As Palmetto shooting illustrates, real-life CSI nothing like TV

MANATEE -- If the Club Elite shooting in Palmetto happened on “CSI: Miami,” it would have been solved by now.

Forensic evidence -- like bullet shell casings, fingerprints, blood or items left behind by the killer or killers -- would have led investigators to a suspect’s arrest within a few days.

Unfortunately, real life is rarely as it is portrayed on television.

Although detectives have been working non-stop on the Sept. 10 shooting, which left two dead and 22 injured, there has yet to be an arrest. Detectives are still getting tips, following fresh leads and waiting on forensics to come back from the lab.

“When we respond to a call, we get on the scene and document everything with pictures,” said Rich Talbot, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office manager for the CSI unit. “Once the scene is documented, we start searching for evidence. At that point we do evidence processing and fingerprints. It’s nothing like on TV when they take a picture and just walk around.”

CSI units are never guaranteed a solid DNA hit or quality fingerprints from a crime scene, Talbot noted.

While on scene, CSI units will look for tire marks, shoe prints and any other objects that might contain DNA or evidence that could lead to a suspect.

Real CSI techs can spend hours at a scene, not just a few minutes, making sure all the evidence is collected.

The scene at Club Elite took about 18 hours to clear.

They collected items such as shell casings, blood samples, photos and video as evidence.

“The tech has to think out of the box for anything that could have DNA on it,” Talbot said.

The lab

In Manatee County, both the sheriff’s office and the Bradenton Police Department have their own crime scene units. All other local agencies use the sheriff’s office’s CSI unit for their investigations.

While everything on television is done in-house, and with great speed, a lot of the technology portrayed is either too expensive for the average agency to purchase, or doesn’t exist.

Because of the expense of sending evidence to a private lab, which the sheriff’s office does on occasion, most law enforcement agencies rely on the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and its labs.

In Manatee, evidence is sent to FDLE’s Fort Myers office, where it waits in line with evidence from 10 other counties and Florida Highway Patrol.

“Combined we get about 5,000 to 6,000 cases a year,” said Michael Rafferty, lab supervisor at the Fort Myers office. “We have the proper staffing for the number of cases coming in. We also do a quality assurance to review results; everything is double-checked.”

Since so many agencies use FDLE, only five pieces of evidence per case can be submitted.

On average, DNA results can take anywhere from two to six months to get back from the lab.

Fingerprints, also called touch DNA, have a slightly quicker turnaround because the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office analyzes that information in-house.

Those results can take up to a few hours to days to get back. But one caveat: If DNA is found on an item, or if a quality fingerprint is lifted and analyzed, it doesn’t mean an arrest will be made.

“That DNA has to already be in the system,” said Manatee Sheriff Brad Steube. “So it has to be someone who has already been arrested on a felony for it to be in the system.”

If the person is not in the system, the DNA remains in a database that can be retrieved by law enforcement agencies nation wide.

Incidents such as the shooting at Club Elite, which investigators believe was a drive-by shooting, don’t always have a sufficient amount of DNA to collect.

“In a drive-by shooting, aside from shell casings being left behind, there isn’t going to be a whole lot of forensic evidence,” said Detective Chad Oyler of the Palmetto Police Department. “They didn’t exit the vehicle, they didn’t touch anything.”

Unlike DNA, shell casings and anything else related to firearms are sent to Tampa for FDLE to analyze.

“If we take shell casings, we are looking for touch DNA -- in other words, the guy who loaded it in the gun. We are hoping to get his markers off that shell casing,” or link the gun to another incident, Steube said.

Just like DNA, if the information is not in the system already, it will be stored until a hit is made.

Manatee labs

Manatee County is slightly less reliant on FDLE than other counties because the sheriff’s office has its own drug chemistry lab, which handles all of the drug and forensic case analysis for the entire county.

The chemistry lab was assessed recently by the Forensic Quality Services Forensic Accreditation Program and was found in compliance with the requirements for accreditation.

This is a first for the lab.

The chemistry lab handles about 70 cases a month, according to Michael Healy, who has been a forensic chemist with the sheriff’s office for about three decades.

He said each case comes with an average of 1 1/2 pieces of evidence to be tested.

Unlike his TV counterparts, Healy never steps foot on a crime scene or knows a thing about any of the cases on which he is working. The only information he gets is what drug or particle he is testing for.

“It’s not our job to arrest people,” he said. “Our job is to get evidence.”

“When we get a case, we turn it around in less than two weeks, sometimes two days,” Healy said. “It’s very quick compared to FDLE.”

Although the results don’t come in as quickly as they do on TV, that doesn’t mean the same level of creativity doesn’t go into finding them.

Rich Konieczka, a forensics examiner with the sheriff’s office, said he has gotten everything from rocks to pieces of tape to find a fingerprint.

He will also test for blood, semen or bones found at crime scenes before sending that evidence to FDLE.

Not just about DNA

Cell phones often play a major factor in crimes, too. They can provide investigators information on where a person was during an incident, call logs and more.

One problem: the speed at which this information can be obtained.

“With pre-paid phones, you don’t have to give your real name or information,” Palmetto Police Detective Ryan LaRowe said. “There is no billing, there is no linkage of that cell phone ever belonging to you, so they’re generally phones of choice by criminals.”

Because they are so overwhelmed for requests, he said, some of these companies will not even look at a request to pull up information for two weeks, and then take weeks to get information back.

Making the arrest

The comparisons between real-life police work and television often don’t end with the forensic and evidence side.

Don’t forget the best part of those shows: catching the bad guy.

On TV, “the suspect always breaks down and confesses,” Talbot said. “They place all the evidence in front of the suspect and they break down and confess.”

That is nowhere near reality -- most of the time.

“People have rights and criminals have rights,” LaRowe said. “People say ‘Why don’t you bring them in and get a confession out of them?’ Well, just because someone is a suspect doesn’t mean you can drag them in against their will and put them in a chair under a hot lamp until they confess.”

The issue of legal representation is also rarely addressed on TV shows, LaRowe said.

“When they say they want a lawyer, the conversation is over, we can’t talk to them,” he said. “We can’t even approach them again and speak to them again; we have to go through their attorney.”

The impact these shows have on investigations sometimes carries over to the courtroom in something called the “CSI effect,” a term coined in recent years.

Although Assistant State Attorney Elizabeth Scanlan said the expectation of DNA evidence in cases has died down since these shows first gained popularity, she still brings it up at every jury selection.

“I ask if they watch any of those shows -- whether it be ‘CSI’ or true crime re-enactment shows, or if they watch actual footage of trials they see on CourtTV -- to get a sense of what people’s expectations are,” she said. “What I do is take that and make it relevant to the case we are trying.”

She said jurors are starting to understand that DNA is not part of every case.

For most law enforcement officers and CSI workers, the important thing is going through the proper channels for analysis.

“We play by the rules, but that’s why it takes longer than people expect,” Konieczka said.

“We know the outcome will be what we want if we follow the law.”

Paradise Afshar, Herald writer, can be reached at 941-745-7024.