Ripped-from-the-headlines storyline airs just as the trial begins

By Kristen Baldwin
Updated November 06, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

NYPD Blue

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These days, a cop show featuring a ripped-from-the-headlines plot is about as as run-of-the-mill as a sitcom debuting a wacky-neighbor character. But when NYPD Blue‘s Oct. 20 season premiere featured a story line that eerily echoed the 1997 murder of teacher Jonathan Levin, son of Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin, art and life collided with legal repercussions. The problem with the Blue episode — about a young man accused of torturing and killing his ex-high school teacher, then allowing his accomplice to use the teacher’s ATM card — was that it coincided with the start of the New York City trial of Corey Arthur, 20, the ex-student accused of robbing and fatally shooting Levin, 31. Arthur’s lawyer, Anthony Ricco, complained to state supreme court justice Marcy Kahn that jurors who saw the show — which he said depicted Arthur ”as an animal” — would be prejudiced. (The two who did watch it were polled and allowed to remain.) According to a statement by ABC, the episode ”was scheduled many months ago” and was not specifically planned to coincide with the start of the trial.

Blue creator and executive producer Steven Bochco insisted it ”was not meant as a portrayal of the murder of Jonathan Levin.” Ricco did not return calls, but a spokeswoman for the Manhattan district attorney says no further action is expected. And it’s doubtful that Ricco could use the untimely episode to his advantage if his client is convicted. Says New York-based criminal defense attorney Lawrence S. Feld, ”I don’t think that it would constitute a basis for a mistrial or for a reversal of a conviction by itself.”

The issue does raise a larger question: Should TV dramas stay within boundaries when it comes to ”true-life” story lines? Tom Fontana, executive producer of NBC’s Homicide, thinks not: ”As happy as I am that I’m not Bochco today, I wouldn’t hesitate tomorrow to tell the stories we want to tell.” If Homicide‘s Dec. 4 and 11 episodes — which Fontana confirms are based on the New Jersey teens accused of strangling their newborn — were set to air during the actual trial, Fontana says he wouldn’t want the shows rescheduled: ”This is not going to make me gun-shy.” Not that NYPD Blue‘s dilemma doesn’t have him thinking. ”Is my First Amendment right to write about [a crime] equal to the defendant’s right to a fair trial?” asks Fontana. ”It’s a great idea for an episode.”

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NYPD Blue

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