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The “CSI Effect” - Misconceptions of the Truth
Without a doubt crime is hot. In a given week a person can watch up to 10 different “Crime Scene Investigation (CSI)” related shows all hoping to cash in on our obsession with the dark and macabre. Television channels entice us with slogans like “All Crime all The Time” and “Murder Marathon”. You would be hard pressed to find an adult in the United States who had never seen an episode of CSI or a program similar to it such as NCIS, Criminal Minds or Bones, or at the very least heard of it. In the week of June 13, 2011 alone, four of the top ten broadcast television shows were crime dramas, with more than an estimated 32,000 viewers all together. And if we could track down someone who had been living under a rock for the past decade I’m sure that words like “DNA” and “Fingerprint Analysis” would not be foreign to them either. Jurors in the States as well as jurors in developed democracies around the world are more informed and aware of the workings of crime investigations and court cases than ever before, or at least they think they are, thanks to programs such as Law and Order and CSI. This knowledge is leading to a phenomenon being called the “CSI Effect.”
For years judges, and lawyers have believed that what people see on the television is effecting the outcome of court cases. Crime shows have about forty to fifty minutes, after subtracting the commercials, to introduce the audience to a crime, find evidence, interview a suspect or two, and put the criminal behind bars. With a timeline so incredibly condensed the magic of hollywood is put to use. It takes 30 seconds to run a set of fingerprints through IAFIS (Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System), FBI’s fingerprint database which contains more than 65 million prints of know criminals and 25 million of those of civilians. DNA is always a match and the results can be gained within ten minutes. In reality DNA is a very tricky thing. Human DNA only varies from person to person about .01% therefore there is only a small percentage that is used to identify a unique individual. Because of the difficult nature of DNA it can take six months to a year in order get results depending on the priority of the case, not ten minutes. Another aspect of the publics over expectations of forensic science is facial reconstruction. In many crime dramas art or technology is used to uncover what a person looked like; most often a show will have an artist use clay to mold a face over the skull. Then there is “technology” like the Angiletron on the hit TV show Bones which can give us a face with the click of a button. Forensic artists do exist and we do have the information to reconstruct a face using clay but the Angiletron is simply a fictional machine used by Bones producer Hart Hanson to catch our interest and gain high ratings. In reality every crime lab in the country doesn’t employ a forensic artist though, in fact there are only a small handful nation wide.
Many journalists, judges and attorneys claim that crime dramas have caused jurors to wrongfully acquit guilty defendants because they were not satisfied with the evidence presented. The Honorable Donald E. Shelton wasn’t sure if this was actually the case or not because up until his study in 2006 all of the evidence of the CSI Effect had been circumstantial and anecdotal. Judge Shelton “once heard a juror complain that the prosecution had not done a thorough job because ‘they didn’t even dust the lawn for fingerprints.’” In a US study surveying prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges four-fifths of them could recall specific cases where they believed the “CSI Effect” played a roll in the decision of the jury and 85.5 percent said that they had changed their strategies and game plan in the court room for this reason. Lawyers have been know to complain that “‘jurors now expect us to have a DNA test for just about every case. They expect us to have the most advanced technology possible, and they expect it to look like it does on television.’”
The “CSI Effect” is clearly effecting court room procedures and case outcomes but the question that Judge Donald Shelton posed when he embarked on a study of the phenomenon in 2006 with the help of two criminology professors at Eastern Michigan University, Gregg Barak, Ph.D., and Young Kim, Ph.D., was “Is it really CSI’s fault?”.
Shelton, Bark, and Kim had a little more than a thousand random jurors in Michigan complete a survey over the summer of 2006. The survey obtained demographic information and information about the participants television viewing habits. Including “the programs they watched, how often, and how ‘real’ they thought the programs were.” The survey asked questions that would gauge the knowledge of the potential jurors on different cases such as murder, assault and theft as well as questions about evidence in relation to those cases such as eyewitness testimony, DNA evidence and Ballistics. The survey wrapped up asking questions about 13 different scenarios and given the evidence whether they would find the defendant guilty or not guilty or if they were not sure what they would do.
The study found that Law and Order, with forty five percent, and CSI, with forty two percent, were two of the most commonly viewed shows and that people who viewed these shows , often watched other crime dramas as well. But now the question was “But do these viewing habits affect the case outcome?” and if so “Is it CSI’s fault?” Shelton’s results showed that for all evidence, both scientific and and non-scientific, such as eye-witness testimony, CSI viewers had higher expectations. Surprisingly though, these higher expectations rarely made an effect on the decisions jurors made when faced with the thirteen scenarios.
Shelton came to the conclusion that “It’s Not CSI!” because only “4 out of 13 scenarios showed some what significant differences between viewers and non-viewers... and they were inconsistent.” Here are some of the surveys findings:
-In the "every crime" scenario, CSI viewers were more likely to convict without scientific evidence if eyewitness testimony was available.
-In rape cases, CSI viewers were less likely to convict if DNA evidence was not presented.
-In both the breaking-and-entering and theft scenarios, CSI viewers were more likely to convict if there was victim or other testimony, but no fingerprint evidence.
Even though CSI viewers held higher expectations this rarely had any bearing on their convictions; Shelton believes that these findings bode well for the nations criminal justice system because peoples misconceptions and unrealistic expectations are not getting in the way of a persons right to a fair trial.
Shelton has shown us that we can’t blame television or CSI for this so called CSI Effect so the question is now, “Is there still even a problem to be addressed?” The answer is undoubtably yes. CSI might not have a direct effect on court cases among the thousand people in Michigan but we do know that lawyers have admitted to changing there own court room tactics because of the “CSI Effect” and this could change the outcome of a trial. We also only have a one study that was only done in one small area of the United States to look at when determining if the Effect is something to be concerned about.
Before Attorneys and Judges continue to alter there court room styles we need more evidence of whether it is really CSI causing people to wish that investigators had dusted every single blade of grass on a lawn for fingerprints or something else. Jurors aren’t stupid, and most realize that television takes some artistic license to entertain us so that we aren’t sitting for an hour watching AIFIS run prints or a lawyer, sitting in a hall patently waiting for a warrant request to go through. Still, we all know that things like DNA exist so we expect them to be used. Rather than complaining that the jury expects to much or being unrealistic perhaps time should be spent to inform. Rather than throwing their hands up and blaming CSI and Bones for the fact that the defendant might be acquitted perhaps the prosecution should squash what in their eyes is “unreasonable doubt.” The have a captive audience of twelve, all ready to hear what they have to say so maybe the expert witness should bring up the fact that it can take close to a thousand dollars and a year to run DNA so sometimes it’s not worth it depending on the other evidence.
As American citizens we all have he right to a fair trial and it is the lawyers and judges duty to provide that. So rather than blaming television and changing tactics because of CSI lawyers should realize that overall jurors know more than they used to simply because we live in an information age. We have access to knowledge more than ever before and therefore the courts have a responsibility to embrace that and understand that in trial so that the defendant still gets a fair trial rather than casting blame which is a waste of time.
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