The “CSI effect,” named after the popular TV show, has changed the way the public sees death investigations, said Michael Gerhard, operations manager with the medical examiner’s office. This can lead to defendants being acquitted because juries finds the evidence to be disappointing or not high tech enough, he said.
Sometimes, he said, they learn that a device used on “CSI” hasn’t even been invented.
Conversely, Gerhard said other juries can be more likely to convict because of an increased trust in evidence.
But jurors learning about medical investigations can have positive effects as well. Gerhard said they tend to be better educated about the field. But overall, it means more work for officials in the medical examiner’s office.
“We have to have more evidence,” Gerhard said. “We have to have more thorough reporting. More evidence means more storage space.”
Prosecutors are also dealing with juries who might have certain expectations because of what they’ve seen on television. Cobb District Attorney Pat Head said they educate potential panelists during jury selection about what evidence they can expect to see and what is far-fetched.
“I don’t know any jurisdiction in the world that can do a DNA test in 30 minutes,” Head said.
Cobb’s office, led by Medical Examiner Dr. Brian Frist, is one of only four medical examiner’s offices in Georgia, along with Fulton, Gwinnett and DeKalb counties. Gerhard said most counties have elected coroners, who are often local funeral home directors, and use medical examiners from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
Counties typically require populations of at least 300,000 in order to support a medical examiner’s office. In Cobb, Gerhard said the office costs between $1.50 and $1.75 per resident a year.
Medical examiners have to be doctors, while coroners require no specific training, Gerhard said.
“A coroner cannot determine cause and manner of death,” he said. “A coroner has to be told what to put on (a death certificate) by a doctor.”
Head, whose office works closely with the medical examiner, said that while GBI’s crime lab does a good job, having its own medical examiner makes a difference for a county.
“I think it’s very beneficial to have our own medical examiner,” he said. “I think it’s helpful to any metropolitan area.”
In Cobb, the medical examiner’s office investigates around 1,250 deaths a year, Gerhard said. Of those, between 400 and 450 are brought in for autopsies. He said the office works to rules out causes of death as much as determine them.
Deaths must meet certain criteria in order to be reported. Gerhard said the medical examiner is more likely to investigate a death of a 35-year-old than a 90-year-old.
“But between that 90 year old and that 35 year old, there’s a lot of gray,” he said.
The most obvious reason to investigate is a death caused by violence, such as an apparent homicide or suicide. Gerhard said other reasons to investigate include someone who dies suddenly while in good health and someone who dies under circumstances considered suspicious or unusual.
Any death of a child under 7 also has to be reported, he said.
Along with a medical examiner, the office currently has four forensic investigators and two forensic technicians. But Gerhard said those who are squeamish need not apply — even if it means performing an autopsy on a 4-year-old beaten to death with a broomstick.
“We’ve learned how to separate ourselves from our emotions,” he said. “Someone needs to speak for that child, and we cannot do it if we are emotionally wrapped up.”