Tuesday, March 22, 2005

CSI Pressure?
In the local paper today comes the news -- shocking to me -- that the defendant in a horrific rape/murder/arson case in a dorm room at Western Kentucky University was found not guilty. I have no idea what the evidence was. The jury may well have come to the right decision. At the time of the arrests it seemed pretty clear. One person pled guilty and implicated/testified about the other. But the jury found the case lacking because there was no physical evidence. Of course, the criminal made pretty sure of that by burning the poor woman. And like I said, maybe the prosecutors found the wrong guy; I suppose that happens far too often.

But I can't help but wonder if juries these days have raised the standards of proof beyond the reasonable, thanks to TV shows like CSI that depict insanely complex, yet always conclusively solvable, layers of evidence. On top of that are the inevitable plot twists that thrive on making the least likely into the reality, week after week. So when a defendant can construct a fantastical, bizarre defense, who's to say that's not reasonable? Given the turns of Law and Order cases? The LA Times considered the same issue with regard to the surprising Robert Blake acquittal.
Juror Cecilia Maldonado was among the majority of jurors who said she felt from the beginning that the state had not proven its case. She said she would have liked more of the kind of evidence she has seen in the cases on "CSI."

"I just expected so much more," she said, acknowledging that such television crime shows created "a higher expectation" for her.
In the days of Perry Mason, did juries have a higher expectation that witnesses would be exposed or swayed to confess by a piercing cross-examimation? What relationship does our love of an interesting trial story have on our collective assumptions about evidence and proof?

It is at least in part a good thing. How many more prisoners have to sit in jail for 30 years before a DNA test exonerates them? Maybe these new standards will keep innocent people from being convicted (or prosecuted in the first place), even if they send more violent criminals back out into the public in the process. But that standard comes at a heavy price - literally. Most prosecutors can't begin to afford, in money or time, the kind of crime lab technology championed on television these days (and some of that is probably made up anyway). What juries are saying is that anyone can be reasonably assumed to be lying about anything. Testimony beyond that of the physical evidence inspectors means nothing. Even the wildest explanation can be plausible. Only your unseen irrefutable trail can convict you. And I would think that crimes rarely provide such a neat trail.

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