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Wednesday, May 02, 2007
DNA analysis challenging older CSI-techniques
My story tonight on real-life CSI took me to the NYPD crime lab, which is a crime buff's paradise. It's located in an unmarked building in a remote section of Queens, and each floor is fascinating.

The ballistics lab may have been my favorite. They have wall after wall of seized guns -- I even got to hold an Uzi -- as well as a display of the most notorious items in the collection, including the .44 that David Berkowitz used to terrorize the city in 1977 and the gun that Mark David Chapman used to kill John Lennon.

We spent most of our time in the hair and fiber unit, where we learned that the contrast between the increasing use of DNA evidence and the popularity of other techniques made famous by the CSI shows is creating controversy.

Hair and fiber analysis is a traditional forensic science. As we all know from watching CSI, a criminalist looks at, say, two hairs under a microscope -- one found at the crime scene and one from the suspect -- and gives her subjective opinion about whether they could have come from the same person.

DNA evidence is different. Analysts breakdown the molecular structure of hair and use provable, established science to ascertain with mathematical precision whether the two hairs match.

The question now is whether courts should still allow juries to hear the results of old-fashioned, microscopic analysis, when better options, such as DNA analysis, are usually available.

While at the crime lab, we also learned about how the NYPD is trying to bring some of those old practices into the 21st century in a program called Biotracks, which uses DNA evidence to solve burglaries.

It turns out that burglars often eat and drink while they're stealing, and what they leave behind -- like a soda bottle -- can yield tell-tale clues that scientists can put to the test. For more on the subject, see my story in this week's New Yorker.

-- By Jeffrey Toobin, CNN Senior Legal Analyst
Posted By CNN: 11:59 AM ET

This is fascinating stuff. Perhaps there is best selling mystery thriller in your future. John Grisham is one attorney turned author who comes to mind!
Posted By Charlotte Doisy, Stockton CA : 12:22 PM ET
Great to hear from you! You really crack me up on the air with Anderson! You need to be on EVERY night!

I guess the real crimelabs and the things they do would really bore people because it's nothing like the TV shows. And I could see how the CSI shows cause problems in court. Because people expect there to be direct evidence and every case to have a smoking gun. When in reality you may never have that!

I don't see a problem with using the old techniques. Why can't we rely on both? That way there is a more precise picture and conclusion.
Posted By Cynthia, Covington, Ga. : 12:30 PM ET
Hi Jeffery,
CSI has come a long way from merely dusting for fingerprints. My, isn't DNA and hair analysis incredible?
I had to spit out my coffee when you said that burglars often eat and drink while they're stealing. Can't you just see the burglar grabing a soda very carefully with his GLOVES on? It appears from your blog that burglarizing induces an appetite! Funny!
That's when you know a word to the wise is unnecessary, possibly a word to the stupid!

"We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to office."
Posted By Betty Ann, Nacogdoches,TX : 12:42 PM ET
Hi Jeffrey,
What a totally cool experience to get to visit the lab! I just wonder how long it takes investigators to do all that testing? I have heard stories that some of those labs have back up for years, is that true? If so, how realistic is it for us to expect that DNA evidence would be ready in time for a trial?
Looking forward to your report tonight!C
Posted By Pamina, Pittsford, New York : 12:54 PM ET
Okay, Jeff:

I have to say that I really liked your humor the other night with Anderson discussing the DC madam. I was rolling off my sofa laughing. I am still trying to figure out what the gentlemen got for the $400 haircut. Did that include cut and color?

Really, you could pick up a gig on Comedy Central. After your New Yorker opinion on Libbey a few months ago I would have thought you would have had a spot on the Colbert Report. Did I miss that?

Anyway, it took me nearly 10 minutes to find your article in the New Yorker, well I had to see the cartoons and read Sedaris first.

Seriously, to fellow bloggers the link at the New Yorker site for the article is not working so go to the search and type in "CSI Effect" and you will get the article.

I will call my mother in a bit to let her know about your report. She is a CSI junkie unless of course it interrupts her dance lessons and canasta playing. Somehow I feel I will be recording this for her on my VCR. Mom's the only one I know still on tapes.
Posted By Renee Bradenton, FL : 1:03 PM ET

I'm very excited for the report on this issue. I have heard about labs losing cases around the country because of shows like "CSI" and their attentiveness to detail, and quite possibly, the millions of dollars invested into the crime lab.

Labs with less money may have a disadvantage, and shows like "CSI" may play a part in that. Are jury members' expectations too high in the courtroom?

It is an awesome show, but I wonder if it can change funding designations for the future. It would be great if all labs had the foolproof equipment available to convict the guilty ones.
Posted By Aruna, Minneapolis, MN : 1:19 PM ET

Your field work sounds fascinating. I read somewhere that shows like CSI actually teach smarter criminals to clean up their tracks better. Like using bleach to clean blood stains and such. I hope your piece discusses that.

I look forward to watching!
Posted By Kimberly - Seaford, NY : 1:25 PM ET
I'm all about what puts guilty people in jail and keeps innocent people free. If newer is better and more conclusive, we should go with that.
Posted By Debbie, Denham Springs, LA : 1:38 PM ET
Well, it's proven that some innocent people were sent to prison on bad evidence. So I guess even a hair should have to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt it's true colors..pardon the pun. Take Care
Posted By Lorie Ann, Buellton, Calif. : 1:59 PM ET
Jeff Wrote>>"...Hair and fiber analysis is a traditional forensic science. As we all know from watching CSI, a criminalist looks at, say, two hairs under a microscope -- one found at the crime scene and one from the suspect -- and gives her subjective opinion about whether they could have come from the same person.
DNA evidence is different. Analysts breakdown the molecular structure of hair and use provable, established science to ascertain with mathematical precision whether the two hairs match.
The question now is whether courts should still allow juries to hear the results of old-fashioned, microscopic analysis, when better options, such as DNA analysis, are usually available."

The answer to your question would seem to be then that both are needed as DNA doesn't show color or length, but only proves or disproves a match. A match that the human eye can't make as it can with color and length.

DNA also can't tell you whether the hair is stringy or thick or curly or straight. All of that put together with DNA and other observable evidence can make for one damning case.
There is also the possibility that a person may be framed using DNA evidence.
Posted By James Foley Kamiah, Idaho : 4:02 PM ET
A court case is like a math word problem; without the math [representing evidence] all you have is a problem.

Try this at home; turn on Nancy Grace and listen to her talk about a suspect and whenever evidence starts to be mentioned, hit the mute button. What are you left with? Speculation, hearsay, conjecture, and diatribe. It lacks any sense.

Now watch the second showing of the same show and don't mute any mention of the evidence. It's sounds a lot more credible.

So it would seem then that shows like CSI don't weaken genuine court cases, but rather give law enforcement a reason to tie down any loose ends.

Someone here mentioned that such a show might give criminals ideas on how to get away with crimes. Well that begs a few questions:
1. Doesn't that suggest that the idea was already thought of before it was put in the show in the first place?
2. Don't law enforcement officers watch those shows too; so, now they can find ways to overcome such an obstacle?
3. Does someone mentioning a technique on a public blog ever get read by criminals also looking for ideas on how to circumvent being caught? How does someone repeating what they've seen on a tv show, again on a blog help any?
Posted By James Foley Kamiah, Idaho : 6:08 PM ET
I've been thinking about this and it seems that some people are under the impression that DNA evidence trumps other forms of evidence. While that can be true, it is not always the case, and most often, as with any evaluatory test, only proves the original suspicion correct.

So, I don't see why any officer or prosecutor wouldn't want to administer a test or evaluation that would only serve to strengthen their case. As a matter of fact, it makes me suspicious when they don't.
Posted By James Foley Kamiah, Idaho : 6:19 PM ET
Dear Jeff,

As a big fan of the "CSI" shows, I found your post and your "New Yorker" article very interesting! It's difficult to understand why any type of analysis would be ruled out if it can help in an investigation. In my opinion, all available techniques should be used. DNA should always be the preferred technique, but if DNA is unavailable or too degraded to use, then other forms of analysis must be considered.

Your visit to the NYPD crime lab sounded fascinating! I hope you are able to touch on what is fact and what is "fiction" as far as some of the techniques used on "CSI" are concerned. As you know there has been some controversy about the way these techniques are depicted and the false expectations they create in minds of some jurors as a result of the shows. I would guess the thing most people don't appreciate is the time it really takes to gather evidence and run tests.

I have one question. Did you expect cool music to be playing when you walked into the lab? After watching so many "CSI" shows that is what I would be expecting!

See you tonight!

Jo Ann
Posted By Jo Ann Matese, North Royalton, Ohio : 7:05 PM ET
Dear Jeffrey Toobin,

Do you think that this has a lot to do with the money funding that's being spend into DNA-forensic testing? I mean: is there any judgement on behalf of law enforcement how money should be spend in the gathering of forensic evidence?
Posted By Ratna Sadal, New York, NY : 7:15 PM ET
Hey Jeffrey,

First,yes,you have a great sense of humor and have a way of explaining law to us with that grin of yours.
I don't watch any of the CSI's.How many are there anyway?!?But I do read lots of books with the same content. THere is more details in it.I am amazed by all the work they do gathering evidence and reconstructing the chain of events,in real life.
I was rubbed a few years ago and they put everything inside out. They even went through my underwear drawer! Personnaly,I would have prefered it if they took a snack!!!!:-)
To Renee Bradenton,FL: SSSHHHHH!!Don't tell anyone,but I still use tapes!!!BUt that will change this week-end!

Joanne R.
Laval QUebec
Posted By Joanne R.Laval QUebec : 7:47 PM ET
So, burglars like to have a snack in the middle of a job?

Hmmm...Have there been any studies about what beverage/snack choices criminals make? Perhaps Sprite, 7-Up, or whatever can have a new slogan, "Nine out of ten burglars prefer Pepsi over Coke."

A few months back, I went to a play festival held at John Jay College (of Criminal Justice, I think is the proper name) in NYC, and the exhibits in the hall were morbidly fascinating.

I hope that as the techniques get better, the conviction rate goes up and the number of innocent people who get convicted goes down (to zero would be good).

How ARE these techniques changing conviction rates?

A major factor in the murder rate in Philadelphia (we're number one with a bullet, alas) is the high rate of revenge killings. What are solutions to this problem??? One of my (adult) students lost his son a few months back, and he was trying to work with his son's friends to keep them from acting on their anger (which means, in the midst of his mourning, he also had to worry about that). There was a scary moment at the funeral, when someone burst out of the viewing screaming obscenities about the people who he thought had killed his friend. The other two teachers and I who attended the funeral took that as our cue to get the heck out of there. The police believe they caught the killer, and he is now going through some trial hearings.

I didn't even know my student's son, who was in his 20's and had a wife and kids, but I cried when I saw the body, especially as so many people were breaking down around me. At the time, I remember thinking how I wish people who wear those "stop snitchin'" shirts could see this pain and realize that it could just as easily be their families.

Any chance you might cover this issue as it relates to the Philly mayoral race?

I wonder if the number of revenge killings would go down if police were seen as being more aggressive in getting the (original) killers. For example, look at the low prosecution and conviction rates in New Orleans even pre-Katrina. Are people "taking the law into their own hands" because they don't trust that police will do the job or are they just really, really mad?

Okay, I went from light to serious. Now, back to light: I hope Kimberly fron Seaford, NY isn't looking for tips!
Posted By Norah, West Chester, PA : 8:42 PM ET

I thought it was interesting that thieves eat and drink while they are robbing you blind. Maybe we ought to leave them a glass of milk and cookies and a list like we do for Santa to make their experience more "jolly". We never said that they were the smartest people on the planet.
Posted By SP, Villa Hills, KY : 12:16 AM ET
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