. And now I get to write a few words I never get tired of hearing: I was right. The rest of the investigation — and revelation of Rita’s guilt — goes something like this:
Though Vince’s alibi checks out, Frankie attempts to prove Vince could still be at fault thanks to the use of what he calls a delayed ignition device. And thanks to the burn unit where Carl was treated all those years ago, the CIU is able to procure samples of the chemicals found on Carl’s skin to see what could have been used to delay the fire’s start. Frankie’s experiment identifies kitty litter as the culprit — it was mixed with the vegetable oil in the aforementioned bin and ignited a few hours after the restaurant closed.
The CIU then thinks Anthony could have put the kitty litter into the bin to implicate Leo in the fire. (Leo had a cat named Meatball who lived in the restaurant, thus explaining the presence of kitty litter in the kitchen. That has to violate more than one food safety regulation, right?) Framing Leo, Tess says, would have paved the way for Anthony to franchise the restaurant and make a fortune (which he did).
During his interview, though, Anthony says it was Leo’s job to empty the cat litter and seems to realize his brother dumped it into the wrong bin. “He must have made a mistake. It was an accident!” Anthony declares, relieved.
Though Hayes visits Leo in prison with the “good” news, Leo refuses to sign a statement admitting he put the litter in the wrong bin. “I know I’m not smart, but I know how to listen,” he insists. “I did it right all the time. Anthony said if I didn’t do it right, he’d take Meatball away. I followed the rules. I’m not gonna say I didn’t.” (Was anyone else incredibly moved by this scene? Way to stick to your guns, Leo.)
A defeated Hayes returns to the CIU offices, but her penchant for stealing her colleagues’ food out of the communal refrigerator sparks an idea. She returns to Leo in prison and shows him the restaurant chore list from the night of the fire. One of the “rules” Leo mentioned earlier was that he had to do everything on the list, exactly as it was written. On the night of the fire, the checklist indicated Leo should dump the kitty litter into Bin B. A copy of the chore list from the week before, though, directed Leo to put the kitty litter into Bin A. And guess whose responsibility it was to write said chore charts? Rita.
Leo dissolves into tears, though he still doesn’t fully comprehend what this means. “I was the following the rules,” he repeats, crying. “Did Rita make a mistake, too?”
Nope, Leo, she didn’t. Back at the CIU offices, she crumbles pretty quickly under the weight of Hayes’ charges, admitting she started the fire so she could use the insurance payout to resolve Vince’s gambling debt. “I had no idea that somebody was gonna die or get hurt,” she says. “I never thought that Leo would get caught.” Vince, for his part, is horrified at his wife’s confession. “You let Leo rot in prison for 15 years?” Needless to say, he’s not too upset when Maxine tells them the NYPD is waiting for Rita downstairs. “You do whatever you want. I’m done.”
In the episode’s final minutes, we get to see Leo released from prison into the waiting arms of Vince… and Anthony, who shows up and finally reunites with his estranged brothers. Cue tears.
NEXT: Behind the scenes
Besides the case of Leo Scarlata — one of the series’ most compelling so far — here’s a few more notable bits from “A Simple Man”:
- We learn Maxine has been struggling since witnessing the suicide of George Stayner last week, during which she apparently tweaked her back. Though she tells her fellow recovering addicts, “I just have to remember that this, too, shall pass,” we later see her popping a pain pill and promptly erasing her 19 months and five days of sobriety. Say it ain’t so, Max!
- During her one-on-one interview with Paul, we learn why Tess isn’t an actual lawyer: She graduated from law school with plans of becoming a prosecutor and putting away the bad guys, but around the time of the bar exam, one of those “bad guys” was exonerated by DNA evidence. She’s referring to Matty, of course, the man who went to prison thanks in part to her cross-racial identification. “When I sat down to take the bar exam, all I could see was his face,” Tess admits. “An innocent man whose life I had destroyed. I didn’t answer a single question.” (I’m happy to find out this bit of her backstory, but I definitely wish she hadn’t revealed such information to slimy Paul.)
- Frankie has Ray to thank for his job at the CIU, as it’s Ray who introduced him to Forensic Files during his three-year prison stint for grand theft auto. “It’s pretty cool using science to uncover the truth,” Frankie tells Paul on camera. “Without this, who knows where I’d be. [Ray] pretty much saved my life.”
- Sam is still the most boring character on Conviction. He seems to be fairly decent at his job, I suppose, but the guy sure has a chip on his shoulder and doesn’t hesitate to blame others (e.g. Maxine) for his own inaction, as he insinuates during his one-on-one with Paul after the filmmaker changes the subject to George Stayner. (How is this relevant to Leo’s story? Admittedly, slimy Paul kind of twists Sam’s words around a bit, but still.)
- Hayes is still brilliant… and still nursing her ego after seeing Conner and Naomi kiss last week. In the episode’s closing moments, she finds on her desk a DVD copy of an interview between Paul and Conner (Paul left it for her, the one redeeming act he commits all episode). She pops it into her computer and watches Conner say this: “The thing about Hayes Morrison is there’s no one thing. She stubborn, reactionary, fearless — at least about the things most of us are afraid of — and brilliant. I’ve never met anyone like her and probably never will.”
Those two crazy kids BETTER get together before the series comes to its untimely end. That’s all I’m sayin’.
Episode 7 Case Notes:
Conner: “Thanks for coming.”
Hayes: “You use that line on Naomi last night?”
Conner: “You figured that out fast.”
Hayes: “I spotted you two playing tonsil hockey in your office. Is she as good as I remember? As a lawyer, of course.”
My final observation: Where was Jackson this week? I need me some more Daniel Franzese, stat.