October 26, 2022

The best of worlds, the worst of worlds

(left to right) Stephen Young, Luke Halpin, and Carl Betz

One of the things I most like about Judd, for the Defense (along with the powerful performances each week by Carl Betz) is how the scripts take on controversial issues without necessarily being polemical, demonstrating through misdirection and unexpected plot shifts that things are not always as simple as they seem. (You could argue that there's a little too much misdirection, but that's how good mysteries work.) Combine this with the occasional episode that stubbornly refuses to wrap everything up in a bow at the end, and you get a series that probably should have lasted more than two seasons. (But then, not being a network executive, what do I know?)

Something else that Judd has in common with the best shows of its era is the ability to illustrate, unironically and without the filter of contemporary mores, how society has changed over the decades—sometimes evolving, frequently devolving, but seldom remaining static. Case in point is the first-season episode "The Worst of Both Worlds," a story that's both timeless and subject to a completely different interpretation than it would have had when originally broadcast on March 8, 1968.

The Cliff Notes version of the plot: Judd and his associate, Ben Caldwell (Stephen Young) are called in to defend 17-year-old Kenny Carter, Jr., who was sentenced to 3½ years in the county juvenile home for stealing and wrecking a sports car belong to a family for which he'd done odd jobs, the wealthy and influential Merritt family. The man driving the car that Kenny hit was seriously injured in the crash. 

At first, it seems a straightforward case of injustice being done to the boy; talking to Ben at the county home, Kenny (Luke Halpin) insists that "I didn't admit anything because I didn't do anything," and that "because of the way they ask you the questions in court, if you answer 'no,' it turns out you're a liar; if you answer 'yes,' you're guilty." At the hearing, he was without benefit of counsel (a lawyer wouldn't have been available for three weeks, and upon suggestion of the judge, Kenny waived his right), and no transcript of the hearing was kept, due to cost. The juvenile officer, Frank Austin (Frank Marth, so we know he's going to be the bad guy), whose duty is to act in Kenny's best interests, maintains that the boy's rights were always kept in the forefront of the investigation. 

Convinced that the boy's rights were denied, Judd applies for a Writ of Habeas Corpus to get Kenny out of the home, and seeks a new hearing for him. Based on the circumstances, a judge agrees to both. It's then that the first complication occurs, when Austin reveals to Judd that Kenny had assaulted Mrs. Merritt prior to stealing the car. Austin's motive in acting as he did in the first hearing was to prevent this from coming out--"holding back the kind of charge that could ruin his life"; as it was, he would have been a delinquent in the juvenile home, "but you had to come along and open Pandora's Box." Kenny denies the assault, but Judd and Ben know he's holding back. After Mrs. Merritt (Pippa Scott) testifies in court and confirms that an assault happened, Kenny finally, reluctantly tells them the truth: he and Mrs. Merritt had been having an affair, she had tried to prevent him from leaving the house because he wanted to go on a date with a girl his own age, and (because she'd been drinking) she fell and hit her head, sustaining the injuries that Kenny was supposed to have inflicted. He then took the car to get a doctor for her, and wrecked it because the brakes were faulty. All this time he'd been trying to protect her, but now that she's turned on him, he has no choice. After undergoing a withering cross-examination from Judd, Mrs. Merritt finally breaks down and admits the truth, and the charges against Kenny are dismissed.

After the judge has ruled, while Kenny is being comforted by his family, Judd confronts Austin in the corridor, and we come to the plot point around which everything revolves:

Mr. Austin, you owe me an explanation. Didn't you know what was going on between Kenny and Mrs. Merritt?

She told me about their struggle. When she was still upset enough to be telling the truth. Later on, I could see she carefully did not tell her husband. So I could make a pretty good guess.

And you didn't say a thing in your official capacity?

My official capacity was to protect the kid, n ot to let him get smeared the rest of his life. Of course, I didn't know the whole story, particularly that brilliant council would take over the case.

Mr. Austin, I did nothing more than any competent lawyer would have done. The point I wish you would see is the injustice of trying so many of these kids in juvenile court without lawyers and calling that 'protection of the young.'

Well, how would you protect them? By feeding kids into the machinery of the ordinary criminal courts, where nobody cares what happens to them? Look, do you really think you did this kid any favors by getting him off scot-free? Without any disciplinary correction? 

He's not legally guilty of anything.

He was carrying on with a married woman. He lost his head, he took a car he couldn't handle properly, and he caused a very serious crash. Now, let me ask you this, Mr. Judd. How would you feel about seeing some other lawyer get him off, if you were the man he ran into?

Judd wins again—or does he?
This is how the episode ends, with Judd left to ponder how the legal system works, and us to ponder what it all means. As I mentioned, us viewers have been conditioned over the years to connect Frank Marth with the heavy, so we're only too willing to accept Judd's version of justice as the correct one. And yet, likely with this in mind, writers Paul Monash (series creator) and Norman Borisoff take pains to suggest that Austin did have the boy's interests in mind. Perhaps he didn't handle it correctly, but he's not a one-dimensional pantomime villain. In the end, though, you still have to think he's wrong—flat wrong, about Kenny, and about the legal system in which he acts as an officer. 

If one were to air this episode, unchanged, on a contemporary program, we'd probably be shocked. First of all, Mrs. Merritt, having seduced a minor, would be considered a sexual predator, and even if she didn't do any jail time, she'd go into the sex offender registry for sure. (What would that have done to a socially prominent family?) Kenny would be seen as a victim, not someone carrying on an affair with a married woman. His name would be kept confidential; even though word would spread in a small town like the one in which the story occurs, it's not going to follow him around on his record. Far from recommending "disciplinary correction," a judge would probably order counseling for him; as for taking the car, under the circumstances he acted not out of malice or criminal intent, but as a confused and abused boy who didn't know what else to do. In short, he's not a delinquent, but a boy taken advantage of by an older woman who should have known better. Austin likely would have been sacked had he proceeded the way in which he did and would have left both himself and the city wide open to civil charges. The entire denouement would have flipped, and Judd would have had an even stronger case for demanding that the legal system do more to protect juveniles from adult predators. 

That's the way it is. That's not the way it was. At the risk of identifying myself once again as old, I can say that when I was in high school, none of us boys would have considered Kenny a "victim"—we'd have called him lucky, and each one of us were probably hoping the same thing would happen to us—minus the accident, of course; it's never any fun doing something you aren't supposed to be doing unless you get away with it. And we wouldn't have seen him as having been taken advantage of, he scored. Of course, that's what happens when you think with your hormones instead of your head, and that's why teenagers (or those who've never matured beyond their teens) shouldn't be running the world.  

I'm certainly not suggesting that things were better back then, nor am I saying we're wrong to view things differently today. It probably suggests we should look at situations like this on a case-by-case basis. But "The Worst of Both Worlds" functions not only as entertainment, but as that time capsule I'm always talking about, presenting us with a look at how society was—not in retrospect, not seen through 21st century-tinted glasses, but the way it actually was at the time. If you want to study societal evolution, you can certainly do worse than this. TV  

1 comment:

  1. This is the show that made me want to be an attorney when I was a teenager.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!