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