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Why Did Assistant District Attorney Rafael Barba Leave Law & Order: SVU?

From Season 14 until 19, the ADA played by Raúl Esparza had fans on the edge of their seats.

By Jessica White

It takes some larger-than-life ADAs to land a conviction in the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit universe, but luckily, Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) has had some legendary lawyers in her corner throughout the years. That said, fans agreed that Rafael Barba (Raúl Esparza) was one of the biggest game-changers for the squad. 

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Barba brought a ruthless je ne sais quoi to the courtroom that SVU fans had never seen: He was witty, magnetic, and tenacious — the perfect combo for the squad. Barba was an instant fan favorite amongst SVU viewers, so they were sad to see him leave the squad in Season 19 after years of delightful Barba-Benson banter.

Barba may have left the squad, but he never left our hearts. Dive into Barba's intense SVU backstory.

When did ADA Rafael Barba join Law & Order: SVU?

Barba had been a fan favorite since his Season 14 introduction in "Twenty-Five Acts" when the squad first met the soon-to-be beloved SVU ADA.

Barba's first impression was an impactful one: He instantly wanted to know how credible the case was, because it would determine how, not if, he would win. 

Esparza went from a recurring spot in Season 14 to a main cast member in Season 15, and fans couldn't get enough of him. 

The Best of Barba on Law & Order: SVU

Benson Tells Barba Why She Felt Betrayed by Him | NBC’s Law & Order: SVU

From the get-go, fans knew Barba was no-nonsense and sure of himself, quickly becoming paramount to many cases' success when interrogating perps and questioning those on the stand. 

Barba put himself at risk to get a conviction 

While working with the SVU, Barba tricked a suspect into revealing his inner violent streak during trial  by encouraging the perp to place a belt around his neck. After a few witty taunts and jabs, the suspect started choking Barba in front of the jury, expertly demonstrating his brutal nature. It was a risky and life-threatening decision but led to another win for the squad.

Barba's childhood was revealed in Season 15's "October Surprise"

SVU later pulled back the curtain on Barba's fascinating backstory in "October Surprise," when one of his childhood best friends and a well-known politician approached Barba for his help when one of their fellow friends became the primary suspect in an assault case.

Barba quickly realized that his friends had gone in very different directions from his own when a full-blown political conspiracy was unveiled. Barba was forced to choose between protecting his former friends or blowing the lid off a ripped-from-the-headlines sexting scandal — and made the right call. He  proved to his colleagues and SVU fans everywhere that he is committed to fighting the good fight, even if his former friends were the bad guys.

Barba was on a roll in Season 19's "Intent"

After the SVU got involved in a complex internet scandal that led to the assault of a popular social media influencer, Barba proved he could be sympathetic even when laying down the law. Barba never skimmed over the little details and, in this particular case, expertly demonstrated why the tiniest of details can often carry the heaviest weight while questioning a woman about the shampoo she used to bathe her mother while acting as her primary caretaker.

Everyone in the court was befuddled by Barba's train of thought (à la Legally Blonde or My Cousin Vinny), but he was able to connect the shampoo the suspect used to a comment made online that indicated harmful intentions. That demonstrated the suspect's relationship with the hired killer, and helped prove she'd hired someone to hurt her sister because the sister refused to help take care of their mother.

Barba recognized the unjust nature of the suspect's situation and was tender as he proved to the court her involvement in the crime. 

Barba's Most Iconic SVU Line: "Not My Yacht"

Many SVU fans will agree that one of Barba's best moments from his recurring role in Season 14 was during "Her Negotiation." Just as the squad was gathering details about the horrendous villain William Lewis (Pablo Schreiber), Barba blew in from a blustery day on the high seas. Barba's late arrival wasn't the best timing, especially as he rolled in wearing a bright yellow jacket, prompting Benson to throw a humorous dig his way. 

"Where were you?" Benson asked. "On your yacht?"

"Not my yacht," Barba volleyed back without missing a beat. 

Barba's Relationship with Benson

Benson worked closely with dozens of talented lawyers throughout her SVU tenure, but one of the most cherished bonds she forged was with Barba. The two couldn't have been more different from each other: Benson initially bristled at Barba's blunt tenacity, but soon enough, they became a powerhouse team and one of the most beloved friendships within the franchise. 

Barba was cemented as a Benson BFF in Season 19's "Gone Baby Gone"

Barba may have been the slinger of endless one-liners, but when crap hit the fan, he instantly became the ferocious protector that made him such a force in the courtroom. Barba showed the lengths he was willing to go to support Benson after Sheila Porter (Brooke Shields) kidnapped Benson's adopted son, Noah (Ryan Buggle)

After the detectives had retrieved Benson's child, the squad gathered at her apartment to support the two after the harrowing ordeal. Barba also visited Benson to lend an open ear once she revealed that she was struggling to relax after the traumatizing rescue mission.

"But you didn't come over to, uh, listen to me talk about that," Benson shrugged, exhausted. 

"I came here to talk to my friend about whatever she wants to talk about," Barba smoothly explained. "She gonna let me in?"

Barba joined Benson to find the entire SVU group spending quality time with Noah. Barba then jumped in to hang out with Noah, instantly putting Benson at ease. At this point it became official: Barba was part of the SVU family forever.

Why did ADA Rafael Barba leave Law & Order: SVU?

After lending his services to a particularly grueling right-to-die case, Barba was forced to make the decision to take a child off life support in Season 19's "Undiscovered Country." After being indicted for the child's murder, Barba was irrecoverably troubled by the case, leading him to resign. 

Barba resignation came after 21 years as a prosecutor, which speaks volumes of the emotional wear and tear his last SVU case had on him. 

Why did actor Raúl Esparza leave Law & Order: SVU?

After Barba bid farewell to the show, Esparza revealed his reason for leaving was to dive back into live theatre after feeling Barba's SVU story had come to a natural conclusion. 

"I've done six seasons, I felt like it was time to go. I had explored a lot of what I thought Barba was about," Esparza told EW in 2018 after leaving SVU. "I just felt it was time to move on. I was also feeling like the role has changed over the years in a way that has been an interesting experience for me."

"Again, I'm a theater guy, so it's like having a script in front of you that keeps changing every time you go to do it," he added. "The learning process of how roles grow over a period of time with a series has been kind of fascinating, and I just felt I had reached the end of what I wanted to explore where they were writing."

"It has truly been an honor writing for Raúl," showrunner Michael Chernuchin told EW upon Barba's SVU departure. "The power, sensitivity, and morality he brought to the character of Rafael Barba never failed to elevate our scripts. Raúl is family and we look forward to seeing his talent shine in new projects. As for Barba, SVU fans may see him again soon."

Has Barba ever made other appearances on Law & Order since his resignation?

Fans kept their fingers crossed for a potential guest appearance in the future, and true to form, Barba didn't disappoint. In Season 21 of SVU, fans learned Barba and Benson keep in touch after he called her to wish her a happy birthday. In Season 22's "Sightless in a Savage Land," we learned Barba that returned to the law as a defense attorney after he went up against his own mentee, Carisi, in a high-stakes case.

Barba also guest starred in Law & Order: Organized Crime after he shockingly chose to represent the crime boss Richard Wheatley. Benson and Barba were in rocky territory during this time as she struggled to acclimate to Barba's new perspective.

In Season 23's "A Final Call At Forlini's Bar," Benson admitted that she misses having Barba as a member of the team. Benson and Barba may not be in tip-top shape, but their friendship will always take priority over courtroom chaos.