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The real world vs. the CSI syndrome

MSNBC analyst and former FBI profiler Clint Van Zandt explains 'The CSI syndrome': The problem today is that citizen jurors expect to be dazzled when selected and seated for jury duty, waiting to be overwhelmed and over impressed when the prosecution produces tons of forensic evidence and related scientific whiz-bang devices.  When these “toys for boys” are not introduced, it’s like, well, “Where’s the beef?”  Enter the Syndrome.

America was faced with a threatened weapon of mass destruction (WMD), in this case a chemical/biological device that was going to be used against a major U.S. amusement park on Easter – the busiest day of the year for this park with thousands of adults and children scheduled to enter this “happy place” in 48 hours, exactly when the terrorist threatened to release his device. The message describing how the WMD would be deployed and released against the public was contained in a home-made video tape sent anonymously to the amusement park’s security director, a video that when viewed revealed an unidentified male apparently dressed in laboratory protective clothing from the neck down, who in some detail demonstrated how he would assemble his deadly device from various components.  He also showed us a calendar and a large clock face with paper hands that when taken together, appeared to indicate the date (Easter) and the time, 9:00 (a.m. or p.m.?) that the weapon would be unleashed on the unsuspecting park guests and staff.

As an FBI profiler, I was part of the team that had the ticket on this case. Our job: Is it real or a hoax? If real, we needed to find the potential killer and stop him before he committed mass murder. And we had less than two days to do it.

We first had a conference call with various FBI officials, representatives from The Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. Army’s chemical/biological response team, local police and amusement park officials, and other necessary advisors. Imagine if you will a telephone conference call with over 25 people on the line, one of whom had a barking dog in the background! “Close the park for the day,” suggested one official. “The park never closes,” said the park’s security representative. Just like a bomb threat case, even if found to be a hoax, the would-be terrorist, having learned what the response to such a threat would be, like the proverbial Pavlovian dog, could then do what he wanted the next time to elicit a similar response. “But what if it’s real?” said another. “How can we let people enter the park under a death threat?”  Our quandary: If we announce the threat to the public, the terrorist has won without ever having to set foot in the park, and he could simply renew his threat every day, not to mention the copy cats across the country that such a public announcement would likely spawn. But if we didn’t make the threat public -- well, if you didn’t, then people could die. We knew that words, images, and the fear that such threats can generate are some of the more effective weapons of terrorists.

As we watched and re-watched the threatened killer’s video, now on a continual five-minute loop on the large TV in front of us, I thought I saw something. “Look,” I said. “When he takes an item out of that polished chrome ice bucket I think I see his reflection on the side of the bucket for a split second.”

I grabbed the videotape and ran from the FBIHQ command center to the photo lab on another floor of the J. Edgar Hoover Building in downtown Washington, D.C. I quickly told the photo supervisor what I needed him to do. “Give me a photograph of the frame where you can see this guy’s reflection in the side of the ice bucket, and blow it up as large as you can.” In a matter of minutes, though it seemed like hours, I had a hazy picture of a man’s reflection in a curved “chrome mirror.” Although he appeared to be wearing lab gloves and protective clothing, the photo enlargement now showed the barely discernable face and neck of a man, a man wearing a shirt and tie; someone totally unprotected from the neck up from the deadly agents that he was supposedly handling in the video.                 

“Gotcha,” I said to myself and ran back to the conference room. In the meantime the discussion had continued, with scientists suggesting that a WMD made from the components indicated in the video could not be assembled outside of a highly technical lab, while intelligence agents disputed this fact and explained how simple household items, like those in the video, could be used to assemble such a diabolical device.

At that moment I was convinced, as much as I could be, that we had a relatively elaborate hoax perpetrated by someone who wanted to shut the amusement park down, likely as part of a personal vendetta against the park, one probably related to the “usual” desire by such an individual for power, control, and possibly revenge. But no one at that conference table was willing to take the chance (I asked for a show of hands) that it still might not be true. After all, what if we’d missed something that could mean it was real? The potential of an actual attack in this case could spell death to hundreds or more in the first major terrorist use of a WMD in the United States, a threat that simply could not go unanswered. We got ready.

On Easter morning the park opened with dozens of undercover officers and agents deployed all over the park. Every backpack, package, and container that entered the park that day was searched, whether you were a guest or an employee. We had a mobile hospital pre-positioned and sufficient quantities of an appropriate antidote to treat the sick and injured, this, in the worst of our worst-case scenarios. It turned out to be a great day at the park; the weather was fine, thousands of guests enjoyed the food, rides and entertainment, and nothing of a terrorist nature occurred. For a number of reasons, we believed this to be a well developed hoax, but nonetheless we kept the entire matter secret, something that really impressed me; i.e., no word of the threat got out to the media, no word, that is, until our then-current president announced in a news conference that we had prevented an act of terrorism that day. So much for secrecy in government.

This case took place long before the days of CSI(Crime Scene Investigation) as seen on television and in related movies. Fifty million Americans and others around the world now religiously watch the original CSI and its Miami and New York City clones, with viewers living vicariously through the adventures of the young, attractive and well-dressed men and women of CSI who drive only new $50,000 to $100,000 SUVs, while sporting $500 sunglasses and using only the most up-to-date scientific instruments in the most modern of all crime labs.  Well folks, that’s television and the movies, but that’s not real life and it’s causing problems for prosecutors across the country as they present criminal cases to jury members who have been contaminated by spending too many hours in front of TV screens showing complex crimes solved in a one-hour time frame, to include 15 minutes worth of commercials.  Oh if it was just so cool and just so easy!

Marine biology was once the hot topic on many the college campus. To save the whales and ecology while going to sea with Jacques Cousteau was every biology and oceanology student’s dream. Then there was my time, the Silence of the Lambs era. After that infamous movie was made in our office space in the Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) at the FBI Academy, and after a subsequent article appeared in PARADE Magazine featuring four of us in the BSU talking about profiling, well, Silence of the Lambs was to be to the FBI like Top Gun was to Naval Aviation.  Now every young person wanted to either fly jets off a Navy carrier and shoot down MIGs or hunt down serial killers while rescuing kidnap victims. Many colleges across the country have now added forensic science, law enforcement, and psychology courses to meet the demand of those students who eventually want their own badge, gun, crime scene evidence kit (sunglasses optional), and a new “Hummer” to carry all their neat scientific “stuff” around in.

In the real world detectives or investigators carry out actual law enforcement investigations, supported as needed by CSI officers working behind the scenes. It is the detectives who conduct interviews, knock on doors, confront subjects, and attend autopsies of the deceased while the CSI officers, or their civilian counterparts who don’t carry guns or make arrests, etc., do the dirty work while wearing nondescript, non-form-fitting coveralls -- a reality that hasn’t attracted the most photogenic of people, especially when such would-be CSI’ers are given the keys to an old Ford panel truck for their crime scene vehicle.

The problem today is that citizen jurors expect to be dazzled when selected and seated for jury duty, waiting to be overwhelmed and over-impressed when the prosecution produces tons of forensic evidence and related scientific whiz-bang devices. When these “toys for boys” are not introduced, it’s like, well, “Where’s the beef?” Enter the CSI Syndrome.

Case in point. In a recent assault case a jury acquitted a man for the brutal stabbing of his girlfriend. The victim had survived the assault and testified against her assailant. She had been found in her own bed, the sheets of which were soaked in blood, but the defendant was found not guilty as the jury felt that the blood-soaked sheets should also have been tested for DNA like they do on TV, and not merely examined and found to simply have the same blood type as the victim. The assailant did go to jail for another crime, but when he was later released, he returned and this time he finished the job, stabbing the same woman to death. Prosecutors are learning that the one question they do not want juries to ask is “Why didn’t they test (fill the blank) like they do on CSI?”

Juries, usually composed of a dozen citizens like you and me, may have unreasonable expectations regarding the amount and kind of physical evidence that must be introduced at trial to support a conviction, and unrealistic beliefs concerning the capabilities of a local crime lab to conduct such sophisticated investigations and analyses. We believe what we see in the movies and on TV, and when we don’t see it duplicated in real life, we are disappointed. When we’re seated in the jury box, however, we listen to the defense say, “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, if the prosecution had any hard evidence you would have seen it, so you must acquit my client as the DA has only presented you with a circumstantial case,” not withstanding that you may have had an eyewitness, fingerprints, and DNA, because we all know from television that eyewitnesses are notoriously wrong, fingerprints can obviously be transferred from a rubber glove copy of someone’s hand and left at a crime scene to “frame” a suspect, and, of course, DNA, such as O.J. Simpson’s, isn’t enough to convict, or as the late, great Johnnie Cochran said about physical evidence, “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”  (And so they did….)

My challenge to you is to enjoy TV, watch your nightly dose of CSI and every other cop show on television if you must, and go see every slasher/dasher/serial killer movie that helps to convince Hollywood that we’re really a blood thirsty society prepared to pay $10 to see modern day Ted Bundy’s in action; but if you are selected to be a member of a jury pool, leave all those unrealistic, fancied thoughts and ideas at home. It now becomes your job, your civic duty, to view the trial with an open mind, to use your good common sense, and to know that if a certain type of evidence was present and identifiable, that the authorities would have shown it to you.  But, ladies and gentlemen, if after hearing the case both your heart and your head tell you that the defendant is guilty, don’t let someone convince you that because a $1,000,000 microscope wasn’t used to examine the evidence that the defendant, therefore, must be innocent.  Society trusts you to separate the guilty from the truly innocent, and to send the guilty away to where they belong.

Oh, and remember the amusement park chemical/biological terrorist? He was subsequently identified, although not prosecuted, as a former amusement park employee who harbored a grudge against the park. There was no physical evidence linking him to the crime, so he walked.  Many criminals never have to see their day in court, but that’s part of our criminal justice system that still distinguishes us from lesser societies, one that believes it is better to let a few guilty walk than to convict an innocent person, a system that makes America great.

Clint Van Zandt is an MSNBC analyst. He is the founder and president of Inc. Van Zandt and his associates also developed , a Website dedicated "to develop, evaluate, and disseminate information to help prepare and inform individuals concerning personal and family security issues." During his 25-year career in the FBI, Van Zandt was a supervisor in the FBI's internationally renowned Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. He was also the FBI's Chief Hostage Negotiator and was the leader of the analytical team tasked with identifying the "Unabomber."