Homicide Retrospective

David B Morris
15 min readFeb 23, 2024

The Great Female Detectives, Part 2

In the first act of ‘Bad Medicine’ an early season five episode Meldrick Lewis bursts a locker room and demands to know where Stivers is. “I’m gonna smack him,” he shouts. A petite African-American woman looks at him and says: “Take your best shot.” Meldrick blinks: “Terri Stivers. You a woman.” Stivers looks at him: “You Homicide detectives are as quick as they come.”

Technically Stivers, played superbly by Toni Lewis, is the last female detective: Lewis did not become a series regular until the final season of Homicide. But since she is the first one we meet and appears in more episodes than either of the other two, it’s best we start there.

At the time we meet her Stivers is working narcotics. She is investigating the murder of BoJack Reed, a local drug dealer who is lacing heroine with Scopolamine, leading to dozens of overdoses. Reed has been murdered because he has been labeling his bad batch with double stars, which is the trademark of Luther Mahoney, who was about to become the archvillain of Homicide.

Stivers appears in six episodes in Season Five, all of them pertaining to Luther Mahoney, the murders his drug ring commits, and eventually his shooting by Kellerman, the flashpoint of the series. Her major role is that of a window into the drug ring and her interactions are with Lewis and Kellerman. Stivers proves herself both streetwise and tough; in her second appearance when Junior Bunk ducks out the back door to avoid a collar, she’s waiting and has been him hogtied before Lewis and Munch can get there.

When everything comes to a head in Deception, Stivers runs in with Kellerman to see that Meldrick, who has laid an ass-whupping on Luther, has his gun on Lewis. Mahoney puts his gun up. “What you gonna do detective?” he says to Kellerman. “Read me my rights.” In a moment that would be repeated over and over for the next year on recaps, Kellerman (Reed Diamond) says coldly: “You have the right to remain silent,” and cold-bloodedly puts a bullet in Mahoney’s chest. After he dies, he says: “Anybody got a problem.” Just as coolly, Meldrick says: “Nope.” Stivers doesn’t say a word, but it’s clear watching her that she’s horrified.

Of the three detectives Stivers has by far the biggest problem going along with the lie about the Mahoney shooting, and she is appalled how coolly the other two are handling it. Two days later she tells him she hasn’t slept or ate, and that she has doubts. Kellerman, who seemed jealous that she had some of Meldrick’s time to begin with, basically tells her to get over it. She won’t.

Stivers spends the first half of Season 6, rotating from division to division. In the season premiere, she’s working robbery; a few episodes later, she’s been moved to vice. But she cannot let Mahoney go and neither can the Mahoney’s. In the season premiere, Stives is taking a woman’s statement when the woman is shot in front of her. Eventually, it becomes clear that Junior Bunk — who has been taking shots at Lewis and Kellerman — aimed at Stivers and missed. For the rest of the season Luther’s sister Georgia Rae (Hazelle Goodman) haunts the detectives, constantly bringing up the ghosts.

And throughout this period both Lewis and Kellerman refuse to give her the time of day. When Georgia Rae tries to blackmail Kellerman by saying she has footage of the murder, Kellerman spends weeks before he talks about it, and he purposely goes to Stives last. Not long after Georgia Rae launches a wrongful death civil suit against the three detectives (among many others) and when Lewis is suspended for assaulting Georgia Rae, Stivers is rotated into the division and Kellerman takes his wrath out on her — particularly when she takes Meldrick’s desk.

The Mahoney crew begins to self-destruct, in large part due to Meldrick’s influence and bodies begin to fall, most of whom Stivers recognizes. When Meldrick’s suspension is lifted, Stivers is not particularly thrilled to see him and when the squad is shot up and three police are killed (I’ll get to that below) Stivers finally goes to Gee’s office and tells him this is all on her. When Pembleton reopens the shooting in the season finale, Lewis tells them to leave Stivers out of it and Kellerman eventually resigns ostensibly to protect Meldrick and Stivers.

Stivers role in the final season, comparatively speaking, is diminished compared to the two previous seasons. She has been partnered with Falsone (Jon Seda) since Season Six and she mostly remains so the rest of the years. She investigates many murders (including the last case that is closed in the series) but she is less prominent than she was in the previous two years. What may be her best moment comes in the midst of Kellerman’s two episode return to the series. Stivers goes out of her way to avoid Kellerman (who is working as a private investigator) and when she does, he audibly says: “Bitch.” Stivers explodes at Kellerman, after nearly two years of bottling it up. Stivers, it’s worth noting, is completely in the right: Kellerman is apparently outraged that she isn’t grateful to him for leaving the squad so that he and Lewis wouldn’t be charged. Stivers fires back and tells him that if Kellerman hadn’t shot Mahoney, none of this would have happened and she doesn’t owe him anything. As far as we know, the two never speak again.

By the time Lewis was made a regular, two more female characters had been named to the squad. The most well developed by far was Laura Ballard, played by the exceptional actress Callie Thorne in one of the first major roles she had over the next quarter century.

Ballard is a recent transfer from Seattle, and when we first meet her in Season 6 she has become the star of Homicide. Giardello, praising the three new transfers calls her, ‘a godsend’. He could have been speaking for the show at large. Melissa Leo had been written out at the end of Season 5 and as I wrote in her entry, for the better part of two seasons her character had nothing to do. In Season 5 Michelle Forbes had joined the cast as Medical Examiner Juliana Cox, but despite the exceptional talent of Forbes, the medical examiner has almost nothing to do with the action on the show. (Forbes would be written out in the middle of Season Six.) Ballard was a shot in the arm to the series, and Thorne’s work would be one of the reasons I consider Season Six the best overall season in the entire series.

Thorne is attractive, but like Leo, not conventionally pretty and in a department that has been fundamentally male Ballard thinks she has a lot to prove. The series threw her in at the deep end in the three part opener to the season as she immediately clashes with Pembleton, still the heart of the show.

Pembleton and Bayliss have just been transferred back from robbery and on their first day back Pembleton takes a call at the Belvedere Hotel, where a dead woman has been found in the men’s room. There is a major function going on in commemoration of Felix Wilson (James Earl Jones) a producer of snack cakes known as a prominent figure in the African-American community. The murdered woman, Melia Brierre is a Haitian domestic — who worked for the Wilsons — both of whom are close friends of Giardello.

The usually all-out aggressive Pembleton treads on eggshells around the Wilsons, something that Ballard immediately clashes with Frank on. Indeed, during the second episode while Pembleton is pursuing what is ultimately a longshot lead on an old boyfriend of Brierre’s, Ballard and Gharty begin to investigate the Wilson family. Gharty (Peter Gerety) believes that Pembleton and Gee are “covering Wilson’s ass because it’s the same color as theirs’, something that Ballard is reluctant to say that bluntly but is clearly puzzled why Homicide is working with kid gloves. Pembleton is pressured by his fellow detectives to bring Wilson in — and is clearly surprised when Wilson reveals he’s been having an affair with her.

By the end of the arc (I won’t reveal how the investigation ends) Ballard comes to see Pembleton, who is stewing. As she walks off, he tells her: “Your instincts were right. Mine, for once, were not.” For a man described as the All-Mighty, this is a huge concession on his part and a compliment.

Ballard fades into the background for the next few episode but she is fairly prominent starting with the Christmas Episode ‘All Is Bright’. This is the first story completely centered on Gharty and Ballard, which in itself reflected a change. It had been a long time since the series put two new characters at the center of the same case at once and both Thorne and Gerety (as they would throughout the series) rose to the occasion.

They are investigating the murder of Philip Longley, a ladies man who is eventually revealed to be HIV positive. The case eventually leads them to Rita Hale (Kathryn Erbe) who Longley infected and is dying of AIDS. Rita does not bother to hide the fact that she loathed Longley and is more than willing to confess to her murder, but Ballard is reluctant to interrogate her, inclined to take her side rather than that of the victim. Even after she confesses Ballard tries to persuade Gee that the murder is self-defense because she does not want Hale to spend her last months in jail. Gee refuses to bend. In the last act of the episode Ballard and Gharty inform the other women that Longley was sleeping with that he was HIV positive and at the end of the episode asks Cox if she can be tested for HIV herself. It’s not the first time (or the last) we see a detective personalize a case, but it’s rarely been done to better effect.

The Ballard-Gharty partnership is one of the more stable ones in the entire series: it is rare in the final two seasons that either goes to investigate a murder without the other. (There is one notable exception I’ll get too because it’s pertinent to the series.) Gharty is significantly older than Ballard but he lacks the credentials — or indeed the dignity — to be an elder statesman. But their friendship is solid in a way few partnerships on Homicide are and there’s clearly a lot of respect between the two. At the climax of Season 6 Gharty and Ballard are both seriously wounded by the shooting in the squad room; Gharty takes a bullet in the chest, Ballard is hit in the foot and there is a very good chance at first she will lose it. (Ironically neither have investigated a single murder involving the Mahoney’s). The first thing Ballard does when she can leave her bed is visit Gharty and tell him: “We made it.”

Unfortunately in the final season Ballard is involved in the worst single storyline the show ever did: the romance between her and Falsone. Intrasquad hanky-panky is taboo in police departments -something that most cops shows chose to ignore but Homicide had enforced — until the final season. It is my assumption that the network more or less forced in on a series that was perpetually under watched in a misguided attempt to gain eyeballs. It backfired among most fans (many of whom never liked Falsone that much in the first place). The series actually made things worse when Giardello discovered the affair, ordered the two detectives to break up — and at the end of that episode the two of them hooked up. This was one of the major reasons the last season of Homicide is considered its weakest by fans of the series — though the last major female detective may have been a factor.

On a series that went out of its way to make sure its leads looked like ordinary people; Renee Sheppard was going to be alienating from the start. A tall, leggy and drop-dead gorgeous African-American woman, almost from the start her purpose seemed to be more the younger male detectives to drool over her. It didn’t help that part of Sheppard’s backstory was that she was a former pageant queen (Miss Anne Arundel County) and her first episode ended with Sheppard wearing a dress that showed a lot of leg. Most fans hated her from the start. I was willing to give her a chance, and eventually she earned my respect.

Sheppard was played by Michael Michele. Michelle had been acting for a while, most notably in New York Undercover and Central Park West. The latter series, a soap opera that was quickly cancelled, did not lend her appeal to the show’s fans. Neither did most of the stories she got in the first half of Season 7, though things began to change when she was partnered with Bayliss, perhaps the only man in the squad who was inclined to see her as a detective first and not a woman. By this point Bayliss was essentially an elder statesman, but his determination of himself as ‘bi-curious’ had isolated him with some of his fellow detectives. Perhaps he saw a kindred spirit in her.

Sheppard’s effective coming out party was Shades Of Gray, one of the best episodes of the series. In it she and Lewis are tracking down a Jamaican who is a witness in an investigation of excessive force. The two of them go to a crack house. Sheppard knocks on the front door, and Lewis waits in the back, expecting naturally that the suspect will run out that way. Instead, he comes out the front beats Sheppard down, takes her gun and shoots at Lewis.

In her sickbed, Sheppard confides to Gee that she expects to be transferred after she got beat down and her gun taken. She knows the rap against female police in Baltimore — something Meldrick has no problem ranting about: “She ain’t 130 pounds soaking wet!” as if explaining why this happened. Meldrick goes to a hangout of the suspect and demands the gun be returned that night. At the end of the episode, he brings it back to her.

On another show, this would be the kind of event that bonds the two partners. Homicide was never that kind of show. Instead, Meldrick spends the rest of the season openly resenting Sheppard. When she comes back to duty he “brings her a present.” It’s his hat with the bullet hole in it. When Sheppard is put back in rotation, Lewis convinces Falsone to trade cases, so that Sheppard can get a ‘dunker’ on her first day back. Sheppard realizes this and is resentful not only of Lewis but Falsone.

Indeed, the assault on Sheppard brings out sexist attacks from both the male and female detectives. Stivers and Ballard — both of whom are considerably shorter than Sheppard — talk about her behind her back, both in whether this would happen to them — or whether it makes them look bad. Lewis tells Falsone that his initial reaction was pure adrenaline and he is now truly worried whether Sheppard can be adequate backup going forward. For the rest of Season 7, he refuses to partner with her and is frequently judging her behind her back — and to her face.

Sheppard is still reeling from this when she ends up investigating her first ‘red ball’ with Bayliss. A serial killer is killing women on the internet (a bigger deal in 1999 than it might be today.) and Sheppard is lead investigator. She claims she’s up to the task, but she shows shakiness throughout and the bosses doubt her. That is amplified when the killer announces his next murder, the team races to stop him before it takes place — and they are led to an empty house with a computer taunting the detectives. Giardello demands Bayliss take over, something he refuses to do and Sheppard is resentful initially when Bayliss attempts to help. Eventually, though they do catch the killer and Sheppard is allowed to give the press conference.

Homicide had been struggling in the ratings and in April the show was cancelled. This was a shame because by the second half it had regained its quality and showed it had the ability to surprise. Never was this more clear in what was the next-to-last episode aired: “The Why Chromosome”

Sheppard takes a call at the start of the episode and asks Ballard to ride with her. This is a monumental moment because it is the first time in the entire series that two female detectives are running an investigation completely. Fittingly the series involves women in a level that most Homicide stories don’t.

The two detectives are called into investigate the murder of a fifteen year old with the street name destiny. The series had often investigated the gangs of Baltimore, but this was the first time it looked at the teenage girl’s perspective, and they were just as tough as the men. Eventually Ballard and Sheppard find themselves looking Destiny’s sister who demonstrates her own toughness, showing the scars she has from the life of abuse — including her own father.

Ballard does not want to believe these girls are capable of killing each other. She eventually settles on a gangbanger named Casper. (JD Williams, halfway through his stint on OZ and just a few years removed from his incredible run as Bodie on The Wire, plays an early version of both characters her.) Casper views himself superior to women, even the ones who can put him in prison. He casually mentions how women get into gangs (rolling bones, you roll dice and whichever number you get is the number of the man you have to sleep with). His alibi is the mother of his child, even though he has no problem screwing other women and he honestly doesn’t believe that a woman could have killed Destiny.

The brutal cycle of gang violence ends up playing out the same for girls as it does for boys. Denise Raeburn learned that Destiny had sex with ‘her man’, dressed up a guy to throw suspicion off, and shot her. Crystal finds out about this, and kills out of revenge, and is caught by Sheppard and Ballard before she tries to run. Danvers will make a deal for manslaughter in this case, but Crystal seems just as certain she will end up dead in prison as on the street. And when it’s all over Ballard admits that she didn’t want to believe that women could be as brutal as men. Before Crystal goes to prison, she takes care of her younger sister and tells her to be good. The last image in the episode is that of teenagers leaving flowers on the grave of another murdered girl — an image we’ve sadly gotten used to on the show.

After Homicide was canceled in 1999, Toni Lewis more or less stopped acting. She made small appearances in both Oz and The Wire but essentially retired from acting in 2006.

Michele was immediately cast as Cleo Finch in ER and appeared on the show until 2001. She has worked regularly in film and television since, with recurring roles on Gossip Girl, Queen Sugar and as a series regular in the CW version of Dynasty. She never forgot the writers of Homicide for giving her the chance to stretch. (She was nominated for an Image Award for Best Actress in a Drama in 2000 for Homicide.)

Callie Thorne would play Jimmy McNulty’s ex-wife on The Wire, have a recurring role in Season 12 of ER. Her biggest role in Peak TV was Sheila Keefe, who had a complicated messy relationship with Tommy Gavin for the entire run of Rescue Me. After that she got the lead role in the USA series Necessary Roughness. She has worked less frequently since then, most notably as recurring characters in NCIS: New Orleans and Law & Order: SVU.

In a world that has been dominated by female-run procedurals for the last twenty years, it is hard to imagine a series like The Closer or Major Crimes existing without the work of someone just Melissa Leo’s Kay Howard. In Laura Ballard and Terri Stivers, we see the kind of detectives that would be at the forefront of Saving Grace or Mare of Easttown. And in an era when African-American women got little representation on television at all, much less allowed to be anything but token to the male characters, it’s impossible not to see the work of Stivers and Renee Sheppard as forerunners of the characters Shonda Rhimes made the center of her work — though I have to say even Renee Sheppard has a self-determination to not let her sexuality be a factor in her work that I found sorely lacking in Olivia Pope or Annalyse Keating.

Even when it had three female regulars, calling Homicide ‘Television for Women’ would have been pushing the term. But without the brilliant female murder police and the extraordinary actresses who played them, I don’t think a lot of television for women — or even by women — would have been possible.

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David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.