Evidence of change: ‘CSI effect’ has altered public’s view of death investigations
by Geoff Folsom
gfolsom@mdjonline.com
October 27, 2011 11:59 PM | 3666 views | 5 5 comments | 23 23 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Operations manager Michael Gerhard stands in the laboratory at the Cobb County Medical Examiner’s Office on Oct. 21. He says the ‘CSI effect,’ named after the popular TV show, has changed the way the public sees death investigations. This can lead to defendants being acquitted because juries find the evidence to be disappointing or not high tech enough.<br>Jon-Michael Sullivan
Operations manager Michael Gerhard stands in the laboratory at the Cobb County Medical Examiner’s Office on Oct. 21. He says the ‘CSI effect,’ named after the popular TV show, has changed the way the public sees death investigations. This can lead to defendants being acquitted because juries find the evidence to be disappointing or not high tech enough.
Jon-Michael Sullivan
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MARIETTA — Things have changed for the Cobb County Medical Examiner’s Office, and television is to blame, one employee says.

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.”
Comments
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Penny is right
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August 17, 2013
The CCME office is out of control. They would NEVER be able to pass an accreditation process. The are basically amateurs running amok with no supervision from an ME that has been appointed for life.
Penny8566
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March 12, 2013
I can only pray that I don't die in Cobb County. These people are disrespectful and unprofessional.
Mike Cosper
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October 28, 2011
They do a great job and are very cost effective compair with other counties. Keep it up G and the rest!!
GoodTopic
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October 28, 2011
This is so true. Many individuals think we can CSI everything. What the public does not know look for is how much it costs and the resources it takes. Most departments do not have these endless possibilites as these HOLLYWOOD ACTORS and ACTRESSES.
Unbeiveable
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June 07, 2012
Yes, that's what you think, however every person who lost a loved one should have the best available equipment and information provided to the ME's office so that an accurate report can be concluded. Including... a wife's recollection of what happened leading up to her husband's death and EMS reports. I lost my husband unexpectedly and was with him during the last moments of his life. It was critical information that they should have had before his autopsy was performed. The ME office would not speak with me. I could not get in touch with Dr. Frist to explain to him what happened. I spoke with his investigator and asked him why I couldn't talk to him. I was told, "this is not Dr. G's Medical Examiner's Office". I was appalled! Why would you not want critical information pertaining to someone's death? To me, my husband was my everything, but Michael G. was right when he said that they have to take their emotions out of it. They clearly did not care what my children and I were going through. They also did not look at the information that the EMS had reported. They came up with a cause of death that was absolutely not true according to the EMS reports! They have made my life hell beyond the hell that started the day my husband died. Their office should be ashamed for treating people the way I was treated. They have a job and a very important one. People count on them. These are our loved ones who are in their hands. The article that was written is not amusing to me! You're treating the public like they don't know what they are talking about. It's insulting and very condescending! I have a four-year degree and I've done my homework on this. Very basic things were missed. I wasn't asking about made up equipment or anything ridiculous or silly that I saw on CSI. I've never even watched that show. I just wanted to be heard and I wanted them to have all the information they needed for an accurate conclusion. I wanted them to take me seriously. Oh....and by the way, Dr. G is a real doctor who is not a Hollywood Actress. She speaks with the families and does all she can to find the true cause of death. That's what all Medical Examiner's should do! They have too much power and they are not regulated like you think they are!
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