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'Law & Order' nostalgia recap: Rally, riot, or murder?

Season 18 | Episode 8 | “Illegal” | Aired Feb 13, 2008

It’s hard to think of many topics that are more divisive right now than the subject of immigration. Law & Order‘s episode on the subject, “Illegal,” aired eight years ago—yet it still feels timely.

What’s billed as a massive immigration rally turns into total chaos, and after the flood of people dissipates, Detectives Green and Lupo are called to the body of a woman who’s been shot multiple times. Was Maria Soriano shot during the riot, or did that craziness just provide cover for her killer to get away with it? And does her younger sister Inez, an illegal immigrant picked up in the aftermath, have anything to do with the crime? Plus, McCoy publicly announces that he’s appointed Josh Latham (John Pankow from Episodesas, except here, he’s not funny) as a special prosecutor. There’s a lot going on in this episode.

Inez tells the cops that Maria was taping the rally with her cell phone before the two got separated during the riot. ESU tracks the phone’s signal to the lost-and-found room of the city’s parks and rec office; sadly, Amy Poehler is nowhere to be found. But the video does show the gang member who accosted Maria just before she died. He then insists that it was a police officer who killed her. Ignacio’s theory seems to be proven correct when a slug is recovered from a nearby tree with Maria’s blood on it—a slug from a 9 mm Glock 19, which could have been a police weapon. That’s if the police brass want to hear any of it. “Don’t we have any American witnesses?” one of them complains.

Latham tells McCoy that “No officers so much as drew a weapon,” but the District Attorney insists that every cop who was on the scene be checked out again anyway. He has a point, because two scenes later, Lupo and Green see footage that not only involves one officer pushing a reporter, but a second cop apparently pulling something out of his pocket. They ask the first cop to identify the second, and he says that the dude is an auxiliary officer—a volunteer that’s not supposed to be carrying a weapon. Officer Rodchenko admits that he owns a Glock 19, which is enough for him to wind up in handcuffs even as cop-friendly Latham seems to be playing it too safe. Can you see where this is going?

After Latham gives a half-cocked performance in the grand jury (and insults everyone), McCoy throws him out and recalls Cutter, by which I mean he pops into Cutter’s office in the middle of the night, says five lines and then leaves. It’s amazing how many episodes from seasons 18 to 20 involve McCoy walking in, telling Cutter what to do, and then just walking out. For his next trick, Cutter has the cops recover two bags’ worth of bullet casings from the shooting range Rodchenko used to match one to those from the crime scene. But Rodchenko’s lawyer volleys back, insisting that her client was told to shoot by a superior officer—which might be true: a recording surfaces of the command to fire. Cutter inspects the floor of McCoy’s office.

But his boss wants to go to trial regardless, so here’s the courtroom scene with Rodchenko insisting that he accidentally killed Maria after hearing the order. Cutter pokes at the other man’s insistence that he’s a “real cop” and gets no respect, before pointing out to him and everyone that the woman he killed was an accountant. That would normally do the job, but Latham comes back to air his dirty laundry and make some newspaper headlines, so McCoy tells Cutter he’s putting himself on the stand. After a little self-skewering, the jury delivers a guilty verdict, and Cutter gives his boss a small gift courtesy of eBay. Because you can find anything on eBay. Too bad all McCoy got him in return was a 700-page copy of the final investigative report.

After “Political Animal” and “Quit Claim,” this episode is a return to form for Law & Order. It has a relevant plotline with good performances, and no single character overwhelms the narrative (though John Pankow does always seem to get stuck playing the difficult one). At least in the first half of the episode, you can see both sides of the story: You don’t want to think about overzealous cops running amok, but you can also understand the need to keep the peace.

And while there’s not much discussion about illegal immigration, there are scenes here that are food for thought, like the moment in the detention facility where Inez is kept and Lupo wondering if that’s right. Whether it’s that or the wider story about police conduct, “Illegal” leaves us with a few points to chew on, which is what Law & Order is all about. It’s saying something that you could put this episode on the air today and it would still have impact; it’s no wonder this show is still on TV as much now as it ever was.

Law & Order is airing in syndication.