Area judge to appear on 'Frontline' report

By Tom Kirvan

Legal News

How reliable is the science behind forensics?

It's a question that Donald Shelton, chief judge of the Washtenaw County Trial Court, will discuss in detail on Tuesday, April 17 during a "Frontline" program titled, "The Real CSI." The program will air at 10 p.m. on PBS, which is broadcast locally by Detroit Public Television, and will focus on a series of high-profile cases, including the Casey Anthony trial and the FBI investigation of the Madrid terrorist bombing.

A former regent at Eastern Michigan University, Shelton wrote a book several years ago on the ever-evolving art of forensic science in court, a subject he explored in the context of the so-called "CSI Effect." The matter is reflected in the proliferation of TV crime shows bearing the three-letter abbreviation. "Frontline" correspondent Lowell Bergman conducted a lengthy interview of Shelton for the program.

"They flew me to New York City to do the taped Bergman interview last October, although I had many telephone interviews with the producer before and after," Shelton said. "The interview apparently came out of my book, 'Forensic Science in Court: Challenges in the 21st Century,' and my CSI research. I had done an NPR (National Public Radio) interview last year . . . about the CSI Effect and it is the same investigative team.

"The focus of this program is similar to my book and is about the validity of long-accepted forms of forensic science after the National Academies of Science Report raised serious questions about the scientific basis for much of such evidence," Shelton explained. "The program also apparently focuses on the validity of questionable credentials issued to forensic experts by some organizations."

The most popular "fictional courtroom portrayals have been based on the use of modern science and technology to solve crimes," Shelton said in the Spring 2011 issue of MOTION, a quarterly magazine published by The Legal News. "'CSI: Crime Scene Investigation' is so popular that it has spawned other versions of the same show and similar shows by other networks."

Shelton, who earned a reputation as one of the most skillful trial attorneys in Michigan before he was elected to the circuit court bench 22 years ago, was so intrigued by the "CSI" possibilities that over a three-year period he tested the idea "empirically," teaming with two other professors from Eastern Michigan University, Dr. Greg Barak and Dr. Young Kim, to conduct surveys of persons summoned to jury duty in Washtenaw and Wayne counties.

The studies focused on trying to answer three questions, according to Shelton. First, do jurors expect prosecutors to present scientific evidence? Secondly, do jurors demand scientific evidence as a condition for a guilty verdict? And finally, are juror expectations and demands for scientific evidence related to watching law-related television shows?

The data, gleaned from some 2,246 jurors in both counties, debunked the "CSI Effect," said Shelton. Instead, he reported, "talking about 'CSI' and other television shows is much too simplistic and that a broader tech effect of changes in our culture may more likely account for increased expectations and demands of jurors for scientific evidence."

A graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, Shelton earned his Ph.D. from the University of Nevada in 2010 and is a former four-term mayor of Saline. He has written a second book, "Forensic Science Evidence: Can the Law Keep Up with Science?" The book is scheduled to be published in June, at which time Shelton will be able to reflect on the outcome of the lengthy PBS interview for the April 17 show.

"My three-hour interview will probably end up about 10 seconds after editing," he said with a smile.

Published: Mon, Apr 16, 2012

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