Monday, October 24, 2011

Crime Scene Reality

It was a moment of weakness. I'm here to confess. I probably could have avoided it, but it felt so good.

For about five minutes.

C.S.I. played on my television screen on Thursday night. For most people, this is a time to relax and unwind and let some sensational events sweep you away for one hour.

For me, it's a time of stress I try to avoid. My wife had the television tuned to the show and I figured an hour relaxing sounded great. I should have known better.

Shows like this leave an indelible imprint on the viewer whose only connection to police work is these shows. The viewers are citizens. These citizens become jurors. I meet the jurors in the courtroom and have to battle against their preconceived notions of what type of evidence my case should have. I also have to battle against their desire to interpret evidence based on what they've seen actors do on television.

So how is C.S.I. different from the reality of police work? Let's take the episode I just watched where a man was recently released from jail for manslaughter. He finds his daughter has taken up with some gang members and allegedly kills two of them to exact revenge. He ends up dead himself, until medical personnel bring him back from the dead after being shot in the head. He then hijacks a medical helicopter to Mexico.

Sounds like just a normal day at the office. Here are a few differences:

1) Pristine crime scenes don't exist. In the show, each crime scene is manicured awaiting C.S.I. detectives arrival. Think about a 911 call. Shots fired in a house. Officers respond to the house and enter. They search for injured parties, possible suspects, and are making sure no one takes a shot at them. Once the sweep is performed and the area is secure, officers then look for evidence of a crime. You can imagine the condition of a crime scene once people have fought, someone was hurt, shots were fired, and now officers have walked through it.

2) What you see is not what you get. A C.S.I. detective on the show is actually a combination of at least four different people - the first responding officer, the lead case detective, the crime scene personnel who collect the evidence, and the scientist who analyzes it. These are four distinct jobs done by four different people, each requiring specialized skill. You would never see the scientist who analyzes the DNA also interviewing the suspect. Or the officer whose only training was the police academy looking through a microscope for hairs. DNA comparisons and autopsies are conducted by scientists and doctors with advanced degrees.

3) It is difficult to obtain a DNA sample from an item. If we do, it is weeks after the crime happened. Then it takes weeks to compare the DNA obtained from the evidence to a person's known DNA sample to determine if it is a match. Also, there is no national databank with every person's DNA on file. If there is DNA on a piece of evidence, we won't know whose it is unless we already have a suspect's DNA. If the person was never convicted of a crime or is unknown, then we will not have a match. On the show, they had a DNA match to a pool of blood within minutes.

4) The crime scene detectives are never the first officers on a scene. They get called once an officer or supervisor determines there is evidence that needs collection and processing.

5) Some of the technology they use doesn't exist and if it does, local law enforcement doesn't have access to it. Video enhancements so accurate that a video taken from one thousand feet away can be enhanced for a clear view of a suspects face? A hologram machine that recreates a skull based on a tiny fragment of bone? Even some of the technology that does exist is too expensive for police department budgets.

Maybe I should just enjoy these shows for their entertainment value. The producers are looking for entertaining television after all, not a police procedural manual. No matter my intent when I start to watch them, I find myself correcting mistakes and complaining about techniques. This is probably the reason my wife only watches those shows when I'm not around.

So does C.S.I. really affect a jury?

Despite my personal feelings on C.S.I. and others, I'd argue that they aren't the main reason that jurors have heightened expectations for evidence in a case. We can just look to the phones people carry around. They can call, email, text, navigate, speak different languages, pay for items, and play music. The more sophisticated a person's technology, the increased scientific testimony they will expect. A person thinks that if they have all of this technology in the palm of their hand, the government must have incredibly advanced instruments.

It's a reality all attorneys are dealing with.

As attorneys, how do you deal with juror's expectations regarding evidence? As potential jurors, what kind of evidence are you expecting to see?


  1. I've heard about the "CSI effect" on juries and I have to say I have never liked the show "CSI" for the reasons you stated. I know it's TV and I love plenty of fictional shows but a CSI who is the first responder, lead detective, an actual CSI and then the scientist who analyzes the evidence? ahh! crazy. I definitely agree with your assessment, I don't think jurors necessarily aren't able to grasp that these shows are a lot different than real life situations, we're all just very used to high-tech fancy stuff so we're surprised when the government doesn't have anything much better.

    As a potential juror, realistically I just expect to see mostly circumstantial evidence that isn't completely conclusive because (I'm guessing) usually if the prosecution had anything more a plea bargain probably would have settled the case.

  2. Police officers need better training.

  3. @Stacy - There are a lot of reasons a case does not plea - we don't offer one, the defendant is facing significant jail time no matter what so is willing to take it to trial, the defendant represents himself and refuses to plea, the defendant has a defense to the charge, among others. I've tried cases with videotaped confessions, DNA and eyewitnesses and seen purely circumstantial cases result in a plea. One thing I have done is give up trying to decide which case will go to trial.

    @CP - I think officers need continued training throughout their career. ADAs have a continuing legal education requirement. Also, ADAs and officers should get together for training and discuss experiences.

  4. How did I miss this post? This is fabulous. I'm not an attorney but I had some experience as a citizen and victim of some family members in a murder trial and honestly, these shows really hurt the justice system if you ask me. When police tell the average CSI watcher that toxicology is going to take weeks to come back, you wouldn't believe how appalled they are--or that evidence taken from a crime scene is going to take months (or sometimes years) to analyze because the lab is just that backed up they literally do not believe you. I'm not even in law enforcement but I cannot imagine how frustrating it must be for prosecutors and police to deal with the misconceptions these shows perpetuate. It makes me so angry!!!

    I love reading a good mystery or suspense novel but I simply cannot watch those shows--those and the Law and Order series. They just get me all riled up with nowhere to direct my anger! LOL.