True-crime shows like CSI are wreaking havoc on a made-for-TV generation of jurors

ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Police, frustrated by an uncooperative suspect, get a court order for his DNA. They throw on a pot of coffee, and, before the first cup is gone, the lab has results: a perfect match to the atom-sized sample collected at the crime scene.

A full confession will be coming right after these messages.

Too bad it’s not that easy in real life.

Ideally, forensic scientists would test every fiber, every drop of blood they find at a crime scene. But if they did, it would be all they did. A DNA case, for example, can take up to 60 days to close because of the screening, extraction and replication process – a far cry from the TV-land testing.

Still, television-educated jurors are increasingly demanding impeccable evidence before they’ll lock someone up. It’s the so-called “CSI” effect – juries that are overly reliant on physical evidence, thinking state-of-the-art science offers investigators nearly magical abilities to solve any crime.

“The ‘CSI’ effect is a real phenomenon in the courtroom,” said Anchorage District Attorney Adrienne Bachman. “(A jury’s) expectations might be too high in a given case – that’s certainly a possibility – but that’s something that prosecutors have to face head-on. We can’t ignore it or avoid it.”

Its effects have influenced all aspects of the criminal case, from jury selection to which witnesses are called to the stand.

“Juries are so impressed with scientific evidence,” said Rex Butler, a prominent Anchorage defense attorney. “And, of course, scientific evidence is so much harder to challenge than the statements of witnesses and things of that nature.”

But while forensics can deliver an ironclad case, Alaska’s crime lab says its 1980s-era facility can’t keep up with jurors’ appetite for physical evidence.

The labyrinthine Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory off Tudor Road was built in 1986 and then heralded as a high-tech facility that would help investigators solve cases without waiting for evidence to be shipped to an FBI lab in Washington, D.C.

But 20-plus years later, some of the equipment it was designed to handle is now defunct. In places, ventilation is poor. Work spaces are cramped. DNA testing is done in a “large closet” where the medical examiner’s office used to be.

There’s not room for the lab to offer some services – things like document, handwriting and trace analyses, toxicology screenings and video enhancement. So these procedures are still outsourced to the Lower 48.

There were 4,593 requests for analysis in 2007, slightly fewer than the 4,623 in 2006, according to Dym. But, he says, the number of items being submitted with each request has increased significantly in recent years, much of it the result of the “CSI” effect.

“We’ve really reached the point where we’ve reached the theoretical maximum output of this laboratory,” he said.

Even if the lab gets a new facility, prosecutors will still have to battle jurors’ perception that all cases hang on physical evidence. Jurors always seem to want to see DNA, said DNA analyst Jessica Hogan, even though in many cases it’s not needed. And if it’s not a necessity, getting a DNA match is too expensive and time-consuming to warrant.

“Not finding DNA doesn’t prove that something didn’t happen,” Hogan said.

Lab supervisor Dym says that he’s even encountered the “CSI” effect among investigators. “Folks who you’d think should know better,” he said.

For example, investigators in one case wanted analysts to process evidence that didn’t seem to prove anything: reconstructing a smashed headlight on a car that was suspected to have been in a pedestrian accident. The lab had one qualm, Dym said: The victim’s blood was found in the vehicle’s smashed windshield.

“I can put the victim in the windshield,” he said. “Why do we care about the headlamp assembly?”

But jurors often want to know why the state doesn’t have irrefutable physical evidence, resulting in prosecutors spending increasing time in the courtroom discussing what evidence they do have and why they don’t have more.

“Often when we go to court, we’re trying to explain why we don’t have a fingerprint or why we don’t have a DNA match,” forensic scientist Mark Beck said. “Basically, we go to explain negatives most of the time.”

In cases where there’s little physical evidence, and where a suspect’s story matches the available evidence, prosecution can be difficult, said firearm examiner Robert Shem. Most people serving on juries trust credible witnesses, he said. However, there are some that want to see absolute proof before they’ll be willing to convict someone.

While prosecutors work to explain any lack of physical evidence, defense attorneys often try to exploit jurors’ doubts about it to their clients’ advantage.

Once the trial starts, testing evidence is no longer an option – and defense attorneys know it. The defense tactic becomes especially pronounced when prosecutors have to explain why some evidence was tested but not all of it, Bachman said.

“It leaves in the jury’s mind that somebody made a decision…with an eye toward not discovering some helpful information,” Bachman said. “That is the really unfortunate ‘CSI’ effect.”

It’s no big secret that DNA evidence often nails the lid on criminal cases. Or that defense attorneys try to fight its admission.

“Forensic scientific evidence is some of the evidence that we least like to see in a courtroom,” Butler said.

Despite that, Butler supports doing more forensics work in-state because doing so would make his job easier. Evidence could possibly become available earlier and there could be more opportunity to follow-up on the lab’s procedures.

And, of course, more scrutiny by the defense could lead to more challenges to evidence, particularly in felony cases – almost all of which involve forensic evidence.

“As a defense lawyer, if you’re going to get a look at how the testing is done to determine whether there’s been a blunder that you can challenge or exploit, it’s harder to do if the crime lab that did the work is 3-4,000 miles away,” Butler said.


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