Friday, March 18, 2005

 

Sixty minute methods

One of the most thankless jobs you can have working on law enforcement is working as a crime scene technician. Despite what you see on the television show CSI, criminalists don't get Hummer H2's, wear bare-midrift tops and tight jeans, interview suspects in interrogation rooms, or have much contact with anyone outside of the investigating officer on the case. Criminalists provide a very necessary, very important job in law enforcement, but contrary to what you see on the tube, cases aren't solved because a technician adds blue dye to a piece of ripped clothing, thus revealing the key piece of evidence needed to toss someone in jail. Most of their time is spent reconstructing the crime scene, taking pictures of blood spatter, establishing exactly how the blood spatter reached the wall or the floor, and if it is believed that there was a firearm used, they'll run a check for gun powder residue.

Until a few years ago, checking for gun powder residue rarely occurred, because the technology simply wasn't there. Investigating officers (IO's, from hereon) would do their job, quite well I might add, and solve the crime the old fashioned way, by detecting, interviewing, interrrogating, and reconstructing exactly what happened. Circumstancial evidence was the key; technology did not exist then, as it does not exist now, which enables us to go back in time and take a digital videocam shot of what happened at the exact moment in time, or in the moments leading up to and occuring after, the crime. Therefore, IO's will put it together, and establish the circumstances surrounding the event. Turning that evidence over, prosecutors would present this evidence to the jury, and the hury would deliberate and come to a conclusion about what happened.

Today, as proven by the Robert Blake verdict, not only have the tables turned, but the defintion of "beyond a reasonable doubt" has been thrown so high in the air that a prosecutor on a big case has to literally pull a confession out of the defendant in order to receive a verdict of guilty, and even in that case, the ability for it to be appealed, citing the thousands and thousands of pages of case law can have the defendant, who survived for a few months as a convict, released as a free man, set back onto the street to not only seek revenge against those who testified against him or her, but to commit even more crimes.

On a theoretical level, that is where the problem lies. It's highly doubtful that anyone would expect for Robert Blake to be seen on a ATM camera pulling a 211, although the burden of proof required for a guilty verdict has many prosecutors waking up with a cold sweat when they realize how much evidence they have to compile in order to make the jury believe the defendant was even at the scene of the named crime, even though two-dozen witnesses can place him there, naming the clothes he was weather, and what kind of cigarette he was smoking. Staff writers for the Los Angeles Times, Andrew Blankstein and Jean Guccione, cite this exact point in their review of the Blake verdict.
Across the country, prosecutors say juries are demanding more from them. In the Blake case, jurors said Thursday that they wanted more-convincing evidence, such as conclusive gunshot residue on Blake's hands, or a fingerprint on the murder weapon, or more precision from casual eyewitnesses about Blake's actions around the time Bakley was shot to death in a parked car in Studio City.

"There is no doubt that there's increasing expectation by jurors of [the evidence] they're going to see," said Joshua Marquis, an Oregon prosecutor and member of the board of directors of the National District Attorneys Assn. "Prosecutors across the country are very concerned about this."

Marquis found it disturbing that Blake jurors "seemed very dismissive of circumstantial evidence," he said. "Well, guess what? In most cases … you don't have physical evidence."

The cold sweat that prosecutors are feeling at 3:00 AM is a result of that. People fail to realize that 30 years ago, cases were proven on circumstancial evidence alone. The fact that a defendant threw shell casings in the LA River, melted his shotgun into a steaming pile in the local boiler room, burnt the inside of his car to prevent blood traces from being found, or the lack of an on-site camera, should not be a guideline for the jury to automatically acquit someone. The factors of the case, and the events surrounding the event, must be weighed equally in coming to a final decision on a single, or various, counts.

So where does this leave the infamous burden of proof, which is currently sitting on top of a flagpole, planted somewhere on the top of Mount Everest? Hopefully back where it started. The directive of "beyond a reasonable doubt," although meant to be subjective in it's use, does not mean a jury should hold the prosecution to such high standards that the bar is constantly being raised everytime a new piece of evidence is presented, instead, it should mean that everything shown to the jury is given weight based on it's significance to the trial.

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