Conviction is at its most compelling when the show digs deeper into the flawed individuals at the heart of the CIU, each of whom work to right (possibly) wrongful convictions in the interest of justice while simultaneously confronting their own personal demons. Lady boss Hayes is no stranger to scandal, and her last major offense of cocaine possession is what landed her at the helm of the CIU in the first place; paralegal Tess is dealing with the guilt of putting an innocent man in jail for five years; forensics pro Frankie has a record of his own and a lover still behind bars; and former cop Maxine recently relapsed after more than a year of sobriety for an addiction to pain pills.
But besides being a sore loser over losing the CIU’s top job to Hayes — and a forgettable character in general — we haven’t seen Sam experience a failing or vulnerability on the same level as that of his colleagues. Until now, that is.
Case No. 8: Sierra Macy
Tonight’s episode opens on a desperate woman escaping from what looks like a locked room in a basement. Armed with a crude knife of sorts, she heads upstairs, ready for a confrontation, only to discover a dead man sitting on the couch — and by the looks of the maggots crawling on the corpse, dude’s been dead for a while. She drops the knife and opens the door to her freedom.
We find out the woman’s name is Sierra Macy, a Queens resident who went missing 10 years ago when she was a junior in high school. Presumed dead until now, the police learn Sierra was held captive all these years by a long-haul trucker named Peter Gunther (i.e. the dead guy). Problem is, someone else is already in jail for her kidnapping and murder: Josh Fleck, a teacher from Sierra’s high school who pled guilty to avoid a life sentence. The second complication? Though Gunther did keep Sierra imprisoned in his basement (and committed unspeakable acts against her), he wasn’t the one to abduct her. The NYPD found trip logs in his house that showed he was in Iowa the night Sierra went missing. Fleck obviously didn’t kill Sierra, but he could have been Gunther’s accomplice. Either way, the new information calls Fleck’s 20-year sentence into question — and it’s then we learn Sam was the original prosecutor on the case.
Seeing Sam struggle with the idea he could have made a mistake and bullied Fleck into a plea deal finally gives us some insight into what kind of man and lawyer he is. As a fan of Sam’s portrayer, Shawn Ashmore (The Following), I’ve lamented in previous recaps over his status as an underused member of the cast, so it was interesting to see him go from steadfastly believing he was right to drunkenly licking his wounds when he realizes that’s not the case. I particularly liked watching him make the effort to right his wrong and his solemn acceptance that he can never really atone for what he’s done. Fleck may be free now, but he spent 10 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit — and Sam is the reason why.
Oh, did I give away the ending already? My bad. Let’s back up. What originally made Fleck a suspect in Sierra’s disappearance was the presence of her blood in his pickup truck and an eyewitness who swore she saw the pair leave a diner together the night Sierra went missing. As Fleck tells it, Sierra called him, saying she was running away and wanted to say goodbye — “teenager speak” for “stop me,” he says. He picked her up from the train station and took her to the diner so they could talk, claiming he wanted to be her friend and tell her things would get better. Fleck then says Sierra went to the bathroom and never came back, conflicting with the waitress’ testimony that she saw them get into his truck and drive away.
NEXT: Sam’s search for the truth puts him in danger
When Sam and Hayes visit Sierra at home to get her side of the story, she backs up much of what Fleck said but admits the rest of the night got a bit hazy. She remembers being upset about fighting with her mom’s boyfriend and going to the diner with Fleck, but says her mouth went dry and she became dizzy, suggesting she was drugged. During the interview, Hayes notices scars on Sierra’s arm. Turns out she was a cutter and had cut herself that night before Fleck picked her up, providing a plausible (and innocent) explanation for why her blood was found in his truck.
Sam’s assurance that Fleck was in cahoots with Gunther further unravels when the waitress — under questioning by Tess and Maxine — admits she didn’t actually see Fleck and Sierra leave together that night. When Tess points out her view of Fleck’s truck would have been obstructed by propane tanks in the parking lot, she confesses she was trying to help a detective who said they needed someone to confirm what the police thought was true. Since Fleck “creeped her out” and touched Sierra “inappropriately” in the diner, she was more than happy to oblige.
Even after this, Sam’s still not ready to admit he was wrong and confronts Fleck with the knowledge that he had previously dated an underage girl, a 16-year-old named Angela Chang. Fleck insists he thought Angela was 20 and cuts the interview short, saying he has nothing left to say to Sam. (Hmm, maybe Tess was right. Perhaps Sam should have recused himself from the case, since it’s obvious he’s unable to remain impartial.)
It’s then Frankie suggests the use of state-dependent memory retrieval, which involves the use of psychotropic drugs to recover lost memories. Apparently, it works even better if the subject was on drugs at the time the memory was formed, which could have been the case for Sierra at the time of her kidnapping. While the experiment seems to fail at first — Sierra can’t remember anything new — she finally recalls going to the bathroom to clean herself up and feeling a pinch, like a needle. She was thrown in the trunk of a car and taken to a house (not Gunther’s at first), where she was blindfolded but could hear the sound of “chimes for days.”
Since Fleck drove a pickup, there was no trunk in which he could have stuffed Sierra. As Frankie bluntly tells Sam, “I think you locked up the wrong dude.” Sam’s guilt initially drives him to a bar, but he soon revisits Sierra’s case file and quickly unravels what really happened to Sierra that night 10 years ago.
Sierra fled to the train station after an argument with Liam, her mom’s boyfriend, who told Sam he was home the night Sierra was taken. However, Sam finds out Liam was stopped by a state trooper for a broken tail light around 12:30 a.m. … on a road that would have led him right to Gunther’s house. Shortly after Sierra’s disappearance, Liam put an $80,000 down payment on a Williamsburg condo, leading the CIU to suspect he sold the girl to Gunther. Hello, suspect no. 1.
Sam goes to visit Melissa, the diner waitress, to see if she could recognize Liam as being present at the diner. Once he’s gone, Frankie discovers Melissa’s name on the paystubs for Gunther’s utility bills at his house in Yonkers, and everything seems to fall into place … except for the fact Sam is at her house RIGHT NOW and could be in danger. For his part, the chimes outside Melissa’s dining-room window is what tips him off to her guilt. He confronts Melissa, she points a gun at him, and a moment later the police burst in and triumphantly slap some cuffs on her. Case closed.
Cut to Fleck in prison, where Sam is there to deliver the good news about his release. But Fleck already knows what Sam won’t admit: Regardless of his innocence, he lost 10 years of his life he can never get back — and he’ll never forgive Sam for stealing that time from him. The truth hurts, doesn’t it, Mr. Spencer?
Episode 8 Case Notes:
- Sam: “You were right, I needed a wake-up call.”
Maxine: “Well, I think being held hostage by a psychopath will suffice.”
- When will Maxine’s pill addiction come to a head? She popped quite a few pills in tonight’s hour.
- Welcome back, Jackson (a.k.a. Daniel Franzese)!
- The whole explanation of why Conner was seemingly willing to fall on the sword for Hayes in the investigation into his own prosecutorial misconduct was a bit long-winded for me. Can’t we go back to their smokin’ chemistry and leave the political machinations to House of Cards? (P.S. Way to ruin a dead guy’s reputation, Hayes.)