It's not CSI, Folks!

November 30, 2007

I spend a lot of time in courtrooms. It’s part of the job. I've spent much of October and November sitting in on the David Temple trial in Houston, Texas, a trial nine years in the making.

It’s a fascinating and troubling case, a Scott Peterson-type scenario. Belinda Temple was eight-months pregnant on January 11, 1999, when her husband called 911 to report her murder. He said he returned home from shopping with their three-year-old son, Evan, and found her in the closet, her skull shattered by a close-range shot from a 12-gauge shotgun. Belinda was a truly good person, a wonderful soul who taught high school special education. David was a teacher/coach in another school district, a former high school and college football star. At the time of his wife’s murder, David Temple was having an affair with another teacher, a beautiful blond he’s since married. The two sides have very different interpretations of Belinda’s death. David’s defense attorney insists Belinda’s murder is a case of a robbery gone very wrong, while prosecutors argue that the scene was staged and the robbery a ruse intended to cover-up spousal homicide.

Anyway, it was on the first day of trial that I heard a phrase I hear in nearly every trial I attend these days. Kelly Siegler, Houston’s top prosecutor, had the crime scene specialist on the stand, and she said something on the order of, “It’s not exactly CSI, is it, Sir?”

The investigator said, “No, it’s not.”

It may seem odd that a television program was a topic of testimony in a murder trial, but CSI comes up more often than not in the courtroom. These days, prosecutors feel compelled to defuse the myth, to explain to jurors who watch the sophisticated CBS series and others like it that not all the gadgets and techniques they see in television are gospel, and that even the ones that do exist often aren’t available in run-of-the-mill cop shops.

What types of crime solving methods? You know, like the holographic facial reconstruction on Fox’s “Bones.” At times, it can actually be pretty comical. I recently had lunch with a homicide cop and a crime scene officer, while they laughed about a CSI Miami episode in which a murder was solved based on an ant bite. Bite evidence is, of course, not unusual. But in this case, the TV sleuths measured and mapped an ant bite on a corpse, reconstructing the little critter’s minuscule mandible, then linked the resulting information not only to a certain species but – forgive me if this is wrong I am getting it second hand – to a specific ant hill. Wham! Crime solved. Wow. I was impressed. But everyone else at the table found the plot less than plausible.

Why is the CSI effect a bad thing in a courtroom? Prosecutors fear jurors who watch such unrealistic, forensic heavy programs may expect too much. They may expect absolute physical evidence to convict.

Of course, there’s another side to the coin. At the Temple trial, Dick DeGuerin, Houston’s top criminal lawyer and Temple’s defense attorney, objected to Siegler’s CSI comment. Why? For the defense, it’s not usually a bad thing for juries to assume all the stuff on CSI is real world. If they believe the TV show is gospel, jurors figure their local P.D. hasn’t met the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” in a case without iron-clad, conclusive forensic evidence. After all if CSI is viewed as a real-world guideline for how a crime scene is investigated, what’s to be made of a police department without equipment to measure an ant bite and conclusively tie it to the correct ant hill? Of course that assumes a police department has an unlimited budget, a state-of-the-art lab, and the likes of William Peterson, David Caruso, and Marg Helgenberger on staff.

Maybe it’s not surprising or new that we’re getting drawn in by dramatic presentations on television and confusing them with real life. I remember the first murder trial I sat through as a fledgling reporter, nearly three decades ago. I’d grown up watching Perry Mason on my family’s black-and-white television, and I was shocked that witnesses weren’t allowed to ramble on without waiting for lawyers’ questions and, even more so, that neither the prosecutor nor the defense attorney cornered a single witness on the stand and spurred a confession.

Actually, to this day, I’m still waiting to be in a courtroom where a suspect yells out: “All right, I did it!”