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Thursday, Apr. 17, 2014
And speaking of justice...Posted Friday, July 22, 2011, at 6:03 PM
I'm a big fan of "cop" shows, or "police procedurals," as they're called in the trade.
Let me run through the TV schedule and see a "CSI," a "Law and Order," an "NCIS," even a re-run, and I'm there. I could watch them all day long, and I have, when I have nothing else to do.
It's not that I enjoy the crime part of it - it's the process of solving the crime I find so fascinating. The legal arguments, the science, the ethical issues raised, the human-ness of it, the "it happens every day, everywhere" -- that's what really interests me.
And, you have to admit, the technology part of it, particularly in the CSI series, is pretty darn cool. In a 60-minute capsule, there is no bullet that can't be analyzed and identified by Callie Duquesne, no cause of death that can't be detected by Gil Grissom's staff, no time of death that can't be pinpointed with an exactitude that would be the envy of the most critical and demanding scientist. Eyewitnesses are not only abundant, but are also blessed with truly superhuman abilities to describe with pinpoint accuracy everything they see.
No question about it -- it's dazzling.
But it's television, which essentially means it's a fairytale world.
It requires a suspension of disbelief that doesn't work at all in real life.
In the real world -- the one we all live in - DNA and fingerprints and other forensic tools are not so easily applied, and even the most observant eyewitnesses can be badly mistaken.
In recent years, DNA has been used both to convict and to exonerate. When it can be recovered and analyzed, it can be a very effective tool.
But key to its use is whether a usable sample can be recovered and subjected to scientific analysis.
Every cell in the body carries DNA. From head to toe, we shed cells containing that DNA wherever we go. So in theory, at least, lab technologists should be able to collect DNA and detect a person's presence (or absence) from any given location.
It's a nice theory.
The fact is, some people shed fewer cells (and therefore, less DNA) than others. The cells that are shed fall on varying surfaces, some of which don't retain the cells because they're textured, for example. Or the surface on which the DNA-containing cells fall are drenched with water or scorched by fire before they can be tested. Or there simply isn't enough material to derive accurate information.
A lack of DNA does not mean the individual was not present in a given location. It means only that the presence of a particular person can't be proven by DNA.
Fingerprint evidence has been used in American courts for roughly 100 years, and although sometimes described as more "art" than science, it is widely accepted as sufficient proof of identification of a particular person.
But as with DNA, fingerprint evidence depends on getting good samples to work with.
Fingerprints are fragile -- they can be affected by heat and water or by the amount of other materials on the hands. Collecting fingerprints from textured surfaces is virtually impossible. Fingerprints can be smudged or washed away or overlaid by another person's prints.
A lack of usable fingerprints also does not mean that a particular person was not present in a given location. It means only that fingerprint evidence can't prove their presence.
And what about eyewitnesses?
Get a group of eyewitnesses together and the description of the "perp" is likely to be something like this:
"He was a short tall blond guy with brown hair with one blue eye and one green one. She was wearing long corduroy jeans that looked like khaki shorts and a polka-dot striped shirt and no jacket with a blue jacket on. He was a white Asian black Hispanic woman accompanied by a small dog with dark fur and three legs, and was somewhere between five and ten feet tall."
With no fingerprints, no DNA, no eyewitnesses, it's not so easy to take that evidence into the courtroom and get a conviction.
It's never a slam-dunk - ask any prosecutor.
And when the evidence is difficult and highly technical, or mainly circumstantial, or, it appears, not perfect in every way, a conviction is nearly impossible.
Some prosecutors call it "the CSI syndrome," and one can hardly blame them.
There have been a few high-profile cases that prove just how hard it can be to convict someone who appears in every way to be guilty, at least in the minds of the public.
The most notable case, until recently, was the acquittal of O.J. Simpson after a nine-month-long trial in 1995. Simpson's lawyers were able to create doubt in the minds of the jurors, which is exactly what they are supposed to do, and Simpson walked out of court a free man. Not many people really believe he isn't guilty, and he was eventually convicted of wrongful death in a civil case, where the burden of proof is lighter. But a civil case carries only a financial penalty, not a jail sentence.
As high-profile as Simpson's case was, it has recently faded into the background, eclipsed by several orders of magnitude earlier this month with the acquittal of Casey Anthony, a Florida woman accused of murdering her two-year-old daughter, Caylee.
Anthony, too, had a defense team that did an excellent job of creating doubt. That's what defense lawyers are supposed to do -- make the best case possible for their client. They don't have to prove that she is innocent. It's up to the prosecutor to prove that she is guilty.
Is she guilty? The jury said she isn't, but did convict her of four counts of lying to police and deliberately misleading them during the search for her daughter. The jurors (except for one of the alternates) have so far refused to discuss the subject, but there have been reports the jurors were not themselves happy with the verdict.
Was justice done?
That depends on what you mean by justice.
Both Simpson and Anthony were tried by a jury of their peers and were acquitted, based on the evidence presented to the jury on their behalf at their very public trials.
That is the very definition of justice, at least in this country.
And it is at this juncture where television and the real world diverge.
If justice means that all the loose ends are tied up neatly and someone goes to prison, as nearly always happens on television, then the answer is no, justice was not done.
There are no neat endings in the real world, unfortunately.
Nicole Brown Simpson, Ronald Goldman and Caylee Anthony left this world prematurely, in an unnatural way. Someone is responsible for that. And thus far, no one has paid the price.
Sadly, it's possible no one ever will.
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Kathy Fairchild received a Bachelor of Arts degree in business administration in 1986 from Marycrest College, Davenport, Iowa. She is also a 2003 graduate of the paralegal program at New York University. She moved to Marshall in 2006, following a career of more than 30 years with the world's largest farm equipment manufacturer. She is an Air Force brat and grandmother of four.