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Alan Pergament's summer guilty TV pleasures: 'The Last Defense,' 'Staircase'

Two of my guilty pleasures this summer involve true crime series.

The genre has become all the rage on television, partly because they are much cheaper to produce than entertainment series that require the hiring of expensive stars and writers.

In addition, viewers are attracted to them because they usually involve a mystery.

In the case of both my guilty pleasures — the ABC series "The Last Defense" and the Netflix series "Staircase" – the mystery is over whether the authorities jumped too quickly to the obvious choice of whodunit.

Admittedly, I'm predisposed to watching this genre. I've always had a thing about the legal system.

Decades before I became a TV critic, I covered the courts in Western New York and witnessed some of the best lawyers in the area's history perform in front of juries. And I do mean perform.

Some of my favorite TV series are legal series, including "L.A. Law," "The Practice," "The Defenders" and "Perry Mason." Yes, I still even catch a "Perry Mason" episode once in a while on WBBZ.

I learned over the years of covering the courts that the judicial system is flawed, only partly because the juries deciding cases and authorities documenting the evidence are composed of human beings who are flawed.

Truth be told, "The Last Defense" is the more compelling of the two documentary series. That's partly because it also is the shorter of the two at four episodes. "Staircase," which is made by a French documentary crew, is 13 episodes long. It is compelling viewing, but it could easily have been cut down to eight episodes or less.

Viola Davis and Julies Tennon are the executive producers of "The Last Defense," which revolves around the 1997 case of a Texas woman on death row, Darlie Routier, who was convicted of murder for brutally stabbing one of her two young sons to death. (She wasn't charged in the murder of her other son).

She denies it. Her husband believes her. The jury didn’t.

"Staircase" revolves around the murder trial of Michael Peterson, a novelist and former Marine who is accused of murdering his wife, Kathleen, in their North Carolina home in 2001. He said she suffered horrific wounds and massive blood loss and died after falling down a staircase (thus, the title).

His lawyer, David Rudolph, and four out of five children and stepchildren, believe him. The jury didn't. Anybody who has fallen down a staircase most likely wouldn't have believed him, either.

The two series have many things in common.

They appear to be open-and-shut cases. Unfortunately, the authorities behaved like they were, too. They almost instantly concluded they had their man or woman. Because they didn't consider any alternative, the authorities made some mistakes any good lawyer would try to capitalize on.

The two people on trial are characters from central casting and their personal lives cast suspicion on them even though that should be irrelevant. The third episode of "The Last Defense" last Tuesday made a convincing case the prosecution's character assassination of Routier had a bigger impact on the guilty verdict than any concrete evidence.

The most likely alternative to the guilt of each defendant in the two series relies on the questionable theory that a third party somehow got into the homes of the deceased and committed the murders without being discovered.

Perhaps most importantly, both cases revolve around blood splatter evidence, because there are no eyewitnesses.

Interestingly, one so-called blood splatter expert is featured in both series. He is looked upon much more favorably in one case than the other. If you watch both series, you can't help but conclude the word "expert" is a shaky term at best.

The phrase "reasonable doubt" also can be a shaky term in the hands of a jury.

I would bet most people watching either series could reasonably conclude the authorities got it right even if they didn't do things right. But doing things right is just as important in our flawed legal system as getting things right.

One benefit of watching both series is seeing how things can go wrong.

Here's what is wrong with "Staircase."

It is way too talky, allowing Peterson to ramble on and on while frequently delivering gallows humor.

To its credit, "Staircase" does allow the sister of Peterson's wife to sort of put the production of "Staircase" on trial in a passionate, angry speech to the judge as the case is about to be resolved.

But one of the more educational moments comes from Peterson's lawyer, David Rudolph, in one of the final episodes. He explains that juries don't find defendants "innocent." They find them "guilty" or "not guilty."

Newspapers may have contributed to the confusion when they decided to use the term "innocent" in stories to avoid the possibility the word "not" would be dropped when juries found someone "not guilty."

Make no mistake about it: I am guilty of being intrigued by both series to different degrees. I just wish "Staircase" wound up much quicker.

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