This episode of Law & Order “Human Flesh Search Engine” highlights the ability of the Internet to harm and to help. The Law & Order franchise often paints the big bad Internet as a haven for nut jobs and crazies, and rarely highlights the positive side. The bottom line is that it’s still people who kill people. In this case, one organization used the power of the Internet to kill, just as if they handed someone a gun and helped him or her point and shoot it at someone. I am not sure if Internet vigilantism is out there to the degree that the franchise seems to portray. Sure, I see people on various web sites who rant and rave, and I know that there are some sites out there that promote and provoke the darker side of human beings. (I steer clear of those at all costs.) But there is also a very informative and collaborative side where people can share ideas and build positive communities. It was good that Lupo was able to tap into a side of the Internet to use it to help win the case. But, it can be a little unsettling thinking of the amount of information that one can find on the Internet about oneself.
The Lupo/Bernard partnership is becoming very enjoyable and I think both actors seem to be having fun with their roles as well. Some of the joking that goes back and forth between them seems as credible as if they were real. I have to admit that I enjoyed the line where Bernard said, “What about Lupo? He’s juicy!” This was a great feature episode for Anthony Anderson and it was nice that they were able to squeeze in a little backstory for him.
The issue with Bernard’s credibility, regarding a comment that Leary made to him that Lupo did not hear, was reminiscent of an episode (the name escapes me) where Lennie Briscoe got a confession from a guy but Ed Green didn’t hear it, and Lennie’s credibility was dragged into the mud. At least in this current case, while Bernard's credibility is being questioned, we find out that he has a son that he doesn’t get to see.
My heart is breaking for Van Buren. For me, having lost two siblings at a very young age to cancer, it still pains me to watch her go through the illness. Anita’s wig scene choked me up a bit. My oldest sister died of cancer in 1968 at 16 years old and I can recall very clearly when, as a teenager, she had to put on her wig for the first time. She had a look of fear mixed with dread in the fact that the hair loss and the wig made the disease seem even more final and more obvious to everyone else. Anita had that very same look, and it was good to see that her man seems to be standing by her with love, affection and support. It was also good that in this episode, we saw Anita doing her job and still staying in the thick of things.
Maybe people in law enforcement out there can answer this question, but how many criminals actually have their whole rooms plastered with photos and articles and such? It seems like this is standard fare for crime shows when they try to portray people who are half crazy and half obsessed.
The episode brings up the issue about what is free speech - and what isn’t – on the Internet. What is private and what is not? What can people get away with saying on the Internet about others under the guise of anonymity? The one good thing about the Internet is that it really does provide the perfect haven for free speech. The bad side is, it is the perfect haven for free speech, but some of it is very ugly, hateful speech. The Internet allows people to share all kinds of information in a split second, but does that mean that it should be like the Wild West out there, with no repercussions for what people say? This episode makes the statement that words can kill, whether said in person, or behind an anonymous identification.
Here is the recap:
A photo shoot is underway with a woman scantily clad in underwear who is lying provocatively on a bed. But Sid Maxwell (Rene Ifrah), the owner of a fashion company, isn’t happy with how the photos are coming out, and gets annoyed at all the other people hanging around, and says if they are not being paid to be there, to get the hell out. One of the guys says he is one of the DJs who spins records at one of his stores, and Sid says that since he is the one who put the song on, he is fired. He tells everyone but the model to get out, takes the camera, and says he will finish the shoot himself.
Later, Detectives Cyrus Lupo (Jeremy Sisto) and Kevin Bernard (Anthony Anderson) arrive on the scene, the police tell them that Sid Maxwell was found dead, the neighbor found the door propped open at 3 AM. It looks like he is dead from autoerotic asphyxia, but it appears Sid miscalculated. The detectives realize there was a photo shoot going on, and the tripod is there but the camera is missing. The camera tag was marked the properly of Terry Clark. Bernard quips, “Yeah, looks like he missed the best shot.”
Meanwhile, at the home of Lieutenant Anita Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson), she is there with her lover (Ernie Hudson) and she prepares to put on a wig. She calls it the first day of the new me. She puts on a straight haired wig. She turns to him and asks what he thinks, and he says he always had a thing for Grace Jones. He leans over to her and says, “You’re beautiful” and he kisses her. She smiles.
At the photo studio of Terry Clark (Jeremy Beiler), he tells the detectives that Sid seemed fine yesterday – manic, a total prick like always. He says that Sid got rich by starting “Skin Tight Apparel” and he was the sexy underwear king of the lower east side. Sid threw everybody out around 6, including him. When Lupo questions that Sid threw the photographer out of the photo shoot, Terry says that Sid liked to do things himself. The girl stayed behind. When Lupo confirms he means the model, Terry said, “Model, hooker, girlfriend, employee of the month, it was kind of a fluid position.”
They meet with the model, who says that she met Sid when she was working three jobs and sharing a loft with six roommates and he hired her on the spot. She keeps walking as she is talking, but Lupo stops her, asking her to hold up. She did anything Sid wanted, working in the store, modeling. Bernard asks if she was spying for him or doing S&M sessions. She says Sid said he wanted to try something new and she didn’t want to seem like a prude, he just wanted her to watch. Lupo asks, “So did you?” She told Sid she had to get cigarettes at the store and she was weirded out so she just went home. Bernard asks if she just left him hanging there with his hands tied behind he back, and she says his hands were not tied when she left. Bernard asks if any of his staff had complaints, and she said there was one girl who got pretty freaked out and she thinks she sued him.
They speak to this other woman, Bonnie Allman, who says Sid pulled her top off at a photo shoot at the St. Patrick’s Day parade with no warning. She adds that her job descriptions doesn’t say getting raped by leprechauns. Sid’s lawyer said she should have understood she was working in a highly sexualized work environment. Lupo thinks she had a good case, but she tells them Sid’s lawyer buried hers in so many motions she could not afford to keep going. She lost and Sid won. The last time she saw Sid was 6 months ago, she told herself the one good thing is that she would never have to hear his voice again, and she says she didn’t, and with a smile she says now she never will.
Back to the 2-7, Bernard reads looks at a photo of Sid and then says Sid had a way with the women, adding “All Sex All the Time.” Lupo responds that “His company sells $5 t-shirts for $40, sex is part of the brand.” Van Buren asks if his "model/girlfriend/whatever" was fine with that, and Lupo indicates yes. The building surveillance camera shows her leaving his building at 10, and then it stopped working, Van Buren makes note of the coincidence. Bernard says she left the apartment door ajar so she could get back in; the building door had a keypad lock and Sid gave her the number, but she took off for Brooklyn instead. Lupo adds that an ATM saw her withdrawing cash at 10:30 and the time of death was after midnight. Bernard offers Van Buren some food, but, with a tissue to her mouth, she declines, saying, “Me and food aren’t getting along that great.” Lupo comments, “You are a hideous pig” to which Van Buren glares at him, and Lupo points to what he is reading and clarifies that the comment was from a text messages from Sid to Bonnie Allman, and Sid asked her now that her lawyer quit, how she was going to pay for the boob job she needed. Bernard recalls that Bonnie said she hadn’t seen Sid in 6 months, but Lupo says she said she hadn’t heard his voice. Lupo notes that Sid sent her the text last Monday, and Sid filed a complaint that his car was vandalized. Van Buren quips, “Bonnie Allman strikes back.”
At the impound lot, Lupo reads the words written on Sid’s car, “Text this scumbag” and Bernard adds, “Love Bonnie”. Lupo says she saved the 10 cents it would cost her to reply by text and this was so much more satisfying. The crime scene officer at the NYPD impound says the car doesn’t look like it has been driven since the incident as the driver’s window has been smashed with shards of glass embedded in the seat. She thinks whoever did this used some force. She also got some prints where the basher leaned in to slash the upholstery, and she will get the print to latent.
Back at the 2-7, Lupo finds the prints did not match Bonnie’s. He did get some hits for a guy name Todd Bissell, who had been arrested 12 years ago. When Bernard puts the name into the computer, they are both surprised to see a picture of a young Sid Maxwell appeared. He had changed his name. When Bernard searches further on the name, it leads him to a website called Flashposse.net, a site dedicated to righting social wrongs. Flashposse caught Todd/Sid texting with both hands behind the wheel of a car, and site members were mad about it as Todd veered into someone’s lane while texting while driving. Someone else on the site commented that someone needs to kill him before he kills someone else. It seemed members of the site used information from the photo to track Todd down and get his address, which they posted on the site. Someone on the site put the address on there in case anyone wanted to drop by and “teach this jerk some manners.” Lupo adds, “Somebody did.”
At the home of Jim Leary (Rob Corddry) of Flashposse.net. He tells them it is not a blog it is a forum for corrective social action. Bernard says it was like a well-chummed shark tank. He says it is their way of striking back, and uses the example of people with dogs who crap on the sidewalk, saying it is an offense to everybody. They post people’s addresses and phone numbers so people can tell them what they think. He says they get the personal information from the thousands of visitors to the site as they have a lot of expertise and connections. Lupo tells Bernard in China, they call it a “Human Flesh Search Engine.” Leary tells them of a woman who posted a video of herself stepping on a kitten and killing it, and people blew up the video, was able to identify her from they saw, and Lupo finishes that the woman lost her job and had to go into hiding. Bernard tells them they are here for Todd Bissell, who didn’t massacre any cats. Leary says Bissell is just as bad, citing how dangerous it is to text and drive. Bernard brings up the death threat from the site, saying he didn’t think Todd deserved the death penalty. Leary asks him if he has ever heard of hyperbole, and Bernard says it wasn’t hyperbole, Todd was murdered, Lupo adding it was under his other name, Sid Maxwell. Lupo asks for the names of his members who posted threats against Todd, and Leary refuses. Bernard says it is their job as police to take corrective social action. But Leary will not budge, getting in Bernard’s face as he repeats, “No.”
Later, they consult with ADA Connie Rubirosa (Alana De La Garza). She tells them the comments on the web site are probably free speech. Lupo shows her Todd’s vandalized car, and Bernard admits they can’t prove a connection. She tells them if they can show that the Flashposse has real world consequences she may be able to convince a judge to give them the site’s members names.
In the chambers of Judge Colin Gerard, Rubirosa brings a woman who talks about how Flashposse harassed her after her husband committed suicide. The judge isn’t buying Rubirosa’s argument, saying he feels sorry for the woman but doesn’t see what she had to do with Sid Maxwell.
(Lupo, looking "juicy")
Back at the 2-7, Van Buren tells them that Rubirosa was not able to get the subpoena for the names. Bernard gets a phone call and gets angry with the caller, and says, “screw you” and hangs up. It appears he is starting to get harassing calls. He then finds that Flashposse has posted something about him, including his unlisted cell phone number, telling people to call and tell him what they think. One poster called Bernard a cop bully. Lupo thinks that if they are set up right, they can trace the posts as they are made, and Van Buren realizes they would not need a subpoena. Lupo says they would need, “just a big juicy target to get the ranters ranting.” He looks at Bernard, and so does Van Buren. Bernard says, “What about Lupo? He’s juicy!” Lupo thanks him, but doesn’t think his 4 years in intel should be coming out. Van Buren says Bernard seems to be the one they like.
At the Computer Crime Squad NYPD War Room, they have things set up to trace people as they post, and Bernard signs in and eggs them on. A whole host of names pop up for them to track down, singling out those who also were people who also threatened Sid.
Later, they have a few of the guys who made posts of Flashposse in the 2-7. They all seem to minimize that they did. One woman, Miss Sands (Tina Benko), tells Van Buren she is embarrassed at what she did, and says her daughter was killed three years ago by a taxi driver who was texting while driving and he was never caught. When she saw the photo of Todd, she was worried another child would be hurt. Van Buren seems sympathetic, and tells her they will check into her daughter’s death. Lupo and Bernard continue to question the other two guys, who seem unconcerned. But as Miss Sands moves to leave, someone brings in a file to Van Buren which indicates Sands’ daughter was not killed, she was taken away from Sands as Sands offered her daughter to a Catholic Church for human sacrifice. She denies anything, but when Van Buren continues to question her, she says “he was getting messages from the devil” saying he tells him who to kill. When Van Buren tries to get a who is telling whom to kill, Sands calmly asks if she can see a lawyer now. (Yes, she's a nutball.)
In interrogation, along with her lawyer, the lawyer says Miss Sands has nothing else to say. She adds, “Except that people who get texts when they drive are servants of the devil.” The lawyer says, “Except that.” The lawyer says he was not there when Sands mentioned Sid was one of those people. She goes on to say he was evil. As Van Buren and Rubirosa watch from the observation area, it is clear that Sands is crazy, but all they have are her rants against Sid. Rubirosa thinks it is enough for a search warrant.
The detectives head to Sands’ apartment, and the walls are covered with clipping and photos. Clearly she is obsessed with texting while driving. Lupo sees a picture of the girl from the photo session when Sid was killed, and this puts Sands on the scene. They wonder how she got into his place, and they see the entry code on her wall and a picture of his keypad from the Flashposse site, taken from the security camera that mysteriously went dark. They think that someone from Flashposse hacked into the system. The detectives want a warrant for Flashposse.
At Flashposse, Leary calls his lawyer while they execute the warrant. Leary says this is harassment, but Bernard says calling his cell phone is harassment. He and Leary begin to argue, and Bernard tells him this is about a murder and a woman named Kerri Sands and asks if he knows her. Leary says, “The woman who’s kid wasn’t killed by a taxi? Yeah, we’re open to the public, we take all comers.” Bernard picks up one of Leary’s computers and smiles at him and says, “Bye!”
At the DA’s office, the detectives bring Rubirosa a full dump of material from the Sid Maxwell section of Flashposse. The “good stuff” was in a password protected area for people who had a special interest in Maxwell. The code to his front door was listed with a note that it was there just in case someone wanted to drop by. Sands accessed the photo just after midnight and she took a car service to Maxwell’s. The driver remembers her well as she told him she doesn’t take taxis because of their link to the devil. Rubirosa tells them to arrest her for murder and she will apply to the court for a 730 exam.
In a Bellevue Hospital examination room, Sands speaks with Dr. Elizabeth Olivet (Carolyn McCormick). Olivet confronts her on the fact that her daughter was not dead; the taxi hit a garbage can. Sands wants Olivet to help her stop the killing and stop the evil. She thinks Sid Maxwell was sending messages on whom to kill. She thinks there was no point in calling the police; she had to take care of him herself.
In DA Jack McCoy’s (Sam Waterston) office, Olivet tells McCoy, EADA Michael Cutter (Linus Roache) and Rubirosa that Sands is a well managed schizophrenic who thought people texting others in their car are telling others who to kill. But McCoy comments that Sands tried to have her own daughter killed for sacrifice, and Olivet says Sands did it for purification, and her delusion was different then. When the state took her daughter, it rattled her reality. That same day she saw a taxi hit a garbage can and that garbage can became her daughter, and the taxi driver became evil. She does not think Sands is competent to stand trial, she needs to be locked up. McCoy tells them to call the judge and Sands’ attorney and work out a plan for institutionalization. After Olivet leaves, Cutter says he will book time in the grand jury, he wants to go after Flashposse.net. When McCoy says, “That place on the world wide web?” Rubirosa says,” Actually, they don’t call it that anymore.” McCoy responds, “Excuse me, should I have said wireless telegraph?” and Rubirosa grins at him. Cutter thinks Flashposse stirred up a virtual lynch mob, but McCoy asks if it was a virtual lynch mob sitting at computer typing things. Rubirosa tells him of the threats and instructions on how to get into Sid’s apartment. Cutter says a person is guilty of murder when they recklessly engage in conduct which creates a grave risk of death to another person and thereby causes the death of another person. McCoy says, “I know the law” but Cutter goes on to say that the shoe fits. Kerry Sands was the bullet and the web site was the gun. McCoy asks if he really wants to do this, trying to make new law, but Cutter brings back McCoy’s cases of going after gun manufacturers and justice department torture memo writers. When McCoy asks who at Flashposse Cutter plans to indict, he says all of them.
At Supreme Court, there is a crowd of people there for the defense, and the defense attorney Nick Margolis (Ben Shenkman) tries to argue that Kerry Sands killed Sid Maxwell, and these people just posted comments on a website. Cutter says they incited Sands to kill, and Margolis says if he yells kill the umpire and some psychotic does it, he is not guilty of murder. But Cutter says the web site went beyond exhortation, it gave instruction on how to do it. The judge rules that any comments against Maxwell are protected speech, and they cannot be used in any way in his prosecution. Cutter brings out the first amendment exception of shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre. The judge asks I any of those people were in physical proximity to Sands or the victim, and they were not. The judge says then the theatre wasn’t crowded. She tells Cutter he is free to proceed in accordance with her ruling, if he still has a case.
Back at the DA’s office, McCoy says they are lucky the judge didn’t throw the case out. Cutter says she is living in the 29th century; words on the internet have consequences. McCoy says actually she is living in the 18th century, when the bill of rights was written. Rubirosa says that if it weren’t for that the people said and did on the web site, Sands would not have murdered Sid. McCoy tells her now they will have to forget about the “said.” Cutter says he is dropping the charges against the cheerleaders but he is still moving against the guy who ran the site and the people who sent out the photos and the door code. McCoy says they will say they never intended Sid to be killed, but Cutter argues they were dealing with a crazy woman. They did not have to intend for her to kill him if the recklessly disregarded the likelihood that it would happen. McCoy tells him “good luck” with a smirk.
Back in Supreme Court, Olivet is on the stand, talking about Kerry Sands’ messages, she posted over 400, and another person only posted 22 messages. Her messages also mentioned Satan and vengeance on Maxwell. Olivet reads back more of Sands’ messages; one saying death shall be answered with death.
Bernard is on the stand, talking about the search warrant which showed Mr. Keegan hacked into the security cameras at Maxwell’s apartment, and Mr. Mason posted the code to the front door. Sands got the information from the web site an hour before she killed him. He adds that Leary made a point of sending private emails to Sands alerting her to new information. Bernard says Leary knew of Sands’ delusions because when they executed the warrant and asked if he knew Sands, he referred to her as the lady whose kid was not killed by a taxi.
Margolis cross examines Bernard, and brings up the fact that the web site had posted information about Bernard, and that Bernard accused Leary of harassing him. He accused Bernard of making up the comment that Leary made about Sands. Bernard says he is not lying. Margolis shows Bernard an old photo of himself and a woman, Rosemary Franklin, that they got off the internet, and then brings in evidence that they uncovered which says that Bernard has a child with her and he missed paying child support for three times in the first 6 months. Margolis says if he lied to the mother of his son about paying child support, why should they believe anything he says now?
Outside the courtroom, Bernard is livid with Cutter that he couldn’t stop it. He says that he just finished the academy and busted loose a little bit, there were a bunch of cop groupies in the bar and once the blood test came back he paid every month. Rubirosa says they will bring that out on redirect, but Bernard says he does not want to talk about it. But Bernard sees Leary and Margolis walking out and gets in Leary’s face about dragging people and a ten year old boy through the mud. Lupo tries to coax Bernard away from Leary, and when Bernard begins to really yell, Cutter yells out, “Detective!” Leary smirks and walks off, and Bernard walks away, silent and angry. Cutter tells Lupo that didn’t help, but Lupo asks him what did he expect? Cutter replies that a thin skinned cop doesn’t destroy his case. Now it’s Rubirosa’s turn to try to calm Cutter, who asks if Lupo realized how much Bernard’s testimony is worth. Lupo says that Leary told him about Kerry Sands and her daughter and Lupo believes it all they have to do is find out how Leary knew it. There has to be something somewhere, and Cutter says it is a pretty big haystack.
With Leary back on the stand, he testifies about Sid texting while driving and almost running someone off the road. He said Sid deserved to be exposed and they wanted to change his ways before he killed someone. They are just a bunch of well meaning nerds trying to make the city a better place. Under cross, Cutter asks why he posted the address and the code to Sid’s door, and while Leary answers him, Rubirosa gets a message and tries to signal Cutter to look at it. Leary says they never intended Sid to be physically harmed. He says the internet is full of ranting and raving and exaggerated threats and it is a place for letting off steam. He says he did not know Sands was deluded and denies making the comment to Bernard. Cutter looks at the message Rubirosa received from Lupo, and then asks Leary if he was with Kerry Sands August 20th when she physically assaulted a cab driver who she accused of being the evil spawn of Satan? Leary is squirming, and Margolis asks to see the evidence, as this is the first they have heard of it. Cutter said new information just came to their attention. The judge tells Cutter to share it with the defense, and they recess until tomorrow. Cutter glares at Leary and Leary looks like he is in trouble.
Back at the DA’s office, Lupo tells Cutter and Rubirosa that they knew Sands had a thing for cab drivers, so they assumed she interacted with cabbies before to they could check the logs. When Rubirosa comments that there are 13,000 taxis in New York City, Lupo brushes it off as labor intensive but goes on to say that 209 reported violent behavior by women in the last year, 102 were on the street in range of ATM or security cameras. When Cutter comments that is still a lot of cameras on a lot of systems, Lupo goes on to say he found a cabbie that saw Sands and Leary together, and produce a photo of Sands and Leary in the same shot, where Leary’s face is clear in the reflection in a store front window that he is facing after he walked away from Sands. When Cutter asks if Lupo had a subpoena for the cameras, Lupo says no. He used the power of people on the internet; Chinese people, the human flesh search engine – he had a contact in Shanghai from his days in intel – to get all this information, playing Leary’s own game. None of the pictures came from Leary’s home or office so they are admissible.
Back in Supreme Court, Leary is back on the stand, and when Cutter shows him the photo, Margolis asks to approach. He is not satisfied with the origins of the material. Cutter tells him it came from a lamppost security camera. Margolis says there is no record of any process being served, and Cutter says Leary has no expectation of privacy in the middle of 42nd Street. Margolis says there is no context explaining what is happening, and Cutter says if Leary can’t explain it, they have the taxi driver. The judge says that works for her and he may proceed. Cutter goes on and continues to poke at Leary about the photo, and he finally admits he never told her to kill anyone. Cutter said the woman was out of control, what did he reasonably expect? Leary says nothing, looking over to the jury.
Later, in a bar, Bernard is having a beer and Lupo enters and tells him Leary and the others took pleas and they are going away for manslaughter. Bernard says good. Lupo tells him if they would have known, he would have put himself out there as a target. Bernard says he never thought they would dig that up. Lupo asks how is the kid, and Bernard says his mother married her actual boyfriend and they thought it was better and less confusing if he didn’t see his son. Bernard says, “I guess I could look him up on the internet.” He takes a swig of beer as we fade to black.
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