Olivia Benson isn't coming to see me: What I learned about justice from "Law & Order: SVU"

The people are represented by two separate criminal justice systems: real life and the one on TV

Published November 11, 2019 7:29PM (EST)

Mariska Hargitay as Captain Olivia Benson on Law & Order: SVU (Virginia Sherwood/NBC)
Mariska Hargitay as Captain Olivia Benson on Law & Order: SVU (Virginia Sherwood/NBC)

“Did they catch him?”

It’s a question I’m always asked. Friends, acquaintances, and strangers ask this question eagerly, as if waiting to find out if justice, at least one form of it, had occurred.

I had the name of the lead detective on my case and it took me about a year to decide to call him. He wasn’t available and so I left a message. The next day he called back.

“Mrs. Jones, just checking to see how you’re doing.”

I felt a sudden rush of excitement.  This detective is really dedicated to my case, I thought. After a year, he remembers me! Maybe someone has been caught. Maybe I’ll get to see the whole face of my attacker and be able ask him some questions: Why did he beat me? What was he thinking when he left me bleeding in an alley? Why me? Who is he? What’s his name? There is now this profound though horrible connection between us, and we’re total strangers.

“Do you remember my case?” I asked.

“Yes, Mrs. Jones, you were attacked with a hammer on 11th ST NW,” the detective said.

“It was 10th street. Did you arrest someone?”

“No ma’am. We’re still trying. How are you?”

“I’m OK. Can you tell me what you’re doing to try and find him?”

“Well, ma’am, it’s hard in this type of robbery. It was dark, there were no witnesses. He didn’t leave any evidence.”

“It wasn’t a robber!” My voice now getting stronger and louder. “He left an envelope with $400 cash in my purse that he threw away. And the bloody hammer was on top of the money. It WASN’T robbery. And what about the hammer? Could you get DNA from it?”

“Oh ma’am," the detective said. "That kind of thing only happens on TV, not in real life.”

“What does happen in real life? What are you doing?” My voice cracked; I felt tears welling up. I’m always on the verge of crying now — the feel of a leaf touching my head or a spoon dropping on the floor brings me to tears.

“Yes, ma’am. When we arrest anyone in the vicinity of where you were, uh, assaulted, we ask if the person we’ve arrested knows anyone who uses a hammer on people," the detective replied. "You’d be surprised how many friends or cousins or neighbors give us evidence.”

He doesn’t remember me, I thought, as a weighty exhaustion enveloped me.

“Oh, I see. Thank you. Please call me with updates.”

I never call him again, nor did he ever call me.

When I hung up the phone, I did what has now become my daily ritual. I got into bed, pulled up the covers, and turned on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."

Since the assault, I've watched reruns over and over again. The fictional detectives of New York City's SVU have become familiar and familial to me; I’m comforted by the show's predictability. After my conversation with the detective, I closed my eyes and imagined that instead, Olivia Benson was the detective that “caught” my case.

She is soft spoken and soothing: "Hi, JoAnne. I’m Olivia and this is my partner, Elliot. I’m so sorry about what happened to you, JoAnne. But know that It wasn’t your fault. You did nothing wrong. I promise you that I’ll do whatever I can to find the person who did this. I’m going to need your help, too. Can you tell me what you remember? Maybe a certain smell or touch? How tall was he? Was he white? You’re doing so well. I know this is painful. I’ll come back to see you and I’ll stay in touch with you. Meanwhile, if you have questions, please call me. Here’s my card. I hope you feel better soon.”

Even in my fantasy, the assailant isn’t apprehended. But with Olivia Benson as the lead detective on my case, I knew that what happened to me mattered to the police.

Olivia Benson taught me that justice should be about more than apprehension, indictment, and punishment. Indeed, those ideas are not the essential ingredients of justice. Before I was a victim of violence, I would have described justice with eloquent words and sweeping concepts. As a victim, I came to realize that what I wanted most was for someone in the justice system to care about me. I wanted someone to acknowledge the severity of what had happened and express regret for it. I wanted to be seen and heard, even if what I said didn’t provide material help in catching the perpetrator.  I wanted to be included, and treated as if I count.

Being a victim is like an earthquake: the ground moves, and what had been standing is fractured and never the same. Olivia Benson taught me that justice is about helping those who survive to feel steadied, comforted and confident that they will not be forgotten.

By JoAnne Silver Jones

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