Secrets of Scandal: Beltway Unbuckled

By Jess Brownell, Researcher Oct 26, 2012

Beltway UnbuckledIn this week’s episode, the team is put to the test when Janet and Peter Nystrom come to Pope & Associates asking for help finding their missing daughter, Jenny, a DC college student. A missing girl case is right up Olivia’s alley – she knows just how to work the media using a reward, the perfect photograph, and the parent’s plea to get the nation to rally around finding this girl. These were the same strategies used when Chandra Levy, JonBenet Ramsey, and Natalee Holloway went missing -- and unfortunately, just as with Chandra and JonBenet, the search for Jenny also ends in tragedy. Her body is found in the woods, with internal injuries from what looks like a car accident. It’s the Nystrom’s worst nightmare.

In a twist that may be helpful to the case, the team discovers there is more to Jenny’s story. Though Jenny might’ve been the sweet, church-going girl her parents thought her to be, she was also writing a blog called “Beltway Unbuckled,” which detailed her sexual exploits with nearly half of Congress. Fortunately, Abby’s spent some time reading the gossip glossies, and knows just how to decode Jenny’s blind item blog entries. With a little help from crime scene forensics, the team puts the pieces together and realizes that Jenny was with a man named Alexander Lavich the night of the accident. Case solved.

If only it were that easy. Though there’s no lack of evidence to pin Lavich to the crime, the man is a Cultural Attaché with the Kurkistani Embassy in DC, which blows the whole case apart. As Harrison so eloquently (and with quick Scandal pace!) breaks down, “the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations mandates that diplomatic agents have full immunity from the jurisdiction of the local courts.”

This means that, because of Lavich’s job, he cannot be handcuffed, arrested, detained, have his home or vehicle entered or searched, be obliged to provide evidence as a witness or to testify, and he cannot be prosecuted no matter how serious the crime. He can’t even be compelled to pay a parking ticket.

Why, you ask, would such a crazy law exist? The idea behind the 1961 agreement is to protect governmental relations, but abuses of immunity are commonplace. The most recent and notable case is that of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who claimed diplomatic immunity after a maid in New York alleged he assaulted her. It turned out that, because of DSK’s particular position, his immunity did not apply. But in other cases, the immunity defense has worked wonders to allow diplomats to get away with murder (literally).  In 1984, a British police officer was shot and killed by someone inside the Libyan embassy. To this day, no one has been held responsible for the officer’s death as the embassy claimed immunity; all that could be done was to sever ties with Libya. Potentially the most atrocious use of immunity came in 1979, when the Burmese ambassador to Sri Lanka, after fighting with his wife over an alleged affair, reportedly shot her and then burned her body in his front yard. Onlookers gathered and police were called to the scene, but the ambassador claimed his property was Burmese territory and forbade anyone to enter.

As these cases make clear, there’s not a whole lot Olivia can do to get justice for the Nystroms. The only recourse the Vienna Convention makes available is to have the diplomat expelled from the country – or, if the administration agrees to it, the State Department can request that the sending country waive the diplomat’s immunity, which would allow the US to prosecute. Waivers of immunity have been successfully granted in the past, but in this case, the Grant administration has strategic interests in Kurkistan, so Fitz refuses to make the request.  Nothing seems to be working with this case – not even Mellie’s eventual decision to break rank and lend her support to the cause.

In the end, Fitz does agree to expel Lavich, deporting him from the US back to Kurkistan. It’s a band-aid, really. If Lavich ever returns to the US after deportation, his immunity will be no longer and he can be arrested. But he’s unlikely to make that mistake. So unless Kurkistan decides to prosecute him, Lavich will never be brought to justice. As Olivia says, he’ll get to just “chill.”

The look on Mr. Nystrom’s face when he finds out this news is heartbreaking. For Lavich, it’s literally heart-breaking – because when Huck sees that look, he decides to give Lavich “a freak heart attack” to spare Mr. Nystrom the fate of being a murderer. Huck can smell a man’s intent to kill from a mile away. Justice is served, but now Huck is off the wagon, and who knows what demons have been unleashed…

See you next week for another revealing look at the secrets of Scandal!

For more information on diplomatic immunity:

Diplomatic and Consular Immunity: Guidance for Law Enforcement and Judicial Authorities (US Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security)

Dominique Strauss-Kahn: diplomatic immunity's greatest hits (The Guardian)