TV puts real-life courtroom forensics under a microscope | TahoeDailyTribune.com

TV puts real-life courtroom forensics under a microscope

William Ferchland

Dan Thrift / Tahoe Daily Tribune file / South Lake Tahoe Police Department evidence technician Robert Humphrey makes a recording of an upstairs area of a burned home where a man was killed.

They are among the most popular shows on television and have scenes consisting of authorities rolling to crime scenes in Hummers, processing clues with mind-blowing technology and nailing criminals with forensic evidence.

Besides the entertainment value of television shows like “CSI: Miami,” “Cold Case” and “Crossing Jordan,” some in the legal and media professions are finding that viewers who are picked for juries demand more scientific proof for a conviction – although a few in Tahoe are unsure, even skeptical, of the trend.

Labeled the “CSI Effect,” the phenomenon was enough for two members of the National Clearinghouse for Science, Technology and the Law at Stetson University College of Law to publish a paper on the subject. It was published in May.

“As television educated America about the role of forensic evidence in the law enforcement/justice system, the legal community found itself adapting as juries began finding reasonable doubt when the State did not produce ‘sufficient’ forensic evidence,” the two wrote. “The ‘CSI Effect’ placed the legal community under a new burden of helping jury members distinguish the fictional aspects of television from reality.”

Hans Uthe, assistant district attorney for El Dorado County, said his office has noticed the shows’ influence on jurors.

“I think a lot of jurors have a misunderstanding of our capabilities,” he said.

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In reality, DNA evidence takes weeks, if not months, to process by equipment outside of Tahoe run by the state’s department of justice. Crimes such as robberies, where the criminal wears a mask and gloves, leave little if any trace when someone sticks a gun in the face of an average Joe demanding money.

Many cases rely on subjective evidence such as eyewitness accounts, said El Dorado County District Attorney Gary Lacy.

During jury selection, many attorneys ask potential jurors if they would need forensic proof, such as a fingerprint or DNA evidence, to find someone guilty. These attorneys have done this for years but television shows like “CSI” and “Law and Order” have put the issue to the forefront, Lacy said.

“I think it puts an unrealistic expectation in the minds of the jurors,” Lacy said about the shows.

The upcoming trial of Ulysses Roberson, a black man accused of killing his 4-year-old light-skinned son two decades ago in what was believed to be a racially motivated attack in a Tahoe Keys home, will rely mostly on eyewitness testimony.

Uthe said he could try the case without any forensic evidence.

“Ultimately Roberson is going to come down to the testimony of credible witnesses,” he said.

Roberson’s trial is scheduled for January.

The National Clearinghouse for Science, Technology and the Law at Stetson University College of Law quoted Carol Henderson as blaming the shows for some trial acquitals.

“Some jurors are expecting that some of the technology used on the shows is real, and it’s not,” said Henderson, director of the clearinghouse. “In fact, they’re sometimes disappointed if some of the new technologies that they think exist are not used. This is causing quite a bit of concern for prosecutors trying the cases, as well as some of the jurors. They just want this evidence that may not exist.”

There are skeptics. Tahoe Township Judge Richard Glasson, who oversees cases in Douglas County, deemed the “CSI Effect” an “urban legend.”

“American jurors, by and large, are intelligent and responsible citizens … It is unsupported by any concrete or credible evidence,” Glasson wrote in an e-mail. “It sounds like the typical rumor that is started by a television executive to increase the number of viewers.”

While it would make sense the “CSI Effect” could put more weight on the shoulders of prosecutors who have the burden of proof in cases, the possession of forensic evidence could make it an uphill battle for defense attorneys.

“The sword cuts both ways,” said Laura Raycraft, a former prosecutor turned defense attorney in South Lake Tahoe.

Raycraft said forensic evidence doesn’t always provide the nail in the coffin. Unless, that is, the forensic evidence is a tainted coffin nail.

“It’s more pieces of the puzzle but it doesn’t make the whole puzzle,” Raycraft said.

Entertained by such legal and criminal dramas, Raycraft said she would be perturbed if she came across a crime scene where forensic technicians collecting evidence don’t wear hairnets, shoe coverings or jumpsuits.

But the shows do bring an educational element to the legal process. For that Raycraft believes the shows are beneficial. Her ideal jury is one that is educated and can differentiate television drama from real-life drama.

“As long as I know a juror can separate the difference, I have no worries at all,” she said.

– E-mail William Ferchland at wferchland@tahoedailytribune.com

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