Over and over, Law & Order has made news by fictionalizing cases that are ripped from the headlines. And while this approach has its detractors, it also boasts an eloquent supporter in S. Epatha Merkerson, who has played Lt. Anita Van Buren since 1993.

"The show is very topical and provocative, and I do believe that's why we've been on for 12 years," she tells TV Guide Online. "We've always found a way to take a news story and find a twist to it. Sometimes it gets very close."

Close, indeed. A recent L&O plot inspired by Chandra Levy's disappearance understandably displeased Mrs. Gary Condit, whose screen counterpart was revealed to have murdered her husband's mistress. Naturally, she, for one, wouldn't agree with Merkerson's suggestion that the show "does a service."

"Probably not, but you know, [the Levy case is] in the news, and we're going to use it," the actress insists. "Hopefully, we'll use it in a way that won't tell the story word for word, but you can look at the story a different way."

Merkerson stops short of concurring with L&O creator Dick Wolf's assertion that, by getting viewers to discuss issues that they ordinarily wouldn't, he is doing "God's work." "I'll let Dick say that," she chuckles.

However, she doesn't see any reason for the show to stop swiping hot topics from the paperboy. "I believe that [utilizing fact-based tales] opens up dialogue," she theorizes, "because people already have a point of reference."

So, ultimately, L&O is as unlikely to change its tune as Merkerson's character is to change hers. "Van Buren is pretty staid," she observes, "but you can always count on her kickin' a little ass and being straightforward, and you can expect more of the same."