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Talk about stretching for a part — when the long-time New York prosecutor and part-time actor Bruce Birns appeared on a pair of recent episodes of the NBC television show “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” he was playing, of all things, a criminal defense attorney. “It’s rather ironic,” Birns said of the experience. “For all these years I’ve been screaming at juries to convict violent offenders and pushing judges to give maximum sentences. Yet for these two weeks I’m trying to get two sex offenders off on technicalities.” Birns, a 22-year veteran of the Bronx District Attorney’s Office who is now Senior Trial Assistant in the Domestic Violence Bureau, said he will not be leaving his day job any time soon. But with credits on “Special Victims Unit” and its elder sibling “Law & Order,” Birns’s real-life experience has helped him earn a niche in the world of courtroom television. Said “Law & Order” production coordinator Gene Ritchings of Birns’s performances, “He’s in his natural habitat and he’s clearly comfortable there.” Birns, 47, who is the son of the late Appellate Division, First Department, Justice Harold Birns, grew up in Greenwich Village and went to boarding school at Trinity-Pawling School in Pawling, N.Y., before attending Columbia University. His career as a prosecutor may have been genetically predetermined — his father, before taking the bench, served as chief of the rackets bureau under Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan. But Birns was hooked for good while as a student at Columbia in 1974, when he watched then-prosecutor Jack T. Litman win the murder conviction of former police officer William R. Phillips in his father’s Manhattan Supreme Court courtroom. “It was fascinating to me,” Birns remembered. “I like drama and I always like to be center-stage so that was a natural progression.” LEGAL CAREER After graduating from Fordham Law School, Birns joined the Bronx District Attorney’s office in 1978. Among other high-profile cases, he handled the 1989 trial and 1995 retrial of Ronald Timmons and Henry Bolden for a vicious triple murder on the Grand Concourse and the 1998 prosecution of Jocelyn Bennett for starving and beating to death her 5-year-old son Daytwon. In the courtroom, his father’s legacy occasionally makes itself felt. In a recent trial of a police officer before Bronx Justice Steven L. Barrett, the judge expressed his skepticism over Birns’s argument for a weapons possession charge by citing the 1981 Court of Appeals decision in People v. Parker and noting that it was based on the lower court dissent of the “late and esteemed Justice Harold Birns.” Asked by Justice Barrett if he still wanted to argue the law, Birns responded diplomatically that while he would prefer that the count be included, he would contest the point “less than enthusiastically.” A MAN OF PARTS Birns said he caught the acting bug as a kid, watching rehearsals of James Earl Jones in “Great White Hope” and the Royal Shakespeare Company at the East Village theatre his family owned. But his proverbial big break came years later, in 1993, when he was invited to the set of the film “Sweet Nothing” and by chance found the producers in need of someone to fill a role as a crack buyer. His small part in the movie, which starred Mira Sorvino and Michael Imperioli, was enough to earn him prized membership in the Screen Actors Guild. Since then, Birns has studied acting at Uta Hagen’s HB Studio and the Barrow Group, among other places. After reading unsuccessfully for the part of a prosecutor, Birns was cast as a jury foreman on a “Law & Order” episode that aired in 1998. He has also had small roles in the independent film “The Dance” and the Hugh Grant vehicle “Mickey Blue Eyes.” Ritchings, the production coordinator on “Law & Order,” said he referred Birns to Julie Tucker, who handles casting for “Special Victims Unit,” on the hunch that his experience prosecuting sex crimes would make him a valuable commodity (“Special Victims Unit,” an offshoot of “Law & Order,” focuses on sex-related cases). That seems to have been the case. After a short reading, Birns was cast in two episodes as a defense attorney, opposite the Tony-winning actors Audra McDonald and Wilson Jermaine Heredia. “I read three lines and all of a sudden I’ve got two scenes opposite Tony-winning actors,” he said, still incredulous at his good fortune. In the first episode, entitled “Contact,” which ran April 28, Birns played a defense attorney representing a man falsely accused of being a serial subway rapist. In the second, called “Nocturne,” which aired last Friday, he defends a child abuser wracked by his own memories of being abused as a child. That show will be replayed Sunday at 11 p.m. on the USA Network. OFF STAGE, ON THE COURT As for other passions, Birns is a fervent Knicks fan and season ticket-holder who was at Madison Square Garden Friday night for the playoff series against the Miami Heat. And he jokes that he has become an unofficial roadie for the Trisha Brown Dance Company as he watches his girlfriend, Katrina Thompson, who is a member of the troupe. In addition, Birns is a fixture at the Bronx District Attorney’s Office’s regular Monday night basketball game at All Hallows High School. He said it has been an honor to work for District Attorney Robert Johnson and “a privilege to have him guard me and try to stop me, which he hasn’t done yet.” Johnson’s take on the rivalry was somewhat different. “He’s got a good shot,” Johnson allowed. “But I’ve checked people with a lot more skills than Bruce.” With “Special Victims Unit” renewed for two more seasons, Birns said he hopes more roles are in the offing. And he jokes that the show should be called “Law & Order: Bronx County” because so many storylines come from his office. With that in mind, Birns could not resist a plug for his boss. “I think Rob [Johnson] would make a wonderful judge on the show,” he said. “I would love to see him wearing those black robes next year.”

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