Firstly, this has nothing to do with the death penalty: William Shatner's character was charged with manslaughter. His speech at the end is about the value of the life of his victim. He's not trying to spare himself: just the opposite. He's taking responsibility for his actions.
Shatner plays a businessman who gets into an unwanted physical confrontation to an over-age bully played by Richard X. Slattery and has to defend himself. He resorts to what they call a judo move but which seems more like karate, (I'm not expert on either but I thought Judo was using your opponent's momentum against him. This involved hitting the guy with both fists clenched together- first up and then down). Slattery suffers a broken neck.
The case seems set up in Shatner's favor. At first they thing the man died when he feel and hit his head. It turns out that it was his blows that broke the man's neck. But the maneuvers were something he was taught in the service when he operated behind enemy lines in the Korean War: he'd killed three enemy soldiers with the same moves, which he was trained on constantly - so much so that they are automatic when he is threatened. Lawrence Preston believes he can get Shatner off off based this: he could be retrained not to do that automatically. On top of this we find that Slattery was a bully to everyone who beat his wife and six kids. Nobody except his equally thuggish brother seems to be unhappy the guy is gone: why should we be?.
Having cleverly set up Shatner as a sympathetic 'victim', writer John Vlahos neatly turns the show right around. It's been clear that Shatner is troubled by the fact he killed a man and by the excitement he sees in his son over this. He thinks his Dad's a hero. His wife is even more uncomfortable with the thought of going on with life as if nothing had happened when the dead man cannot. Shatner abruptly changes his plead and makes a brief but powerful speech about responsibility and the value of human life.
It's the sort of thing no TV show, certainly no lawyer show had ever done, and that's what made "The Defenders" stand out.
A couple of ironies: Shatner had played Kenneth Preston in the 1957 pilot for the show, (clips of which were used decades alter on "Boston Legal". And the excellent Joanne Linville later turned up as a Romulan captain on the original "Star Trek".
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