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On any given week, more than 100 million viewers flock to their televisions to watch CSICold Case and similar forensic dramas. Although there have been several exposés bringing the reality of death investigation to light, many criminal defense lawyers and prosecutors are concerned that America’s new found fascination with television shows like the CSI series is causing unrealistic expectations for forensic evidence. However, are their fears unsubstantiated? Surely, Americans are intelligent enough to know that murder cases aren’t solved in an hour and DNA evidence isn’t prevalent in all criminal cases.

As the popularity of television shows like CSI has increased, so has speculation that jurors are acquitting guilty defendants when no scientific evidence is brought to trial. The media picked up on these complaints and promptly titled the phenomena the “CSI effect,” prescribing blame to the popular television series and its successors. Until recently, the only evidence presented on this issue has been stories from disgruntled prosecutors and concerned legal experts. With all of the recent media exposure received by the “CSI effect” there are more independent studies being done on the subject and empirical data is now available on the affects of forensic television series on jury verdicts.

Crime Scene Investigation

In the summer of 2006, criminology professors at Eastern Michigan University surveyed 1,000 prospective jurors. They were asked questions about their television-viewing habits as well as their expectations for scientific evidence in different criminal cases. The aim of this study was to see if there was any correlation between juror’s viewing habits and their demand for forensic evidence, as suggested by the anecdotes that sparked the “CSI effect” theory.

The results of this study showed that jurors who watched CSI held higher expectations for scientific evidence than those who did not view the series. They also expected scientific evidence to be relevant to a particular crime. For example, they expected to see DNA evidence in rape cases or fingerprint evidence in cases that adhered to breaking an entering. This did not, however, compare to a demand for said evidence before handing down a guilty verdict. In most cases, jurors would still return a guilty verdict without scientific evidence if an eyewitness account was available. Almost hypocritically, the same jury would request forensic evidence in cases where the prosecution relied solely on circumstantial evidence.

The conclusion of this study and others like it is simple: CSI viewers were not any more or less likely to convict the client of a defense lawyer based on the presence of forensic evidence alone. That being said, it is impossible to ignore the fact that jurors have very high expectations regarding forensic evidence. This is much more likely the result of readily available technical information than the creation of any particular television show. People know that advancements are being made in scientific technology and expect them to be utilized in the upholding of criminal law.

Our criminal justice system needs to adapt in order to handle more knowledgeable jurors. While the best solution would be to provide evidence that is expected, law enforcement simply does not have the resources to dust every nook and cranny for fingerprints or reduce the current backlogs for forensic analysis in our nation’s crime labs. And speaking of crime labs, recent studies have shown there are glaring inadequacies in many of our nations trusted labs, with the result being unreliable evidence being used to convict the innocent. But that’s a topic for another blog.


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