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In Light of the Casey Anthony Case: The Influence of Forensic Evidence on Judges in the Courtroom
Michael Watkins, M.S., and Susan Zucker, Ph.D., NCSTL Director of Technology & Distance Education

Judge Belvin Perry, Jr., Chief Judge, Ninth Judicial Circuit in Florida, presided over the Casey Anthony trial. While it is not necessarily relevant to the determination of the case, it is interesting to speculate on Judge Belvin’s beliefs of what constituted sufficient proof to convict. And any judge’s opinions on forensic science may factor into the court’s determination of whether or not to permit the admission of such forensic evidence.

The juror’s determination of “not guilty” appears to be based on finding insufficient forensic evidence to convict despite the numerous pieces of evidence introduced by the prosecution. Some newer methods were referred to as “junk science” because it was not ready to be examined in court.

It is often theorized that current juries have an elevated need for hard scientific proof. This standard is thought to be generated by crime programs on television known as the “CSI Effect”. Judges, as experienced professionals, are presumed to have a more informed and measured estimation of the standard of evidence needed to convict.

A recent study of Florida judges can prove informative on this matter. The study in question was conducted in 2010 by Michael J. Watkins, a graduate of the masters program in criminology at the University of West Florida. The title of his work -- Forensics in the media: Have judges been influenced by the growing popularity of forensic crime dramas?

This study is particularly interesting in light of the recent Casey Anthony case wherein forensic evidence could not definitively prove who committed the murder of the two-year old. The trial became a media sensation tantamount to a forensic crime drama watched by millions across the country for months. The verdict was shocking to most: the defendant was acquitted of all murder charges.

Mr. Watkins’ study yields some interesting perspective on the possible role played by the media in the Anthony case. In Mr. Watkin’s study, surveys were distributed to 21criminal trial judges in a northern district of Florida. These trial court judges assessed the possibility that trial court judges might have reacted to the recent widespread popularity of forensic crime dramas. The survey focused on the judges’ perception of forensic evidence, the importance of forensic evidence in making pre-trial decisions, the judges’ experience in the courtroom and if the judges expect more forensic evidence in the courtroom.

Background on Florida Court System1
Florida courts are separated into 20 judicial circuits. Thirteen of the 20 judicial circuits have jurisdiction over multiple counties. All of the northern judicial districts have jurisdiction over at least three Florida counties. In each judicial district, the courts are separated into county and circuit courts.

County judges oversee misdemeanor and municipal ordinance violations. Circuit judges preside over felony criminal cases. In addition to presiding over criminal trials, county and circuit judges also fulfill other duties, such as presiding over grand juries or coroners’ inquests. There were 34 judicial positions in the circuit polled. Eleven of the judges were assigned to county court, 22 judges were assigned to circuit court and two judges were assigned to juvenile court. At the onset of this study, one county judicial position was vacated before a survey could be obtained. The position was not filled before the completion of this study. The vacant judicial position was not included in the sample. County judges (i.e. misdemeanor) were included in the population since forensic evidence is normally presented in DUI and marijuana possession trials. Further, county judges routinely make pre-trial decisions in felony cases

Juvenile judges were not included in the sample. Juveniles rarely face criminal trial in a juvenile court. Serious offenses committed by juveniles are usually transferred to adult court. For minor infractions that do go before a juvenile judge, forensic evidence is rarely presented. The total population was 32 judges.

Judges’ Perception of Forensic Evidence2
Judges were asked if they believe that most criminal trials should have some form of forensic evidence. The question was used as a gauge to the judge’s expectations. A key element of the “CSI effect” is that jurors expect forensic evidence in every case. The majority of the judges (75%) reported that they do not expect forensic evidence in every criminal case. A quarter (25%) of the judges reported they expect forensic evidence all of the time. One judge left the question unanswered. The only significant pattern among the responses was that four of the five judges (80%) that answered yes had 11 or more years of experience on the bench. Of the total population, only 57% of the total population had more than ten years of experience. Judges with more tenure might have experienced cases that contained errors, such as erroneous eyewitness identifications. Two of the judges that responded that they do expect forensic evidence explained most cases should have forensic evidence because most jurors expect forensic evidence to be presented during the trial.

Judges were asked if they deemed forensic evidence more compelling than other forms of evidence (e.g., eyewitness identification, testimonial, etc.). A staple of the “CSI effect” is that jurors consider forensic evidence as the most important form of evidence. Since many criminal cases go to court without any forensic evidence, the question was used to assess if the judge might expect forensic evidence. Ten (50%) of the judges reported that they viewed forensic evidence most important. Eight (40%) reported forensic evidence was not more compelling.

Two judges responded yes and no and one judge did not answer this specific question. Eight of the ten judges (80%) that reported forensic evidence is more compelling preside over six or fewer bench trials per month. Not surprisingly, four of the five judges that expect forensic evidence in most criminal trials also view forensic evidence as more compelling. Five judges explained their answers. Three judges mentioned that they felt forensic evidence was more compelling because of the error rate associated with other forms of evidence. Two judges specifically mentioned eyewitnesses commonly contradict one another.

Judges might feel forensic evidence is more compelling based on courtroom experience, rather than being influenced from television or the public. One judge wrote that s/he finds forensic evidence more compelling, but only if it is DNA evidence.

Another question asked of the judges was what form of forensic evidence is most frequently presented in court. Judges were given four choices: chemistry, DNA, fingerprint or other. County judges were expected to answer chemistry. In Florida, many of the misdemeanor cases that county judges oversee are possession of marijuana or driving under the influence cases. Chemistry and fingerprint evidence was expected to be the most prevalent response among circuit court judges. The majority of judges (52%) believed that chemistry evidence was presented the most in court. Five judges (24%) believed that fingerprint evidence was used more than any other form of forensic evidence. Only three judges (14%) reported DNA was the most common form of forensic evidence used in the courtroom. Two judges checked multiple answers. All of the judges that reported fingerprint and DNA evidence was used the most were circuit court judges. As expected, all of the county court judges reported chemistry evidence is used the most in their courtrooms.

Forensic crime dramas often project DNA evidence as conclusive and important in most criminal cases. Judges were asked if they deemed DNA evidence more compelling than other forms of forensic evidence. Thirteen of the judges (65%) reported that DNA evidence was not more compelling than other forms of forensic evidence. About a third of the judges (7) reported that DNA evidence was more important. No major differences were found when comparing the judges’ response to this question and their background. The majority of judges based their response on factual information and steered away from the common theme of forensic crime dramas (i.e. DNA evidence is more conclusive).

Conclusion
If Judge Belvin Perry responded during that trial as the majority of the 21 criminal trial judges surveyed, one might expect the following in response to the questions posed below.
  1. Should forensic evidence be present in every criminal case?
    If Judge Perry is representative of the sample surveyed (75% reported they did not think forensic evidence should be present in every criminal case), Judge Perry probably doesn’t believe that forensic evidence needs to be present in every criminal case.

  2. Is forensic evidence more compelling than other forms of evidence?
    Judge Perry may very well agree, as did 50% of the judges surveyed, that forensic evidence is more compelling than other evidence. If Judge Perry presides over more than six bench trials per month, chances are that he would not find forensic evidence more compelling. One explanation for finding forensic evidence more compelling is presumably enhanced awareness of the shortcomings of conventional evidence; i.e., eyewitness accounts may be contradictory. Judges might feel forensic evidence is more compelling based on courtroom experience, rather than being influenced from television or the public.

  3. What form of forensic evidence is most frequently presented in court: chemistry, DNA, fingerprint or other?
    Judge Perry would expect fingerprint and DNA evidence to be most prevalent if he concurs with the majority of the surveyed circuit court judges. Fingerprint evidence is one of the oldest forms of forensic evidence and has been used in American courts since 1911 (CBS News, 2008). Fingerprint evidence might be used the most in court. In recent years, DNA technology has evolved greatly.

    However, just as the judges reported, DNA evidence is not as common in the courtroom as other forms of forensic evidence. A significant difference among DNA evidence and fingerprint evidence is that DNA evidence often involves mixtures of more than one person. In instances where DNA is mixed, the reliability rate often drops dramatically. Also, no DNA evidence provides conclusive results like fingerprint evidence. No two people in the world have been found to have the same fingerprint as someone else. Paternal twins have the same DNA.

  4. Is DNA evidence more compelling than other forms of forensic evidence?
    If Judge Perry agrees with the 65% majority of criminal trial judges surveyed, he would report that DNA evidence is not more compelling than other forms of forensic evidence. The majority of judges based their response on factual information and steered away from the common theme of forensic crime dramas (i.e. DNA evidence is more conclusive).
In sum, the odds are that Judge Perry does not believe that forensic evidence needs to be present in every criminal case. Having said that, chances are good that he believes that forensic evidence is more compelling than other types of evidence. The study suggests that the “CSI Effect” leads to high expectations by jurors to produce forensic evidence in criminal trials. Experienced judges reach a similar conclusion based not on media hype but on an informed awareness of observed limitations of other types of evidence . Better yet, Judge Perry is very likely to report that he based his decisions, responses, and actions on factual information gained in the courtroom rather than being influenced unduly by the drama of the case and the media attention it generated.

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1  Watkins, Michael J. Forensics in the media: Have judges been influenced by the growing popularity of forensic crime dramas?, Masters Thesis: University of West Florida, October 2010
2  Ibid.