A constitutional right that dates back to 1789 is in jeopardy … because of a TV show. At least that’s what some scholars, judges and prosecutors fear is happening because of what is known as the “CSI Effect.”
As you probably already guessed, this CSI Effect syndrome is named after the long-running TV show, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and its multitude of franchise spin-offs, including CSI: Vegas, CSI: Miami, and CSI: New York.
And skeptics argue that CSI, which ran for 15 seasons and reached more than 80 million people worldwide, has had a negative impact on the judicial system’s ability to select a jury with realistic expectations when it comes to a trial. The show, they say, has permanently distorted jurors’ perceptions about how much evidence is actually needed before a person is deemed guilty. They also contend that some other types of evidence—such as eyewitness accounts—are significantly undervalued by those impacted by the CSI Effect.
If the CSI Effect was only a theory that didn’t have any credibility that would be one thing. But some prosecutors believe it’s a real thing, resulting in people getting away with murder.
That’s what seemed to happen after prosecutor Shellie Samuels lost a rare murder case, the second out of 50, in the trial of actor Robert Blake. Although Samuels had more than 70 witnesses testify against Blake, who was accused of killing his wife, a jury acquitted him of the crime. He went free.
The Early Show correspondent Hattie Kauffman noted that jurors, influenced by the show, wanted the razzle-dazzle of CSI—with dramatic forensic evidence pointing to the real criminal.
Although witnesses testified that Blake had asked them to kill his wife, the jurors were more swayed by the fact that there was little forensic evidence, like gunshot residue or blood splatter, to support the case.
“They couldn’t put the gun in his hand,” juror foreman Thomas Nicholson said in comments after the trial. “There was no blood spatter. They had nothing.” jury foreman Thomas Nicholson said after the trial ended.
Juror Chuck Safko said, “They didn’t have a good case. Their case was built around witnesses who weren’t truthful.”
Another juror, Lori Moore said, “If she would have all that information (forensic evidence), that would have meant that he was guilty.”
The verdict didn’t go over too well with the prosecutors who lost the case. Steve Cooley, Los Angeles County district attorney at the time called the jurors “incredibly stupid.” Then he went on to say of Blake, “based on my review of the evidence, he is as guilty as sin. He is a miserable human being.”
Another high-profile case that seemed to be the result of the CSI Effect resulted in the acquittal of Casey Anthony in the six-week murder trial of her daughter, Caylee Anthony. The jury seemed to be more convinced by the defense’s assertion that the prosecution had only presented “fantasy forensics.” They acquitted Anthony on charges of first-degree murder, aggravated child abuse, and aggravated manslaughter of a child.
CSI Effect: How did we get here?
More than 230 years ago, the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was established to ensure that every U.S. citizen had a right to trial by jury, with jurors selected from a pool of a defendant’s peers who would be determined to be equal and unbiased in the case.
Primary concerns about a person’s right to a fair trial centered on making sure the selected jurors didn’t have any personal biases based on the defendant’s socioeconomic status, age, race, gender, sexuality, or charges.
However, most in the legal arena didn’t seem to be prepared for a nation that became obsessed with CSI when it was released in 2000. It became such a phenomenon that a show was made about it called The Anatomy of a Hit: CSI. It also was featured in an exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. At its height, the media described it as the most-watched TV show in the world.
The concerns have been backed by studies and surveys.
In one survey of 1,027 randomly summoned jurors, criminology professors at Eastern Michigan University asked the potential jurors about their TV viewing habits and how “real” they believed the programs were. Law & Order and CSI unsurprisingly were the top-viewed shows.
When they were asked about their expectations in a case before determining if a defendant was guilty or not guilty, they responded with their expectations for the prosecution to present scientific evidence. Here are the results:
- 46 percent expected to see some kind of scientific evidence in every criminal case.
- 22 percent expected to see DNA evidence in every criminal case.
- 36 percent expected to see fingerprint evidence in every criminal case.
- 32 percent expected to see ballistic or other firearms laboratory evidence in every criminal case.
The survey results also indicated that 46 percent of prospective jurors would want DNA evidence in a murder or attempted murder case, while 73 percent would want that type of evidence in a rape trial.
What’s the problem with the CSI Effect?
It would seem that more knowledgeable and “aware” jurors are a good thing, right? Perhaps not, according to critics of the CSI Effect.
Numerous issues have been cited, including the following:
- Jurors seem to want advanced forensics in all cases. In the CSI TV show, advanced technology and forensics are used to solve cases—and not all law enforcement agencies, especially small ones, are equipped with state-of-the-art technology and they don’t necessarily need it when other evidence, including testimony, is presented to determine someone’s guilt or innocence. “Jurors now expect us to have a DNA test for just about every case,” Josh Marquis, Oregon district attorney. “They expect us to have the most advanced technology possible, and they expect it to look like it does on television.”
- Legal teams are having difficulties securing jurors. It’s already difficult to interview dozens of prospective jurors in search of an unbiased jury. Those who have unrealistic expectations based on a TV show may diminish the pool of potential jurors.
- Eyewitness accounts are diminishing in effectiveness. Guilty people may be getting away with murder because jurors don’t give much credence to the testimony of witnesses. In Baltimore, a woman was distraught when a defendant was acquitted in the shooting murder of her husband, even though the prosecution had two eyewitnesses testify.
The jury is out: CSI Effect may not be a bad thing
Of course, not all people think the CSI Effect is a bad thing.
Some critics in the legal field say it’s a good thing to have jurors who are more engaged in the criminal justice process and who are hesitant about sending someone to jail without concrete evidence.
For instance, one study revealed that people who watched CSI-type TV dramas were less likely to convict based on circumstantial evidence. Jurors who weigh a verdict more carefully because of that influence should not be considered a negative outcome, they contend.
And, according to Anthony E. Zuiker, who created the CSI TV series, it’s “the most amazing thing that has ever come out of the series. For the first time in American history, you’re not allowed to fool the jury anymore.”