“CSI Effect” Influencing Criminal Trials

For many Americans, there’s no better way to relax after work than kicking back and turning on the television. With the number of channels available and the diversity of programming, there’s truly something for everyone available on the airwaves. And, while indulging this habit is certainly no crime, could primetime TV be affecting America’s criminal defense system?

According to the Albany Times-Union, many prosecutors believe so. Because of a phenomenon that has been dubbed the “CSI Effect” after the Crime Scene Investigation series, prosecutors have reportedly seen a change in the way jurors in criminal trials decide cases. And it worries them.

What’s happening is this: shows like CSI and its spinoffs, the various Law & Order incarnations, Cold Case, Without a Trace, NCIS, and Criminal Minds depict quick, sophisticated versions of scientific tools like DNA testing and fingerprint profiling. Cases in these shows are solved because of conclusive evidence acquired with the use of such technological innovations. And the viewers get used to it.

The Times-Union reports that one attorney, who has been practicing law since the 1970s, before crime dramas cluttered the small screen, says juries were wowed by blood-type matches found at a crime scene. Now, according to sources, jurors want indisputable, DNA-type evidence – even when it would be impossible to obtain.

This phenomenon is apparently not the delusion of one ageing prosecutor: in an FSU study exploring the CSI Effect, two-thirds of criminal lawyers and all prosecutors interviewed believed crime shows caused juries to be less likely to convict those on trial.

One judge has allegedly noted that proof beyond a reasonable doubt is no longer the standard – juries want proof beyond all doubt.

But, sources say, most of the technology used in television shows is greatly exaggerated, if not completely fictionalized. In real life, DNA results can take months to be returned, and very few cases are solved based on fingerprint evidence, according to the Times-Union.

So how can those interested in preserving the integrity of the criminal justice system combat the unrealistic expectations shows like CSI give jurors?

Forensic Science magazine tells the story of the Albuquerque Police Department, which has taken steps to educate the people of New Mexico about real-life forensic science. The department reportedly offers a 25-person, 10-week course in an effort to combat far-fetched juror expectations and the high demand for internships and tours.

Students of the free courses learn about real criminal investigations, including that most detectives spend about half their time simply verifying evidence, sources report. The magazine describes how various specialists explain the actual availability of DNA evidence to students-and how the waiting list is nearly 1,000 names long.

So what happens if an aspiring criminal takes the course in an attempt to become more crime-scene savvy? According to Forensic Science, nothing much. In addition to performing background checks on all students, the Albuquerque PD is reportedly careful to divulge no information that’s not already available to the public.

Interestingly, reports indicate that criminals, too, are susceptible to the CSI Effect. Investigators have allegedly noticed greater-often misguided-efforts to “clean up” crime scenes when those convicted admit to being fans of one or more of TV’s crime dramas.

According to the Times-Union, CSI recently received an award for shows depicting “horror, fiction, and fantasy.” Keep that in mind next time you’re sitting in the jury box.