Reversing the CSI effect in criminal trials by Jarad Henry

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Criminal investigations, murder mystery and court room proceedings have long been the focus of film, television and crime writers. This week’s discussion explores contemporary courtroom dramas, and an apparent need for these to be based on actual cases.


Perhaps one of the longest running and popular franchises is Law & Order, which is heavily marketed around stories ‘ripped straight from the headlines’. Many of the stories or plots written into this series are indeed based on real crimes, which satisfy the changing needs or desires of viewers. Some of the original characters are also based on real life detectives. John Munch first appeared on the series Homicide: Life on the Street as a cynical detective in the Baltimore Police Department’s Homicide unit, before the Law & Order spin off, Special Victims Unit first aired in 1999.

But these dramas are often formulaic, with common themes of a ‘who-dun-it’ mystery (usually a murder), a finite number of suspects and witnesses, an attractive cast, including cops who bend the rules in order to get the job down, witnesses who either confess too readily or reveal their guilt in a dramatic court room outburst, all wrapped up in 45 minutes.

Of course, its drama and most people take it as such. Its just entertainment. It isn’t real and you wouldn’t expect to learn from it.

But it was around this (1999) time that reality and fiction began to blur, and the idea of learning through entertainment took on a whole new level of significance, with the arrival of Crime Scene Investigation (CSI).

So popular was this series that it changed the direction of real life criminal prosecutions, not only in the US, but also other countries with a similar adversarial system. Attorneys, judges, and journalists began to claim that watching television programs like CSI caused jurors to wrongfully acquit guilty defendants when no scientific evidence was presented. Mass media quickly picked up on this phenomenon and dubbed it the “CSI effect.

Stories abound now of jurors complaining that the prosecution failed to extinguish reasonable doubt because the police didn’t dust the lawn for fingerprints or because no forensic evidence had been left at the crime scene, even after heavy rainfall. Another prosecutor stated that juries now expect a DNA test for every case, that they expect the most advanced technology possible, and they expect it to look like it does on television. In effect, they have grown to expect more from their favourite television show than just entertainment. Now, it would seem, they expect to learn from it.

But what are viewers really learning and does this alter the likelihood of conviction?

In 2006 a group of criminology professors at Eastern Michigan University surveyed 1,000 jurors prior to their participation in trial processes. Jurors were questioned regarding their expectations and demands for scientific evidence and their television-watching habits, including CSI and similar programs. The goal: to determine juror expectations for forensic evidence and their demand for it as a condition for conviction, as well as any linkages with television shows.

The study concluded that 46 percent expected scientific evidence in every case, 22 percent expected DNA evidence in every case, 36 percent expected fingerprint evidence and 32 percent expected ballistic or other firearms laboratory evidence in every case.

So what role, then, does CSI play in jury expectations and demands for forensic evidence, and how likely are juries to return an acquittal if demands are not met. In other words, do jurors demand to see scientific evidence before they will find a defendant guilty?

The study found that although CSI viewers had higher expectations for scientific evidence than non-CSI viewers, these expectations had little bearing on the respondent’s propensity to convict. This is an important finding and perhaps good news for prosecutors and investigators, however our legal system demands proof beyond a reasonable doubt before sentencing, and although the so-called “CSI effect” may not be evident in all cases, the bar has been raised for those seeking a conviction.

In previous discussions I have commented on the price of truth and the cost of lies within the context of the criminal justice system. Being a crime writer, I am not entirely guilt free of this either. I blend fact and fiction as much as possible in all my books and characters, and they are what I would term ‘crime fact-ion’. A fine line between creating chaos, mystery and suspense, and restoring order within a given time frame. The same formula is usually true of television drama and the ‘CSI effect’.

What I and many other authors attempt to do, however, is in the process reveal how injustice can play out and how it affects victims, police, criminals and society as a whole. If anything, then, the ‘CSI effect’ has meant people want to learn and be entertained at the same time, so that ups the ante for writers and creators of drama alike.

A brilliant example of this is The Corner and The Wire, both highly acclaimed dramas which deliberately set out to show viewers how the system works (and doesn’t work) in urban America. In short, they wanted to make the most realistic television series about crime and the war on drugs ever produced.

In following the money and profits associated with the US drug trade, the viewer quickly realises that this is no ordinary drama. Many people even watch it with the English sub titles on, as the dialogue is so street based and realistic, with a fair amount of drug-code thrown in, for which many people need interpretation. And that is the point.

Fans of CSI and Law & Order will see that the bad guys get away, good people get hurt and the tricks criminal lawyers use to extinguish reasonable doubt.

So if we want to be entertained and learn at the same time then it’s important to pick and choose where the info-tainment comes from. Just as CSI raised the bar for reasonable doubt, hopefully more realistic productions such as The Wire and The Corner not only raise the bar for other television producers, and crime writers alike, but also begin to reverse the CSI effect.

That way we can all have our cake and eat it too. We can be entertained and learn, without making the job harder for those whose role it is to dispense justice in real life.

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