Drama on police use of `deadly force' -- superb viewing, responsible treatment

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Television is often accused of escalating minor local events into national crises. But highlighting a local event of truly wide significance can perform a major public service. What seemed to be merely an explosive local police trial a decade ago in Boston eventually proved to have national implications. And now television, by expertly dramatizing the case, is providing an opportunity for the lessons learned there to be considered more widely.

In 1975 a black hospital worker, James Bowden Jr., was shot and killed by two white Boston police officers investigating an armed robbery.

Mr. Bowden's widow refused to accept the police explanation that her husband threatened them first. She hired for her attorney Lawrence O'Donnell Sr., an ex-policeman, and sued the Boston police for damages in a civil action.

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After several years of hardship, Mrs. Bowden won the first-ever award of civil damages for a police killing. And, even more important, the case inspired widespread reexamination of police use of ``deadly force.''

A Case of Deadly Force (CBS, Wednesday, 9-11 p.m.) is a superb dramatization of the Bowden case.

Scriptwriter Dennis Nemec could have taken the easy route by simply using the facts from a book written by O'Donnell's son, Lawrence O'Donnell Jr., who also became involved in the case (as did the whole O'Donnell family). But Mr. Nemec has gone much further, delving into the complex interplay of family relationships, police camaraderie, and community racial prejudice.

The result is a deft, but not slick or facile, script. With skillful direction from Michael Miller, the drama deals meaningfully with the motivations of all concerned.

A fine cast manages to carve believable characterizations out of the sparse but expert dialogue. Richard Crenna, in particular, gives an Emmy-caliber performance as the lawyer who tries to assuage the personal hurt of his own father's suicide by restoring the reputation of Mr. Bowden.

The script manages with impeccable delicacy to examine the sensibilities of the black family as well as the relationships and friendly competition within the O'Donnell family. Even the courtroom scenes inject helpful background and deep motivation into what could easily have been a superficial, once-over-lightly treatment.

For those viewers who like their docudramas tied up in neat packages, an informative voice-over at the end of the show explains what has happened to all the principals since the case was concluded.

If the docudrama genre needs justification for its existence -- and this critic is one who has often thought it did -- ``A Case of Deadly Force'' provides a fine argument for the value of the format, when done properly. This Telecom Entertainment production is ``info-tainment'' at its best. It performs a valuable public service.

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