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The Practice

The Practice airs Sunday at 10PM on ABC All times listed are for the Pacific time zone

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Ally McBeal


TP-513 "The Thin Line" 

Doug Salvesen, a litigator at the Boston firm of Yurko & Perry, will tell you if the The Practice still makes perfect.

Archives of The Practice reviews, along with reviews for other legal shows, can be found at FindLaw's Insider Reviews.

February 4, 2001

Save for one explosive moment, this week's episode of The Practice was something of a let down.

All the ingredients for a heart-stopping trial are present: an irresistibly gruesome murder; a rabid Assistant District Attorney out for personal vengeance; and a hit man with a sense of humor. The accused is Bobby Donnell, a premiere defense attorney, fighting for his professional and personal life- and all the while his very devoted and very pregnant wife sits hanging on every word said in the courtroom. For all of that, the trial turned out to be a rather mundane affair with few surprises or theatrics… sort of pretty close to what happens in a real trial.

The trial immediately gets off on the wrong foot. The first prosecution witness is the Boston police detective who was investigating Hinks, the man whose murder Donnell is accused of masterminding. The detective testifies that Donnell wanted the police to "get this guy" Hinks. The detective had a feeling that Donnell wanted him to do more than arrest Hinks, but he was not quite sure what that was. I thought the whole feel of the detective's testimony was off. The detective believed that Hinks was a serial killer who had eluded justice. It is much more believable that the detective's testimony would have been colored by a sense that Hinks had it coming to him.

In his cross-examination, Eugene only has the detective acknowledge that Donnell did not ask him to do anything illegal. Although the details came out later, Eugene could have gotten much more out of this witness. He should have had the detective describe Hinks and his serial killings in minute detail to the jury. In addition, Eugene could have used Hinks chilling videotape confession (which was shown during the closings) as part of the detective's testimony, possibly even causing the jury themselves to root for a hit on Hinks.

The direct testimony of Alan Neel, the man charged with actually killing Hinks, was pretty straightforward. He is a known killer. Donnell called Neel to take care of a problem, and he did. The cross-examination of Neel was restricted to the issue of his bias. Eugene made the point that Neel was caught red-handed, and the only way for him to avoid being incarcerated for the rest of his life was to accuse Donnell.

Could Eugene have done more? Sure. But cross-examination of an adverse witness is very difficult. A lawyer is probably best advised to limit his or her cross-examination to one or two central points, as Eugene did, and then sit down. The weakest part of Donnell's defense is that he has no explanation for why Neel apparently took it on himself to kill Hinks and why he told Hinks before killing him that Donnell had sanctioned his act. Since Eugene had attacked Neel's credibility, the Assistant District Attorney would inevitably have to ask some additional questions on re-direct to rehabilitate Neel. He would have to ask Neel if he had any personal animosity towards Hinks or any reason to harm him, other than Donnell allegedly asking him to do so. In his closing, the Assistant District Attorney makes this point by asking whether the defense thought that the killing was an attempt by Neel to get "extra credit." The Assistant District Attorney would have also asked Neel on re-direct whether he had any motive to lie to Hinks, before killing him, about Donnell's involvement.

I agreed that Donnell really had no choice but to testify. His direct testimony was pretty good. Donnell gave a fairly convincing description of the psychological impact that Hinks had on him and his wife. Donnell portrays himself a man who didn't know what else to do - but he was not going to do nothing. However, Donnell's direct testimony should have also covered the fact that he did not tell the police investigating the Hinks's killing what he knew. When this was covered in cross-examination, it hurt the defense. If it had been raised in the direct testimony it could have been presented more favorably. The prosecution also made a point of having Donnell testify that he did not tell his wife that he asked Neel simply to scare Hinks. However, this testimony about what Donnell did or did not tell his wife would not have been part of an actual case, since the conversations between a husband and a wife are absolutely privileged.

Like the rest of the case, the closings were somewhat restrained. Eugene's closing was summed up in his statement that the prosecution's case depended on Neel's testimony, and that testimony did not satisfy the reasonable doubt standard. The prosecution predictably pointed out that even if a portion of Neel's testimony could be attributed to bias, it all couldn't be explained away so easily. The jury - which could have gone either way - finds Donnell not guilty on all charges. Donnell and crew, drained and exhausted, walk quietly into the elevator.

Hinks - even though he is dead and dismembered - provided the liveliest moment of the evening when he posthumously sends a tape recorder with a bomb hidden inside (a la Mission Impossible) to the firm. Ka-boom. I miss him.

The other half of the show focused on Lucy's volunteer work as a rape crisis counselor to Mattie Warner, who was horribly beaten by the person(s) who raped her. We'll see where, if anywhere, the show goes with this.

Finally, one of my small problems with The Practice is its tendency to introduce characters or facts into an episode and then drop them with no explanation. I still do not understand the grape jelly reference from last year and I suppose I never will. More recently, however, was the last episode, which introduced the young defense attorney who had been appointed to represent Neel. Eugene makes a big show out of describing the attorney's inexperience and suggesting that the prosecution is taking advantage of that and then - we never hear about it again. Another example. Donnell was charged with breaking and entering with intent to commit felonious assault, among his other charges. Whatever happened to that charge? Was it dropped? Did the Court dismiss it? Do you remember when the Assistant District Attorney promised Helen Gamble that she would be called to testify at Donnell's murder trial? Well, where was she? David Kelly, the line between a really good show and a frustrating show is this one, so don't cross it.

These articles originally appeared on FindLaw (www.findlaw.com)

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Sara Evans
Sara Evans

1. Legal Notice: "The Practice" TM and © (or copyright) Fox and its related companies. All rights reserved. Any reproduction, duplication, or distribution in any form is expressly prohibited.; and

2. Disclaimer: This web site, its operators, and any content contained on this site relating to "The Practice" are not authorized by Fox.

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