CSI: Crime Scene Investigation--'Mea Culpa'

By Kristine Huntley
Posted at November 29, 2004 - 10:30 PM GMT

See Also: 'Mea Culpa' Episode Guide

Synopsis:

While giving testimony at the retrial of Jason Garbett, who was convicted of murdering Max Larson, Grissom notices a bloody fingerprint on a key piece of evidence--a matchbook--which he doesn't recall from the initial investigation. He asks the prosecutor to call for a recess so that he can consult his notes, and discovers that the defendant's fingerprints are loop patterns, while the ones on the matchbook are arches. They don't match. The prosecutor isn't happy--Grissom has given them reasonable doubt.

Conrad Ecklie wastes no time taking Grissom to task for missing he print. Grissom can't account for it, but he's determined to get to the bottom of it. When the two walk past the lab, a Mac-10 Bobby Dawson is testing accidentally discharges. The gun, a piece of evidence in a case Sara and Greg are working on, clearly malfunctioned.

Catherine recalls the Garbett case: Max Larson owned a hardware store next to Jason Garbett's restaurant. They had disputes over the alley between their stores; Garbett sued to force Lawson to remove a dumpster he put by Garbett's restaurant, but he lost the suit. Days later, Lawson was killed and afterwards someone started a fire in the store. The store wasn't totally destroyed, though, and all the physical evidence pointed to Garbett. Grissom decides to let Catherine handle the reexamination of the case.

Sofia Curtis pays a visit to Grissom, who is going through old forensic journals, looking for an article on the Lawson case. She tells him that as the lab's quality control person, she's in charge of Grissom's inquiry.

Catherine sends Warrick to run a hair found at the scene of the Larson murder that was never processed. Nick lifted six prints from the wrench that was the murder weapon, and five matched Jason Garbett. He's going to go back to run the sixth print. The evidence overwhelmingly pointed to Jason Garbett at the time; Nick insists to Catherine that they didn't do anything wrong during the initial investigation.

In the morgue, Dr. Robbins tells Sara and Greg that the cause of death for their unidentified victim was a single gun shot to the leg, which severed an artery. Given the trajectory of the shot, it appears to have been accidental.

Nick has matched the one unidentified print on the wrench to the print on the matchbook. They came from the same person. He talks to the former Mrs. Garbett, who is now remarried and going by Mrs. Katz, who recalls her former husband as a quiet man with a passionate temper. Her son, Keith, arrives and he is extremely interested in the inquiry. He moved back to Las Vegas from Los Angeles when his father was convicted and devoted all of his free time and money to getting the conviction overturned. Mrs. Katz promises to send over the records from their store.

Warrick asks Mia for a DNA analysis of the hair from the scene, but she tells him she sent it over to trace because the hair wasn't from a human. For his part, Grissom is testing prints on matchbooks, trying to recreate the conditions of the original print and learn how it didn't show up in the initial analysis. Ecklie is concerned about how this will make the lab look. The prosecutor asks Grissom point blank if they arrested the wrong man, and Grissom doesn't have an answer for him.

Brass tells Grissom that the entire police department knows about the inquiry. He cautions Grissom that Sofia will follow Ecklie's lead, and that Ecklie is looking into the entire night shift team. Ecklie plays politics better than Grissom does, Brass notes.

Hodges tells Warrick that the hair found at the scene is from a dog, possibly a poodle or a Portuguese water dog. He's already told Ecklie about his finding--Hodges considers Ecklie a "friend." Elsewhere in the lab, Bobby tells Sara that the gun misfired because someone tried to turn it into a machine gun. The victim never even pulled the trigger--the gun misfired just from being handled.

While Nick questions and prints former employees of Garbett's restaurant, Warrick talks to Rick Reeba, Max Larson's former business partner who now owns the entire hardware store. He tells Warrick that Garbett threatened them over the dumpster, which he claimed was hurting business for the restaurant. Two days after Garbett lost the lawsuit to have the dumpster moved, Larson was murdered. But Warrick notes that Rick might have had motive, too: he got sole ownership of the hardware store when Larson died.

Catherine is using Video Spectral Analysis to uncover the image on the matchbook, hoping to learn where it came from. Nick informs her that the restaurant employees were a dead end. Ecklie questions Warrick about the dog hair from the Garbett murder. Warrick admits that he should have checked the hair five years ago, but doesn't blame Grissom for his mistake, despite Ecklie's leading questions. Ecklie brings up Warrick's excellent work as a CSI, but he also notes his gambling problem, a problem that is in the past, Warrick reminds him. When Ecklie asks if Grissom used departmental resources to help him kick the problem, Warrick counters that Grissom helped him with his problem by being a friend.

Catherine stops by Sofia's work space to assure that the woman will support her findings in Grissom's inquiry with actual data. Sofia coolly tells her that she'll reserve her findings for the assistant director. Meanwhile, Grissom is puzzling over the print. He talks to Neil Derringer in the Print Lab, and the two conclude that if the matchbook was placed directly in the evidence bag, the bag could have acted as a humidifier, preventing the print from showing up for as long as years. Essentially, the print was being processed in slow motion.

Sara is able to expose the sawed-off serial number on the Mac-10 by clearing away some of the gun metal around the number. She sends Greg to trace the gun. Ecklie comes in and asks her if she's finished counseling and if so, if she's talked to Grissom about her sessions. She claims she already has and that she finished the sessions months ago. Ecklie puzzles over why Grissom failed to note that in her file.

Catherine has revealed the text on the matchbook: Club PCH, Los Angeles. Garbett's son, Keith lived in Los Angeles at the time of the Larson murder, and was a vet. The case is starting to come together, and Nick goes to Keith's house with some questions. But Keith is wary and refuses to let Nick print him, so Nick resorts to another source: the trash bag from Keith's house which is off of his property and therefore fair game.

Ecklie asks Catherine about the case and Grissom's part in it. She says he held a supervisory meeting, but that micromanaging isn't his style. She asks him if he's trying to indict Grissom, and he dodges the question by mentioning the number of candidates that are qualified to supervise the dayshift. He mentions the raise that would come with the promotion, but Catherine doesn't take his bait.

Nick gets Keith's prints off the garbage back itself, and when Catherine compares them to the print on the matchbook, they're a match. It was Keith who killed Larson and started the fire in the hardware store. When they bring Keith in for questioning, he claims he didn't have a motive: it wasn't his restaurant. But Catherine and Nick learned that Keith was running the restaurant for his parents that week. Keith doesn't bend until Catherine suggests that both he and his father will be tried for the murder. Keith finally admits his father had nothing to do with the murder--he never thought the court would convict an innocent man. In the observation room, Ecklie tells Grissom that they'll meet in his office to discuss the case.

Sara, Greg and Detective Vartann enter the house of Paul Turlock, who owned the Mac-10 that killed their John Doe. His door is unlocked, and a photograph confirms that Paul Turlock is indeed their dead John Doe. Greg finds a stash of guns with their serial numbers rubbed off. A message on the machine indicates Turlock was going to sell the guns--he is scheduled to meet the buyers at 9pm. Sara and Vartann decide to make that meeting.

Ecklie praises Nick for his work on the Larson case. He asks Nick about a time when Nick and Grissom quarreled over evidence, but Nick won't give Ecklie the criticism of Grissom that he's looking for. Ecklie tells Nick that he respects his independence.

Sara, Vartann and Greg accost Turlock's buyer in the parking lot where he arranged to meet Turlock, but it turns out he's an undercover ATF agent. He was hoping to arrest Turlock in the exchange. Sara tells him that he's too late--Turlock is dead.

Ecklie meets with Grissom and Sofia. He asks Sofia if Grissom mishandled the case, but she says her findings indicate that Grissom did nothing wrong. Ecklie is clearly thrown, but Grissom isn't off the hook. He questions Grissom's ability to supervise, and even though Grissom says that that is beyond the scope of Ecklie's investigation, Ecklie proceeds to break up the team. He moves Catherine to swing shift supervisor and has Nick and Warrick report to her. Sara, Greg, and Sofia will report to Grissom, an announcement that shocks Sofia, since it is essentially a demotion. Ecklie tells Grissom that his people have been covering for him.

Grissom, Nick and Warrick meet for coffee at a diner. Warrick feels like Ecklie ambushed the entire team, and its clear that he and Nick aren't comfortable with Ecklie's manipulations. Grissom tries to reassure them, calmly accepting the change and trying to put a positive spin on it. Warrick thanks Grissom for all of his help, but his cell phone rings--his new boss, Catherine, is calling with a case.

Analysis:

The producers promised the 101st episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation would bring major ch-ch-changes (story), and "Mea Culpa" does not disappoint. Ecklie does, as promised by a preview that gave away the last ten minutes of the episode, split up the Las Vegas CSI nightshift we've come to know and love over one hundred episodes. Grissom will still be working with Sara, which foreshadows more romantic tension, and Greg, which likely means that Grissom will have to continue to mentor Greg as he becomes a CSI. Sofia will also be on the team, possibly creating the show's first love triangle if the sexual tension between she and Grissom grows. And Catherine will be managing Warrick and Nick. It will be interesting to see how Catherine views their friendly competitiveness, as well as to see if that moment between Catherine and Warrick in "Down the Drain" is built upon in future episodes.

The episode itself is a solid one, proving that yes, CSI can offer both character development and compelling stories. Watching the CSIs go back over evidence from the Garbett case proves that no, the evidence cannot lie, but it can hide. The idea that an evidence bag meant to preserve evidence could actually mask it is an intriguing dilemma. Human error also factored into the case--some of the evidence was ignored simply because it didn't fit with the conclusions the CSIs had already come to. The evidence overwhelmingly pointed to one man and at the time that was enough for the CSI team. Nick asserts that they didn't do anything wrong, but it becomes clear through the course of the re-investigation that they did miss or disregard evidence the first time around because they came to a conclusion early on in the case, rather than relying on the evidence. It's a cautionary tale from CSIs for CSIs.

The Garbett case proves how easily things can go wrong. We often see the CSIs analyzing evidence only to have to discount it later because it's either irrelevant or misleading. This episode proves that all the evidence must be investigated, even if it seems unnecessary. I wasn't surprised that the culprit turned out to be Garbett's son, Keith. Maybe I'm just getting better at spotting the culprit--I had the bad guy figured out early on in CSI: New York's "Rain" as well. But unlike "Rain," when I spent the entire episode waiting for the CSIs to catch up, it didn't bother me in "Mea Culpa." The CSIs couldn't afford to jump to any conclusions here, and watching them go over the old evidence was fascinating.

The one minor complaint I have about the episode is the inclusion of the utterly pointless B-story. I suspect the B-story was included for those who might fear that with this episode CSI would stray too far from its premise, but really, it was unnecessary. Sara and Greg obviously wouldn't have worked on the original case because it predates them, but they didn't need to be stuck on another case that just doesn't generate much interest, in part because its not given much development and in part because the main story is just much more involving. Sara and Greg could have helped out with the main case even though they weren't involved with it initially. It would have been interesting to have both of their reactions, given that both look up to Grissom.

Grissom pays the price for a scientific quirk and his team's oversights. On one level, itís only natural that he, as the leader of the team, is ultimately accountable, but it's hard not to hate the slimy Ecklie in this episode. Mark Vann is delightfully sinister--his agenda is clear from the get-go. This is the moment he's been waiting for; it wasn't enough for him to one-up Grissom by getting the assistant director position. He now feels the need to take his old rival down a rung or two. Because he can't find any actual evidence of wrongdoing on Grissom's part, he can't demote him. Rather, after witnessing the loyalty and camaraderie among Grissom's team, he decides to split them up. In an even more villainous move, he demotes Sofia Curtis simply because she doesn't deliver the news he wanted to hear.

Catherine is promoted to the swing shift, but given her reasons for wanting the promotion--to spend more time with her rebellious daughter--it's a mixed blessing. The swing shift begins at 4 pm, probably right around the time Lindsay would be arriving home from school. By the time Catherine would get home at midnight, Lindsay would probably be asleep. At best, Catherine might be able to have a quick breakfast with her daughter. Certainly this isn't the improvement she was hoping for. The promotion will be good for her career, but Ecklie couldn't even be bothered to give her the position she really wanted. It seems likely that Ecklie only gave her the promotion to spite Grissom and facilitate splitting up the night shift team.

It's interesting to see the parent show following in the footsteps of its first spin-off, CSI: Miami. Miami has toyed with the antagonistic relationship between Horatio Caine and IAB officer Rick Stetler since second season. This season, the stakes have been upped in Horatio and Stetler's rivalry: Stetler is not only dating Yelina, the woman Horatio loves, but apparently abusing her as well. Ann Donahue has promised a showdown between the two men by season's end. While I don't predict that the eventual confrontation between Grissom and Ecklie will be anywhere near as dramatic as the one between Horatio and Stetler (Miami has always been more outlandish that its often staid parent show), I do think that a showdown is inevitable, given that Ecklie has proved himself downright unscrupulous. He might have gotten away with splitting up Grissom's team, but in demoting Sofia for refusing to condemn Grissom he showed his true colors.

So what does this mean for the show? Presumably we'll get more stories set in the afternoon to cover Catherine, Warrick, and Nick's shift. Greg will probably finally take that final field proficency test, and I think he'll pass this time around. The writers will likely have fun exploring the tension between Grissom, Sara and Sofia. There's something Sara hasn't told Grissom--it was referenced by Ecklie in this episode, and also in the premiere, "Viva Las Vegas", when Sara made an aborted attempt to discuss her counseling with Grissom.

The idea that CSI's characters are flat or completely secondary in importance to the story is something of a myth perpetuated by the slickness of the show and the complex forensic science that it tackles on a weekly basis. In actuality, CSI established its quirky characters early on, through their interactions in the lab or their reactions to the cases they've worked on. The writers and actors have inserted details about the characters so smoothly into the narratives that audiences ingested the information without really realizing it. So the 101st episode isn't really a turn-around; rather, it's an extension. We've seen the characters solve cases for four plus years, and now we're going to see them shaken up. I think the audience is game for it--let's see how far the writers are willing to take these characters.

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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.


Kristine Huntley is a freelance writer and reviewer.