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Sam Waterston's Final Law & Order Episode Reveals Why Jack McCoy Has to Leave

District Attorney Jack McCoy, played by veteran actor Sam Waterston, is willing to give everything he has one last time in exchange for justice.

By Jill Sederstrom

Jack McCoy’s decades-long run as a prosecutor has come to an end, but the determined attorney, played by the incomparable Sam Waterston, stayed true to his pursuit of justice until the end. 

How to Watch

Watch Law & Order Thursdays at 8/7c on NBC and next day on Peacock

McCoy’s emotional goodbye on Law & Order in the February 22 episode was a fitting end for the Manhattan district attorney, who chose to sacrifice his long-running career in exchange for putting a wealthy killer behind bars. Fans even got to see him argue a case one last time, before he stepped away from the post that defined his career.

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Waterston announced earlier this month in a heartfelt letter to fans that after playing the role of Jack McCoy since 1994, he was stepping away from the show to pursue new opportunities.  

"The time has come for me to move on and take Jack McCoy with me,” he wrote. “There’s sadness in leaving, but I’m just too curious about what’s next. An actor doesn’t want to let himself get too comfortable. I’m more grateful to you than I can say.”

DA Jack McCoy sits at a desk in court on Law and Order Episode 2305

What was Jack McCoy’s last case on Law & Order?

Waterston's final episode was a beautiful tribute to McCoy, an impassioned attorney determined to bring the guilty to justice. Season 23, Episode 5 began with the discovery of the body of dating app founder Veronica Knight in Central Park. Cops discovered the prime suspect is the uber rich “tech titan” Scott Kelton (Rob Benedict), one of the richest men in the world and a big donor for New York City’s mayor. 

Knight once worked for Kelton just out of college. Cops believe he strangled Knight after she confronted him during his morning jog and accused the billionaire of raping her six years earlier. 

But, when McCoy announced the charges at a press conference, it was clear this wouldn't be an easy case. 

“I hope you know what the hell you’re doing,” an angry Mayor Payne told him after the press conference concluded. “The man is a New York icon, second only to the Statue of Liberty, for God’s sake. He has given more money to charity, brought in more tax dollars.” 

After Knight’s therapist backed out of testifying, prosecutors were left scrambling to find someone who could establish Kelton’s motive. They discovered that Mayor Payne’s adult son Jordan had been on the same business trip to St. Barts where the rape was alleged to have taken place. 

DA Jack McCoy in court talking to Jordan Payne on Law and Order Episode 2305

Jordan even texted Knight after she left the trip early, writing “Just checking in. You left in a hurry. Everything ok?” But Jordan was adamant that he didn't want to testify. Not only does he have an allegiance to Kelton, but Jordan, a married father, had been on the trip with another woman and didn't want his indiscretion to become public.

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Executive Assistant District Attorney Nolan Price (Hugh Dancy) promised not to bring up his extra-marital activities in court, but Jordan knew it was something the defense would pounce on to try to impeach his character. 

Mayor threatened Jack McCoy and Nolan Price's careers 

It wasn't long after that conversation that Price was summoned to a meeting with the mayor, where he made it clear that his “son is off limits” during a tense chat over scotch. He urged Price to cut a deal with Kelton, before delivering a chilling threat.

“I have an immense amount of respect for Jack McCoy, more than I can possibly describe. But if you subpoena my son, I will bury you,” he said. “I will pull my support for McCoy and use my immense power to make sure his opponent is elected. And the very first official act of this new district attorney will be to fire you in a very public and demeaning manner.” 

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Back in the district attorney’s office, Price wondered out loud whether they should just settle the case, but McCoy insisted they “can’t let the mayor’s office dictate how we proceed.” 

“I think you need to step aside, Nolan,” he said. “You’re off the case.”

A stunned Price asked, “Who’s going to finish the trial?” 

DA Jack McCoy in court on Law and Order Episode 2305

Sam Waterston's Jack McCoy returned to court to argue a case

The next scene showed McCoy himself back in the courtroom one last time. He questioned Jordan on the stand as a hostile witness before delivering a powerful closing statement, urging the jury to look past Kelton’s wealth, privilege and charitable acts and hold him responsible for his actions the morning of the murder. 

“When I was elected district attorney, I made the pledge to the citizens of New York to act fairly and ethically without bias or favor. To always act with integrity. During my time as district attorney, I’ve tried my best to uphold that sacred oath in the pursuit of justice. And now, members of the jury, it’s your turn to act fairly and ethically without bias or favor,” he said.

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The jury found Kelton guilty of second-degree murder, earning McCoy one last career win. 

Why did Jack McCoy leave Law & Order

Even with the win, McCoy knew there would be consequences for his decision to pursue the case and put the mayor's son on the stand.

While pouring celebratory drinks for himself and Price in his office, McCoy dropped the bombshell that he just put in his resignation. 

“I’ve been thinking about this for a while. It’s time. It just is,” he said before adding that the mayor was a “vindictive son of a b-tch.” 

“He’s gonna call in every chit he has to make sure my opponent wins the election, and he’ll succeed. Then, he’s going to bury everyone who wronged him, including you,” McCoy told Price.

By stepping aside now, McCoy said it would ensure that his replacement was selected by the governor, who would appoint “someone with integrity.” 

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“It’s been a hell of a ride,” an emotional McCoy told Price, before the two men toasted his long career. 

In the final scene of the episode, McCoy was seen walking home. He stopped to look up at the New York State Supreme Court courthouse and took a moment to read the words engraved on the building, “The true administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government.”

Scandal's Tony Goldwyn is expected to take over as district attorney later this season.

To find out how the rest of the season will play out in McCoy’s absence, watch Law & Order Thursdays at 8/7c on NBC or stream it the next day on Peacock.