If no one used a fingerprint kit, jurors might be inclined to acquit.

If no one used a fingerprint kit, jurors might be inclined to acquit.

Wildly popular television shows such as the "Law and Order" and especially "CSI" franchises that celebrate and elevate the scientific aspects of crime-fighting have created unrealistic expectations among the public when it comes to evidence presented in a courtroom, Franklin County Coroner Dr. Jan M. Gorniak said during a presentation last week to Block Watch captains from the Northland area.

"The people who watch these shows end up on a jury," Gorniak said. "It's entertainment. We have to remember that."

But people serving on juries don't always remember that, she added, instead expecting conclusive, scientific evidence in every case and automatically mistrusting non-scientific evidence. They are also, according to Gorniak's PowerPoint presentation, "oblivious to constraints of cost, time, manpower and priorities."

Gorniak, the county's first full-time forensic pathologist to serve as coroner, said it isn't only potential jurors who believe conclusive DNA tests and fingerprint matching should be part of the evidence in all criminal trials. Crime victims, too, expect science to solve their cases.

"Why people get caught is they talk too much," she said.

Sometimes even prosecutors get caught up in the DNA fervor, according to Gorniak, who was elected coroner in November 2008.

She related the case of a corpse found in a closet. The victim, a man, had been strangled. His arms had been cut off and weren't found at the scene. They did not turn up until police pulled over the man's stolen car, which was being driven by his son. The severed arms were in a tote in the back seat.

As the son was coming to trial, the prosecutor in the case sought out Gorniak to ask if her office had done DNA testing to prove the arms from the car belonged to the body from the closet. She hadn't put the county to that expense, Gorniak explained, because of the supreme unlikelihood of two men being murdered and having their arms cut off on the same night, let alone that one victim's arms would turn up in the back seat of the other victim's car, which was driven by his son.

"If those aren't his arms, we have a problem," Gorniak said.

"The CSI Effect," as the coroner titled the main portion of her address to the Block Watch representatives during their monthly meeting, has been an issue discussed in legal and law enforcement circles for quite some time.

Rather naturally, no definitive conclusions have been arrived at.

Writing in the Yale Law Journal in 2006, former Maricopa County (Ariz.) Chief Prosecutor Andrew P. Thomas stated:

"Real prosecutors' offices are constrained by their limited resources. While some jurisdictions have access to some of the 'bells and whistles' equipment depicted in television dramas, those resources are usually reserved for the most serious crimes.

"In Maricopa County, as in other counties, most felonies do not involve high-profile crimes and lengthy trials. The majority of prosecutions are for lower-level offenses like auto theft, drug possession, and assault. These cases often do not yield irrefutable physical or scientific evidence of guilt or innocence."

"As they say, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing," Benjamin Radford wrote on the Discovery Channel website.

Radford is a research fellow for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and author of five books.

"For example, jurors who watch a lot of crime shows with cases which are solved by good quality forensic evidence, such as clear fingerprints, might expect to find fingerprints at the scene of a crime. If a defendant's fingerprints are not found at the crime scene, a juror might conclude that he or she wasn't there, whereas in fact there could be many reasons why a person might not leave identifiable fingerprints "

On the other hand, in a March 2008 article posted on the National Institute of Justice website, Washtenaw County (Mich.) Trial Court Judge Donald E. Shelton cited a scientific study that appeared to debunk the "CSI Effect."

"Although our study revealed that the prospective jurors had high expectations for scientific evidence, the more important question, I believe, is whether those expectations were more likely to result in an acquittal if they were not met," Judge Shelton wrote. "In other words, do jurors demand to see scientific evidence before they will find a defendant guilty?"

In most scenarios, Shelton said, potential jurors "increased expectations of scientific evidence did not translate into a demand for this type of evidence as a prerequisite for finding someone guilty. Based on our findings, jurors were more likely to find a defendant guilty than not guilty even without scientific evidence, if the victim or other witnesses testified, except in the case of rape. On the other hand, if the prosecutor relied on circumstantial evidence, the prospective jurors said they would demand some kind of scientific evidence before they would return a guilty verdict."

In her appearance before the Block Watch coordinators, Gorniak sought to dispel some other myths television programs have created regarding crime scene investigators.

"We never take our nieces, cousins or friends to the scene to reenact them," she said, adding that coroner's office personnel also don't have Hummers at their disposal but instead, until recently, drove a "hand-me-down vehicle from Franklin County Animal Control."

The No. 1 reason the coroner's office is different from "CSI," according to Gorniak: "They won't let us carry guns."

kparks@thisweeknews.com

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