A BLACK EYE FOR MAJOR CRIMES
We don't usually comment on celebrity cases. Frankly, they function more as public entertainment than a criminal process whose goal is the search for the truth. As Steve Cooley and LA prosecutors are scratching their heads wondering what the hell happened to an otherwise slam dunk case, the LA TIMES this morning pointed to one possible reason for the case going south. The Times calls it the "CSI EFFECT." Thanks to shows like CSI, movies like SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and countless police procedural novels, juries have become armchair sleuths. They come into cases thinking that they probably know as much as any detective or prosecutor about evidence, the law, forensics, the motivation of the defendant and, most worrisome, a large doubt about the professionalism of the police and prosecutors.
Actually, this is nothing new. It's been happening far less visibly, to the public at least, for years. One prosecutor who used to work in Compton told me years ago that it was getting harder and harder to get guilty verdicts out of juries. The problem, as he saw it, was that juries were expecting the sort of forensic magic they see on TV -- hair samples, fibers, miniscule blood spatters, anal swabs, a fingerprint lifted from an eyeball and the sort of esoteric evidence that only a fiction writer would concoct.
Reality is as lot more mundane. In most murder cases, the forensic evidence amounts to nothing more than some shell casings and bullet projectiles. Most of the time, the gun or the murder weapon is never recovered. On CSI, for instance, you've got a team of criminalists armed with everything from print kits to gas chromatographs and computer systems that recreate crime scenes in full color and 3D imaging. They have databases that would put the CIA to shame. With a few keystrokes, they can call up everything from a prior arrest to a suspect's fifth grade math test. Evidence is processed at lightning speed and they operate in a world of unlimited manpower and budgets.
The reality is that in LA it can take six months to get a ballistics report from the crime lab. Homicide investigators rarely get a single criminalist assigned to a crime scene. And in busy divisions, IOs are working from three to ten cases simultaneously and loaded down with maybe another ten cold cases. This is not to imply that the IOs in Blake's case did a less than thorough job. They pulled together everything that homicide detectives could realistically gather. It's just that the evidence did not seem to meet the jury's TV-inflated expectations.
The Blake jury's biggest obstacle seems to be that the prosecutor could not place the gun in Blake's hand. They wanted GSR (Gunshot Residue), prints on the gun, a tidy, airtight timeline, some blood spatter on Blake's clothes when he pulled the trigger -- who knows, maybe even a photo from a spy satellite that happened to be passing overhead at the time of the killing. The kind of "he's so screwed" evidence "as seen on TV." Something so compelling and irrefutable that even Courtney Love on Nembutal would have no trouble deciding guilt. Basically, this jury, and juries in other cases, left common sense at the door and were misled by their expectations of modern crime-fighting techniques. What they don't know is that the LAPD and the DA's office is woefully understaffed, under-funded and still living in the steam age in terms of high-tech gear and people required to operate it.
In the courtroom, juries have also come to expect drama and "Aha" moments, a "You can't handle the truth" tipping point where the suspect hangs himself with his own words. In real life, it doesn't happen.
For the most part, murder trials are as stimulating as an afternoon of ice fishing. Maybe less so because you can't drink beer in court.
Dumb juries aside, there's no avoiding the fact that the DA's Major Crime Unit couldn't make the case. There was some talk early on that the case should never have been filed because it was weak to begin with. But to a thoughtful observer, the case looked good enough for a filing. Besides, with the widespread public opinion that Blake did it, not filing would have made Cooley look like the weakest crime-fighter since Barney Fife. Or at least gun shy after the humiliation of the OJ case.
If the jury wasn't dazzled by the sort of evidence they see on TV, it's possible they might have been convinced by a better courtroom performer. If you can't enthrall the jury with techy evidence, maybe they'll be captivated by the person presenting the evidence. If you can't give the jury CSI, maybe you should send forth Tom Cruise.
As in any organization, the DA's office has the usual mix of colorless functionaries, political operators, bench warmers, loose canons and brilliant crime fighters. While the prosecutor in this case did an admirable job, maybe MAJOR CRIMES could have done a better casting job. To paraphrase the old saw of letting the punishment fit the crime, maybe the next time that unit gets a celebrity case, they should let the prosecutor fit the criminal.