HBO’s The Night Of was the hit of the summer. It wasn’t so much a ‘who done it’ but a pretty in depth look at the criminal justice system as a whole – from a crime to the investigation to indictment, pre-trial detention, trial motions, witness, evidence, a jury decision.
It raised the consciousness of many viewers, appalled some, reinforced the views of others. Along the way it was, of course, entertaining – even in its realism.
The Night Of is the story of Naz, a Muslim-American college student who takes his father’s cab one night and … ends up arrested and in Riker’s Island on a murder charge. After the first episode the show focuses on Naz coping with pre-trial detention, his lawyer (an amazing John Turturro) frantically trying to put a defense together in the face of damning evidence, and the detective and prosecutor building the case against Naz.
There’s a couple of great sequences with the prosecutor, Helen (a superb theater actor …….) interviewing some of her potential witnesses, experts all. Judging from comments on social media and on the New York Times and other reviews and recaps, these scenes seem to have upset more than a few people.
They go like this:
Scene One: The NYC Drug Lab
Helen: Tell me about the effect the stuff he (Naz) had in his bloodstream when he was arrested.
Doctor: It was a strong cocktail, people react differently. Some people could fly a 747 across five time zones and be fine; others wouldn’t be able to lift their head off a pillow. Which one are you interested in?
Helen: The aviator.
Scene Two: The Coroner
Helen: … I’m wondering if that’s how he (Naz) got the cut on his hand. Do you see what I’m saying?
Coroner: I don’t think I do.
Helen: You’re stabbing someone with a knife, sometimes it goes so deep it hits bone, that causes your hand to slip on the blade … but it only slips once, even though you stabbed her twenty-one times. How common would that be?
Coroner: How common do you like it to be?
Helen: I’m asking, Harry, not telling. The question is, if this wound resulted in cutting his hand on a piece of glass or from the blade of a knife.
Harry: Hard to say.
Helen: Well, what if you had to say?
Harry: Will I have to say?
Harry (Looking at the photo for the first time): This cut was the result of his hand slipping from the handle of the knife onto the blade of the knife in the act of stabbing her.
A pause while Helen and Harry lock eyes for a five count. Then Harry repeats his finding in a perfect courtroom voice. Helen thanks him.
Again, a lot of series watchers – and there were a lot of them – seemed to be disturbed by these scenes. “It’s not fair’, ‘That’s not justice’, ‘They don’t care about the truth’, and a lot more, some of it vociferous.
This is a view of the ‘system’ that’s as prevalent as it wrong. At this point in The Night Of, the NYC Police and the prosecutor’s office are convinced of Naz’s guilt. They have reams of damning evidence but no witnesses. They have an indictment. They are building a court case against someone they are convinced stabbed a young woman to death.
They are, in short, doing what they need to do to get a killer off the streets. Everything Helen does is toward that end. Everything Helen does is perfectly legal and ethical. She is doing her job, which at this point is to win the case. The case she believes in.
At this point in The Night Of, it’s up to Naz’s defense team to offer … alternatives. To dispute evidence, to say to the coroner, “Yeah, but, couldn’t the cut have been caused by glass?”
It’s an adversarial system.