How culpable is someone if their wild talk leads to tragedy?
That tricky question was at the heart of a tough case on Law & Order. Right after handling a murder charge on a disturbed woman, the cops and prosecutors had to tackle a case involving online speech leading to murder.
The battle over the First Amendment and a tricky defendant made Free Speech a tougher case than usual for Price.
A candidate’s last interview
In a TV interview, Congressional candidate Derek Hoyt debated host Jordan Reed (Jeffrey Nordling) on being able to talk about issues to both sides. It ended with Reed posting some conspiracy theories on Democrats trafficking children, causing Hoyt to storm out.
Two men were talking about people on Twitter insulting too much when a crash was heard, and they saw Hoyt was run over by a bus. Arriving on the scene, Cosgrove and Bernard were shown a video of someone shoving Hoyt right in front of the bus.
Hoyt’s wife Kelly (Shannon Marie Sullivan) was rocked by this, saying her husband was a good man and father and couldn’t think of who’d want to kill him. She did share that Derek had an argument a few weeks earlier at a restaurant.
The man was a business associate who was just upset over a bad deal. He brushed it off as just two guys being themselves and was even giving money to Hoyt’s campaign. He revealed that someone had been following them taking photos.
The sneaky photographer turned out to be a former cop turned private eye who Reed had hired to try and dig up dirt on Hoyt. Bernard laughed at Reed’s claims of “journalistic integrity,” given he spewed so much hate on his shows.
Reed confessed he didn’t really believe his own wild rhetoric but just played to his listeners who did. “It doesn’t matter what I believe, it matters what sells.” He was just sorry Hoyt died before he could destroy him.
Just as Cosgrove was telling Dixon that Hoyt was a choir boy as a child, Veritz showed files from Hoyt’s computer of death threats and photos of Hoyt with a young woman.
Targeting a major hater
Kelly was horrified at the photos, recognizing the woman as a classmate of her daughter’s. Hoyt’s campaign manager, Stuart Miller (Brandon Ford Green) claimed to have known nothing of this, but the cops showed a video of him banging on Hoyt’s door over it.
The girl’s father found something odd about the photos, which led to the confirmation that they were fake photos. Veritz said the photos were already a hot topic among conspiracy boards, including one person who seemed to take credit for Hoyt’s death.
After some checking, the cops found Manny Lopez (Jorge Chapa), the conspiracy board user who was also at the crime scene before Hoyt died. The man confessed, convinced he had saved innocent girls from a predator and was arrested.
At the arraignment, Lopez got a $2 million bail with some “self-proclaimed patriots” already raising the money for him. Maroun shared with Price how a conspiracy chat board pushed Hoyt to be part of a trafficking plot, and another poster riled things up with the fake photos.
Price mused that if Lopez bought this crazy talk, he could use it as justification in trial. His lawyer would also turn this into a circus with the political talk messing up the facts.
The poster was none other than Reed himself, who convinced his listeners that he was being targeted for “speaking the truth.”
Price argued to McCoy that Reed talking directly to Lopez made him an accomplice to the murder. Lopez was a true believer, refusing to accept he killed an innocent man.
He said Reed never directly said to kill Hoyt but used words like “neutralize” and claimed he would reward “true patriots who took action.”
The truth is on trial
At the arraignment, Reed’s lawyer Sanford Remz (Dylan Baker) argued this wasn’t Reed’s fault while Reed’s followers protested outside.
While Price’s opening statement focused on the facts of Reed spreading hate for money, Remz put the blame on Lopez alone. Price then got word that Lopez hung himself in his cell.
With Lopez dead, Remz naturally pushed to dismiss the charges. Price agreed to drop the murder-for-hire charge but would go ahead with second-degree murder as Reed still pushed the hate that caused this.
Remz argued this was just Reed’s First Amendment rights at work, but the judge agreed to at least let Price try the case.
A lab tech gave a great summation of the faked photos and the trail leading to Reed, while Remz pointed out he couldn’t prove Reed actually created and sent them.
Maroun knew they had to prove Reed knew that Lopez would act on his words. She warned Price that convicting someone for a death caused by Internet outrage could be a “groundbreaking” case.
The cops came up short trying to find anyone else Reed might have pushed into violence. One man testified about a friendly meeting only for Price to use that to talk about rallies Reed held. Maroun was doubtful Reed would testify, but Price knew that the egotist couldn’t pass up the chance.
Sure enough, Reed played on the stand on not taking part in the chats himself, so possibly one of his employees just used his computer (he even claimed to leave his password open).
Price expertly baited Reed into talking of his love for free speech and never telling his followers to commit violence. That left Price the opening to play a video from a rally of Reed telling an aide that he’d be a success if he could use his “idiot” followers to kill someone.
Reed tried to play it as a joke, but the damage was done. The jury found Reed guilty, with him proclaiming his followers would fight back. Price mused on getting a death threat as they exited the courtroom.
It was a tricky case showing the dangers of online hatespeech.
Law & Order Season 21 airs Thursdays at 9/8c on NBC.