Truth is stranger than fiction, and one place that becomes very clear is in Law & Order episodes that were ripped from the headlines. Sure, the episodes themselves are entertaining, but the original inspiration for the episode is often so bizarre that it makes the show seem mild in comparison. These are a few of the many true stories used in Law & Order episodes. You’ll see why the show occasionally needs to tone down certain details to actually make the case seem believable.
(For those of you worried about spoilers, I’ve tried to limit the giveaways in the plot summaries. You should be OK reading the article without ruining these four episodes.)
1. Episode: Hubris
Law & Order Plot: Four people are murdered during a jewelry store heist. Though the suspect is quickly apprehended and charged with the crime, the prosecutors are in for a rough time when the charming and persuasive young man insists on representing himself. Things get even more complex when he starts flirting with the jury foreman.
The True Story: Peter Gill was part of a Vancouver drug gang charged with murdering two men in 1994. The trial made history when Gill became sexually involved with one of the jurors, a woman named Gillian Guess.
Court officers learned about the behavior, but the judge only approached Gill about the affair, and the two continued to see each other. Eventually, Gill told Guess to convict his two co-defendants.
After the trial, Guess was investigated and police uncovered enough evidence to prove that she was involved with Gill during the trial. The resulting scandal set a number of precedents in Canadian Law. It was the first time a juror was sanctioned for his or her decisions, and the only time in Canadian history where a jury room discussion was made part of the public record.
Eventually, Gillian Guess was convicted of obstruction of justice after other jurors came forward to testify that she badgered them into an acquittal. She served 18 months in prison and one year of probation. Gill was never retried for murder, but he was convicted of obstruction of justice as well, and served six years in prison.
2. Episode: Myth of Fingerprints
Law & Order Plot: A jailhouse confession raises questions about the guilt of two convicted men, one of whom has already died in custody. The resulting investigation reveals that a former fingerprint examiner may have intentionally provided false testimonies in order to secure convictions. To make matters worse, the current police lieutenant earned her promotion thanks to two of these false convictions.
The True Story: If you thought the show’s conviction of two innocent men, one of whom died in custody, was bad, then the story of Joyce Gilchrist will really get your blood boiling. Gilchrist was a former forensic chemist who was involved with over 3,000 cases during her 21 years of working with the Oklahoma City police. During her career, she earned the nickname “Black Magic” for her ability to match DNA evidence. She was very skilled at testifying during criminal trials and persuading jurors. I think you can guess where this is going. That’s right, she didn’t actually match all those samples, and her testimonies sent numerous innocent men to prison.
Some colleagues questioned Gilchrist's work, but it took years to catch her. Things finally came to a head when a man convicted of rape was exonerated based on additional DNA evidence. The man had a clean record and a good alibi, so his conviction largely came down to Gilchrist’s evidence and testimony. Unfortunately, the man had already spent 15 years in prison by that point and missed seeing his children grow up.
The case brought attention to Gilchrist’s work and she was eventually fired due to “flawed casework analysis” and “laboratory mismanagement.” Twenty-three cases she worked on resulted in a death sentence and, of those, 11 have already been executed. It is impossible to say how many of these people would have been found innocent if it weren’t for her lab work. Over 1,700 cases Gilchrist worked on were reviewed by the state of Oklahoma. Lawsuits and appeals related to her wrongful convictions are still pending.
Of course, if you ask Gilchrist or her attorney, she didn’t do anything wrong. Despite all the independent forensic examiners who brought doubt to her work, Gilchrist claims that she was actually fired for reporting the sexual misconduct of her supervisor. She even filed a wrongful termination lawsuit for $20 million, which she did not win.
3. Episode: Born Again
Law & Order Plot: When an 11-year-old girl is found dead, investigators discover clues that point to her desperate mother and her child therapist being involved in a dangerous and unorthodox “rebirthing” procedure.
Eventually, Jeane brought her to an intensive attachment therapy session headed by Connell Watkins. During the second week of treatment, Candace was put through a 70-minute “rebirthing” session, where she was wrapped in a flannel sheet and told to force her way out of it, simulating her exiting from the womb. The idea was that once she escaped the “womb,” she would then connect better with her adoptive mother.
Jeane, Watkins, another therapist, Julie Ponder, and two other adults used their bodies to prevent Candace from escaping from the blanket, no matter how loud she complained. Even when Candace started shouting that she needed air and that she was dying, the adults ignored her pleas. Ponder even exclaimed, “You want to die? OK, then die. Go ahead, die right now.” Within twenty minutes, the girl vomited and excreted inside the sheet. She still was not released. Forty minutes in, Jeane asked, “Baby, do you want to be born?” Candace meekly replied, “No.” Ponder replied, "Quitter, quitter, quitter, quitter! Quit, quit, quit, quit. She's a quitter!"
Jeane was asked to leave the room around that point and shortly after, the therapists asked the other two volunteers to leave the room. After talking amongst themselves for a few minutes, they gave up on Candace and unwrapped the sheet to reveal Candace’s body. She was blue in the face and wasn’t breathing. Jeane, who was watching the room on a television monitor, returned to the room and started performing CPR while Watkins called 911. Paramedics were able to get the girl’s heart started again, but in the hospital the next day, she was declared brain dead due to oxygen deprivation.
The entire two-week therapy session was videotaped, which provided ample evidence at the trial of Watkins and Ponder. The two were found guilty of reckless child abuse resulting in death, and each received 16-year prison sentences. Watkins was paroled after seven years, but she was put under strict restrictions regarding contact with children and counseling work. Jeanne pled guilty to neglect and abuse and was given a four-year suspended sentence. The two other participants in the session pled guilty to criminally negligent child abuse and were given ten years probation and 1000 hours community service.
A number of states have added statutes outlawing dangerous birth experience reenactments since the case.
4. Episode: Patient Zero
Law & Order Plot: When a car jacking is linked to an outbreak of the deadly SARS virus, detectives have to find the first patient who contracted the illness. The eventually turn up a wealthy researcher with a motive for revenge.
The True Story: When physician Richard J. Schmidt was dumped by his lover and former colleague, Janice Trahan, he decided to get revenge. In 1994, Schmidt took a blood sample from one of his AIDS-infected patients and injected the virus into Trahan, telling her it was a “Vitamin B” injection.
When Trahan was diagnosed with HIV, she was immediately suspicious of Schmidt. She had her ex-husband and all former boyfriends tested for the disease and they all came up clean. With this evidence, the police started to investigate her claims about Dr. Schmidt.
Because HIV can last only a few hours outside of the human body and Trahan said the injection was performed late at night, the police knew the blood had to be taken late at night, too. Eventually, they uncovered hospital records that showed Schmidt took blood from a patient at night and never sent the sample to the lab. They tracked down that patient and took a sample of his blood.
While virus DNA matching had never been performed for a criminal trial before, the forensics team went forward with the testing and the DNA of the patient’s virus matched the virus DNA from Trahan. As a result, prosecutors were able to secure a conviction against Schmidt, who was charged with second degree attempted murder and sentenced to 50 years in jail.