Guilt and Innocence on Hill Street

To kick off its third season, NBC’s 1980s prime time drama Hill Street Blues showcased Trial By Fury, an episode with a shocking, revolting, and riveting story line of the Hill Street precinct investigating the rape and assault of a nun that results in her death.

Urban blight, gang warfare, and office politics contributed to the chaos on the Hill in an unnamed metropolis.  But Trial By Fury ratcheted prime time television’s portrayal of crime to a new level.  When Officers Bobby Hill and Andy Renko catch two suspects, Celestine Gray and Gerald Chapman, the case appears to be a lock.  Captain Frank Furillo realizes otherwise.  He concludes that a lack of evidence prevents successful prosecution.

With a metropolis calling for swift retribution, a virtual lynch mob threatening violence, and organized crime holding killing contracts on the suspects, Captain Furillo has a snowball of a problem that can easily become an avalanche of bloodshed.

Enter Lieutenant Howard Hunter, the precinct’s resident military historian, strategist, and tactician.  As head of the Emergency Action Team (EAT), Hunter’s responsibilities include supervising tactical operations in hostage negotiation, urban policing, and gang violence countermeasures.  He says to Furillo, in passing during a brief conversation in the Men’s Room, that he would just as soon let the outraged public decide the fate of Gray and Chapman.  Hunter’s offhand comment inspires Furillo to turn the liability of a lack of hard evidence into an asset.

Furillo decides to use the public’s volatile emotions as leverage, suggesting to Assistant District Attorney Irwin that he drop the charges.  It’s a gamble that the suspects will rather face the justice system than mob justice.  In other words, better to be tried by twelve jurors than carried by six pallbearers.

Enter Joyce Davenport, the omnipresent attorney from the Public Defender’s office representing one of the suspects.  She is also Furillo’s girlfriend.  After a verbal outburst in the courtroom about the legal, though questionably moral, gambit employed by the police and the prosecutors, Davenport receives a quick but severe admonishment by the judge supervising the case; she targeted the judge in her diatribe, accusing him of being in cahoots with Furillo and Bernstein.

Davenport then confronts Furillo about his manipulating the justice system to get a confession.  Her argument is predicated on the premise that dropping the charges without putting forth a legitimate attempt at prosecution equals coercing a confession, in this case, because of a lynch mob that stands ready, willing, and able to dispense its own form of justice in addition the looming threat of organized crime contracts on Gray and Chapman.

Furillo justifies his actions, or lack thereof, by pointing out that Gray and Chapman committed the crimes, even though the evidence cannot prove their guilt beyond  reasonable doubt; a confession by one of the suspects proves Furillo’s theory.  “The ends justify the means,” accuses Davenport.  Furillo furthers his argument, confidently, by saying that he did nothing different than what he has seen Davenport do for her clients.  He used the justice system to his advantage; Davenport opines that he perverted it.  Disgusted, Davenport says that she can’t be with Furillo tonight; he understands.

In a twist ending, Furillo drives to a church.  Trial By Fury ends in the confessional with Furillo uttering, “Bless me Father, for I have sinned.”

Somewhere, O. Henry is smiling.

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