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The Best Courtroom Scene In Law & Order: SVU Season 6

Content warning: the following article deals with suicide and sexual assault.

After Stephanie March's A.D.A. Alexandra Cabot went into witness protection, "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" filled her formidable shoes, in Season 5, with Diane Neal's Casey Novak. Though she initially struggles to seal with some of the squad's more sensitive cases, in Season 6, Novak proves herself every bit as fearless, dogged, and worthy of the task as her predecessor, and in the season's bold finale, "Goliath," her fervent passion for justice reaches a fever pitch. 

As its title suggests, the episode positions Novak as the proverbial David, in this case, to the U.S. Army's Goliath. After two different veterans begin having violent outbursts and uncharacteristic paranoid delusions — leading to one of them dying by suicide after sexually assaulting and killing his wife — an investigation reveals that an Army-issued anti-malaria drug called Quinium is responsible for their uncontrollable behavior. Novak discovers the military knew about the drug's potentially devastating side effects, but failed to inform its soldiers of the risks before prescribing it to them. The episode is a fictionalized spin on the tragic, true story of a drug called Lariam's role in the 2002 Fort Bragg killings (per ABC News), and, like so many of the best episodes in the "Law & Order" franchise, it imagines a world wherein the untouchable perpetrators of an injustice are (at least) brought to trial.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

Goliath lives up to its name

Novak makes a classic, Sam Waterston-as-Jack McCoy reach when she convenes a Grand Jury in an effort to charge the U.S. Army with sexual assault and murder, since she doesn't believe the affected former soldiers should be held criminally liable for their actions. It's the kind of heroic if naive windmill tilt that audiences adore in a TV attorney, and one Neal manages with gutting emotional realism. 

Novak is unrelenting in her questioning of the head of the pharmaceutical company, an Army Colonel, and an Army doctor who, despite acting as an anonymous whistle blower, denies Quinium's danger while under oath. The determined D.A. refuses to be worn down by the three hostile witnesses' obfuscations and half-truths, but it's to no avail — in the end, the Grand Jury finds that neither the drug company nor the U.S. Army can be held criminally liable for anything. 

While disheartening, the true-to-life futility of the trial (via ABC News) is part of what makes the courtroom scene so brilliant. "Goliath" refuses to give us a rosy, unrealistic portrayal of either the effectiveness of our justice system or the mechanics of our society. When Novak asks the doctor why he turned on her, since she could have protected him if he let the truth come out, he says sympathetically, "Ms. Novak you are very young — and that is not the way the world works." Thus, the entire episode, and its courtroom scene in particular, speak to an uncomfortable truth.

Goliath's courtroom scene is all-too-realistic

Everything about the scene, from its premise to its camera work, speaks to the gap between television justice and reality, and how that gap creates our need to consume the former. It's no accident, for instance, that both the Colonel and the doctor are consistently framed so it appears as though they've literally turned their back on the U.S. flag, and all the liberty and justice for all it is meant to symbolize. Despite providing audiences, for decades, with hero lawyers willing to go to the ends of the earth to seek and obtain justice for The People, the "SVU" Season 6 finale reminds us that the Just-World Fallacy is just that — a fallacy. 

This is something most viewers are aware of where our legal system is concerned, as evidenced by a 2018 non-partisan poll showing the vast majority of Americans believe the justice system is in dire need of reform (via Politico). But despite this knowledge, or perhaps as a result of it, we continue to consume media that tells us our law enforcement and justice systems are infallible pillars of integrity and fairness. 

We want to believe that McCoy and Novak not only exist, but that they are out there ensuring the blame for a tragedy falls where it properly should. But as the courtroom scene in "Goliath" so effectively reminds us, "That is not the way the world works." In real life, the military continued to use Larium for over a decade following the events at Fort Bragg, and the still-on-the-market drug was under examination as recently as 2019 (via Military Times).