The Writer's Encyclopedia
The apocrypha Interview: Dr. Park Dietz

By Kitteridge

It would make sense that Law & Order, meticulous to a fault about detail and reality, would only want the best in their forensic consultants. And so, they hired Dr. Park Dietz, perhaps the most prominent and accomplished forensic psychiatrists in the country. Park Elliott Dietz has worked as a researcher, consultant, and expert witness, applying psychiatric knowledge to legal problems and issues of crime and public safety. As an expert witness, he's testified at the murder trials of John Hinckley Jr., Jeffrey Dahmer, Betty Broderick, Arthur Shawcross, and Joel Rifkin. In addition to Law & Order, he's consulted for the FBI, the CIA, U.S. attorneys general offices across the country, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, the U.S. military services, the Department of Justice, and more than 120 corporations. He also owns a complete set of serial killer trading cards -- and they're on display in a case in his study. Hey, if you've got to have a specialty ... this is the way to do it. And what does Dr. Dietz do exactly? More than you might imagine -- he's all but a writer for the show.
Of course, Dr. Dietz, eminent researcher, testifier, and consultant is also the man who has managed to piss off numerous Canadians, thanks to his contributions to last seasons' notorious "True North" episode. Read on ... and realize, it was all in the name of science and good writing, rather than jingoistic fervor. Let's cut the guy some slack.

How did you get involved with the show in the first place?
One of producer at the time, Waylon Greene, had consulted with me on one of the movies he'd done. I don't remember the movie, but he brought me on board, it must have been five or six years ago, the 1992-1993 season.
What sort of questions do you generally get asked?
Let's see if I can get you some real examples. [Ruffles through papers.] While I'm looking, there's an interesting side story here. After I'd already been working on the show a couple of years, one day I got one of my typical calls on the show to ask me a question, and the caller was a new producer who had recently joined the show named Ed Zuckerman. And Ed and I were on the same dormitory floor in college! An amazing coincidence.
So you've been there almost seven years!
Yes. At that time, I sure did it differently [he's going through his notes on the scripts]. At that time I sure did it differently. I've got a written report I did on a script where I'm going scene by scene on stuff.
Is that how it happens, they send you a script and you send back notes?
Sometimes. I'm going to look at last year's for examples. Ah, yes, here's a story that's a knockoff on the Ramsey case.
That was for the crossover with Homicide: Life on the Streets.
The writers called me up and gave me a little background on what it's going to be about, and I come and add what makes sense to it. I guess I have to tell you both sides of this conversation to make sense of it. Here's one [reads aloud from notes] parents attend the girl's show in New York, the people think the dad is there to have sex with his daughter, but he's really there to protect her from the mother. I comment, "But he wasn't there to protect her that night because he was having a sexual escapade with someone else." So we're talking how to evolve the story in that one.
So they've come to you with a basic outline, and you tell them how to make it psychologically believable.
And here's one they called me about, a story about an expert witness and the story opens up with a man being killed, and they find he's a specialized expert who earns a living by going to trials and convincing people or getting bad guys off. We learn he was involved in a particular trial. The killer is a relative of someone convicted or a relative of the victim of the offender who's released because of the testimony of this expert, and the ironic twist is that the individual responsible for the murder needs an expert just like the one who got killed. Then we heard that Dick Wolf cautioned that he didn't want too many dead children or child sex cases this year, so it couldn't be about that...and I suggest that the killer leave a bloody knife at the scene with someone else's blood on it.
So you're not just proofing stuff that's been written, they're giving you scenarios and you're giving them ideas?
Yeah, it's much more common for me to be talking about it when it's still at a treatment stage, before they've written dialogue. In this one, I told them you could have the killer leave a bloody knife at the scene with someone else's blood on it, the blood could have been taken from a hospital and contain evidence of a rare disease. [I] said, how about having newspaper articles on the critical role of the expert that freed the killer, be a clue that someone stumbles on at some point.
So this is not just medical advice.
Not necessarily. What I think they call me on regularly is any time that Skoda is going to appear, just like they did with Olivet, and they'll often have me suggest the dialogue between [Psychiatrists Liz] Olivet or [Emil] Skoda and whoever is being examined. And certainly if they want a particular outcome, where they want drama to occur or when they want to surprise, they'll want to know what techniques could the psychiatrist or psychologist use to elicit the information, what disorder could account for the following pieces of the storyline.
So was it your idea with the mob boss who was pretending to be catatonic?
Actually, that was a case I was working on at the time in New York. They call me based on cases that are in the news, and I happen to be working on half of the cases in the news, so I usually know what's going on in the genuine case. It never goes the other way, I never reveal what cases I'm on and then propose stories from it.
So there's no conflict of interest.
Oh, no!
Interesting. Why would they call you that are non-psychological or non-medical related?
Well, when they do it is generally because they're trying to look at how someone's behavior could be explained, or what could cause a father to become more protective of his wife than his children. What could cause a mother and son to partner in crime, what kind of personalities could these people - how would they relate. Human behavior questions, but it's always about bizarre or criminal or unusual human behavior traits, which is all I know about.
That is your specialty.
Do you find the show is very particular about making sure they have all of the details right?
They try to make sure that they've closed all of the loops, that there aren't loose ends which might not make sense. Unlike the stupid shows, different crime shows, they don't tell the audience all of the details. A lot of it you can infer has happened off-camera. So it's hard to write a script for them, or see how they do it so smartly, but they want to make sure that it's all plausible. They do not try to make sure that it's faithful to the news event. Usually it's got dramatic twists and turns that distinguish it. They want to make sure that the scientific information is accurate. And what has always impressed me the most, and one reason that I'm proud to be associated with the show is that, unlike anything else I've done with the media, they have always listened when I've suggested that something in a story was going to tend to promote copycat crimes, or better inform criminals. Every time I have said, "Please don't show that because that would teach criminals how to get away with it," they've listened. And every time I've told news people that, they've made a point of emphasizing it. This is not a joke, this is a real serious issue with me.
Could you state an example of that which wouldn't completely subvert the whole reason you didn't tell people in the first place?
I can put it generally. For example, there have been times when a script called for a use of a poison or a weapon, it would be difficult to detect or trace, and when I've pointed out that teaching criminals in the audience the utility of that poison or weapon was a bad idea, they've always listened and revised it.
Do they then make up a pretend name, or do they just do it differently?
Occasionally. The poisons they make up pretend names.
Any other aspects of the show you really have a say in?
I don't want to claim power where I have none, but it looks to me like they do let me influence how events turn out. It is always a surprise to me to watch it three months later and see that a line I suggested is used, or that a plot twist I suggested comes true. That's a hoot to see! When I read the script, to my amazement, it's hard to remember whether I've seen it before, because the visuals seem so natural.
Do you think that they portray the medical profession, or that they portray psychiatrists fairly?
That's an interesting point. Olivet was a very sympathetic portrayal of a mental health professional. And I never heard anything negative when that character was on the show. But when Skoda came along, one of my peers made some comments to me, suggesting that it really looked very bad for forensic psychiatry to have such a person who was friendly with the cops and against criminals and gruff appear on a television show.
Is one more realistic than the other?
No, I think both types exist in the real world.
But it's better for the profession to have a cuddly Olivet character?
Well, that's what insecure people think, anyway.
And in terms of forensics, we talked about how you deal with the behavior and not letting criminals learn things they shouldn't know, but are there other aspects of forensics you consult on?
Occasionally, they'll ask me questions about disease or the forensic pathology, and by coincidence I'm interested in such things, and fairly knowledgeable, but so are they. They do their homework. The writers will look things up in textbooks, and they call physicians with the right expertise whenever they have a doubt.
What's an example of something else you do for the show?
Here's something that's a little more recent in memory. It was Ed Zuckerman who called me about a story which he initially thought was implausible. He didn't like the basic idea, about a woman who grew up in a small Canadian town, working class, became a classic gold digger, attractive, practiced using men, ended up in Buffalo, working for a company owned by a man, had an affair, ran his wife over in a car, killing her. A year later, marries him, wants glamour, moves to New York, has an affair with a lowlife rejected by his wealthy you remember this story? Well, to win the trial, a cross-examination of her has to get her to expose herself, so Ed's asking me, How do you get a flare-up of her temper, so the jury can glimpse her true nature? And the cross-exam was written 45 times and never came out right. So Ed wanted to know how we could make this come out right. And I suggested that what we want to do is make her ashamed of her father, and to play to her inner fear by calling her a pathetic hick town party girl, whose boyfriend dumped her when she got pregnant, and who's just a loser who can't make it in the big city.
I think the Canadians took great exception to the word "hick town."
Just so you know.
Really? They complained about this?
The Canadians got very upset about that entire episode.
Well, I'm sorry I brought up that episode...but the very lines that I suggested showed up in the cross-examination of her. And that's always an amazing thing to me.
You don't mind them taking your lines, line by line?
Why would I mind? No, they give me a credit, and they pay me, too.

whaddya think?