If you were watching “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” on Tuesday night, you might have felt a sense of déjÀ vu. Maybe even all over again.
The “ripped from the headlines” episode was clearly evocative of Northeastern Pennsylvania’s biggest headlines lately.
Those headlines have topped stories about former Luzerne County judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan, who pleaded guilty to accepting $2.6 million in kickbacks for rulings that favored the PA Child Care centers.
In addition to Tuesday night’s “Law & Order” introducing a judge, played by Swoosie Kurtz, questionably ordering the incarceration of a juvenile offender, the popular NBC police procedural and legal drama brought to mind the recent controversy in Tunkhannock involving the seriousness of “sexting.”
Wyoming County District Attorney George Skumanick Jr. recently threatened to press felony charges against 20 Tunkhannock Area High School students for appearing in or trading provocative cell-phone photos that were eventually sent to classmates.
Whether Tuesday’s first-run episode was based on the local corruption scandal or the “sexting” case is indefinite, but it indeed mirrored what has unfolded in recent months about the local judicial system.
“That’s pretty much their method of operation: to rip from the headlines,” said Chris Zimmer, owner of the blog “All Things Law & Order,” in Columbus, Ohio. “As a matter of fact, they’ve kind of been accused of getting a little too lazy with the writing because they do take so many things from the headlines.”
The episode, titled “Crush,” guest starred Kurtz, best known for her role as Alex on the 1990s sitcom “Sisters,” as a nasty judge who abruptly sentenced high-schooler Kimberly Garnet to a year in prison for sending nude photos of herself to classmates.
By the end of the episode, Kurtz’s character was arrested for sending juveniles to a facility run by her cousin and from which she received a commission. She sent dozens of juveniles to the Ohio prison instead of facilities in New York, where the series takes place.
Garnet, too, was almost prison-bound, until authorities stepped in. A detective pressed her to turn in her abuser after bruises were found on her body, and a prosecutor decided taking her to court for distributing child pornography would encourage her to come forward about her abusive boyfriend.
Neither the prosecutor nor detective expected a harsh sentence.
On the stand, though, Garnet revealed that her boyfriend had sent the pictures to classmates to embarrass her and that he had been beating her.
Things didn’t work out as planned, however, and the judge refused to even hear closing arguments.
“I sentence you to incarceration in a secure facility for juvenile sex offenders in Wellsburg, Ohio, for a period of one year,” the judge ordered, as both the prosecution and defense stared in puzzlement.
“This is all your fault,” Garnet yelled to the detective as she was taken from the courtroom. “I listened to you, and you lied to me. You said if I told the truth, I would be safe.”
The judge, however, was arrested after an undercover police officer contrived a fictitious story and she accepted money in exchange for harshly sentencing a 15-year-old boy whom the officer didn’t want hanging around his daughter.
The episode marks the second time in a month that Luzerne County’s judicial corruption scandal has become the stuff of national television.
On March 27, ABC’s “20/20” ran a segment on the scandal.
View clips of Tuesday night’s “Law & Order” episode on www.nbc.com.