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Prime-time takes on the death penalty

The issue makes for dramatic crime-show story lines and gets viewers thinking.

November 07, 2002|Craig Tomashoff | Special to The Times

Last season, while filming an episode of her crime-busting CBS series "C.S.I.," Marg Helgenberger was supposed to tell a killer, "You're going to get the chair." When she asked the show's producers about the line of dialogue, they explained that her tough-as-nails investigator was clearly for the death penalty.

"That's a personal decision people don't take lightly," says Helgenberger, who opposes capital punishment. After successfully getting the line lifted from the script, she also proposed that the series do an episode focusing on the death penalty. That show airs tonight, with her character trying to discover whether new DNA research might exonerate a man she helped send to death row.

"At the end of last season, the death penalty was on my mind, and when I suggested doing something on it, they went ahead with it," she explains. "This is a controversial issue, but one that I think people want to talk about."

Meanwhile, last week's "Law & Order" on NBC revolved around a murder case in which the conservative new district attorney played by Fred Thompson pushes for the death penalty, only to eventually discover that the alleged killers were innocent. Also, a recent episode of Lifetime's legal drama "For the People" explored two prosecutors' views as they sought the death penalty. Last May, the CBS crime show "The District" also focused on the legal and moral dilemmas presented by capital punishment. And several times since its premiere in 1997, "The Practice" has used the death penalty as a central plot point.

From "L.A. Law" to "The West Wing," other prime-time dramas past and present have also tackled the topic. There are plenty of hot-button issues in the world, such as abortion, gun control and euthanasia. Yet there's something about the death penalty that continues to intrigue TV producers and viewers.

"It's one issue that you can present and know that everyone gets it right upfront," says Jonathan Shapiro, a producer on "The Practice." "Other issues, I think, have more gray area involved."

"Crime is something that affects all of us," says "C.S.I." executive producer Carol Mendelsohn. "And crime has consequences, and the death penalty is a part of that. And that makes it organic to the arena we're dealing with, or that any show that involves crime is dealing with."

"It's something that can be discussed," adds Cathy LePard, executive producer of "For the People." "There are other issues you discuss with your friends, but they provoke such passions, it's hard to do them in a series. With the death penalty, it seems like there is room for movement on the issue. You feel like if you discuss it enough, you can bridge the gap between the two sides."

Of course, prime-time TV isn't exactly a graduate-level course in morality. If you can't entertain viewers, nobody is going to show up to witness the philosophical debate. Crass though it may seem, the death penalty plays perfectly into television's need for gripping stories.

"The death penalty is dramatic. There are life-and-death stakes, which is as compelling as you can get," says Michael Chernuchin, executive producer of "Law & Order."

And, says Shapiro, "you start with the fact that the stakes could not be higher. Then add the last-minute time element. And add the fact that audiences have strong opinions about the topic."

Plenty of feature films have also dealt with the topic, everything from the humorous ("The Front Page") to the humanistic ("Dead Man Walking") to the haunting ("The Green Mile"). However, there's something about television's prominent role in society that apparently makes it a more viable forum for discussing the death penalty. While it might be nice to assume that viewers get their information about controversial topics from television news, the fact is that prime-time programming is not only more prevalent, but it also seems to be considered more believable.

"People get some of their information from the news, but not all of it comes from there," says Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit agency that studies capital punishment. "They get a lot from popular culture, from their favorite TV shows. For instance, when polls ask people about DNA testing in capital punishment cases and whether or not some people have been executed unfairly, something like 90% agree that they have been. It's hard to believe there would be that strong a feeling without both the media and pop culture playing a role."

Drama producers seem well aware of this and enjoy the challenge of "stirring some kind of debate," says Chernuchin. But, the "Law & Order" producer adds, "we always try to take a balanced approach. Nobody is writing these as a screed."

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