Friday, June 19, 2009

Changing Perspectives on Proof and Justice

What does society expect in the way of proof to establish that justice has been done in a criminal case? How does this expectation change over time? There are, of course, myriad answers to these complex questions. Recently, these questions were brought into particular focus to me while watching several hours of randomly selected television programming.

The first program I stumbled upon was the 1993 movie The Fugitive, in which Dr. Richard Kimball is falsely accused and convicted of his wife’s brutal murder. The evidence upon which he is convicted is highly circumstantial, and hinges in part on a 911 call placed by Helen Kimball, the deceased, in which she mutters a phrase which could either be seen as her implicating her husband in her murder or mumbling for his help. When the opportunity presents itself, Dr. Kimball escapes police custody and returns to his native city of Chicago in order to clear his name and find the real murderer of his wife. In so doing, he is pursued by US Marshall Sam Gerard and his team, who ultimately start to understand that Dr. Kimball did not in fact kill his wife. At the end of the movie, both Dr. Kimball and Agent Gerard have established that a supposed friend of Kimball’s framed him for Helen’s murder in order to cover up a false drug trial that would reap unknown profits for the friend and his pharmaceutical company.

The second program stumbled upon was a 2008-2009 season episode of Law & Order SVU entitled "Zebras." In this episode, an insane murderer is not convicted due to an error made by a lower-level member of the forensics team. Following the killer’s release, a series of seemingly connected murders ensue, leading the police to assume that the original murderer has gone back to his old habits. While conducting his tests, an excited forensics officer informs Benson and Stabler, two of the show’s lead detectives, that he found a mosquito which he believes contains the murderer’s blood and DNA. All are happy because this time they want to be able to win a conviction of the person in question and stop him from hurting anyone else. Ultimately, the real killer in the post-acquittal phase of the show is actually the forensic tech who made the initial mistake that resulted in the acquittal. Having been humiliated – in his view – in court and having lost the respect of his colleagues as a result of the error, the tech designed a plan in which he could use evidence to frame the murderer for his own actions and, in his view, atone for what he had done while proving those who had doubted him wrong.

Other than showing the popularity of crime dramas on a Saturday night, what is the relationship between these programs? Both of them involve the framing of innocent people for murders and crimes that they did not commit, that is clear. More than that, however, these programs demonstrate points on the continuum of evidentiary evolution – especially in the world of popular media.

In 1993, so The Fugitive storyline goes, a jury was able to convict an otherwise well-respected doctor and figure in the community for murdering his beloved wife based on circumstantial DNA evidence – the murder occurred in his home, where such evidence would presumably be common – and the contents of Helen’s dying telephone call to the 911 dispatcher, which could be interpreted in several ways. At the time of his conviction, the audience knows that Dr. Kimball did not kill his wife and understands the frustration he feels at failing to convince a jury of that in the face of non-scientific evidence. Standing in stark contrast to this is the SVU storyline, in which a mentally disturbed artist is not convicted of a murder he did commit due to the actions of a forensic technician. Other circumstantial evidence and the defendant’s overall demeanor are of less value than the technical evidence. When that same forensic tech tries to implicate the exonerated defendant in crimes he did not commit, he intends to use technology and science to make his case. And, poetically, it is the same technology and scientific ability that exposes the forensic tech as a murder himself.

Certainly, the juries in each storyline act to support the subsequent portions of the plot, yet their actions presumably must be at least plausible – if not agreeable – to the audience in order for the story to be somewhat believable. Thus, we see that in the span of fifteen years, the societal expectations of proof in the criminal law context, as portrayed through media, have shifted dramatically. Juries, it would seem, have become far more sophisticated – perhaps underscoring the existence of “CSI syndrome,” in which real juries expect prosecutors to offer the level of sophisticated proof and technology that is seen on television crime shows. And the media expects them to be more sophisticated and discerning, while at the same time shifting their faith from the overall evidence to the hard science presented. The question then becomes what the future of the continuum will be and to what degree of specificity juries in the future will expect prosecutors to conform to in order to convict based on the science and technology made commonplace in the mainstream media. The perils of a less-demanding jury are of course demonstrated by the jury which convicted Dr. Kimball to begin with; however, the perils of overly precise expectations on the part of a jury can be seen in the SVU episode.

Information regarding the “Zebras” episode of Law & Order SVU is available at

Information regarding The Fugitive is available at

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