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How CSI Affects American Courtrooms

John | Jun 9, 2011

Cop shows, courtroom dramas, and forensic investigator shows are on just about every night of the week. They are a staple of American TV watching. In fact, recently 5 of the top 10 most-watched television shows were about police, lawyers, or forensic investigators. (American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, and the CBS Sunday movie rounded out the top ten.) And according to the National Institute of Justice, approximately 70 million people watch at least one of the CSI shows every week. The result is that the ubiquity of fictional crime drama is having a real life effect on American courtrooms. According to a NIJ study, 46% of prospective jurors expected to see forensic evidence to be presented in every criminal case. And 22% expected DNA evidence to be presented in every case. And, in general, jurors who watched CSI regularly, expected more forensic evidence to be presented at trial. This has led some to speculate that CSI could actually be having an effect on convictions. For example, the same study revealed that, in a rape case, only 14% of jurors who regularly watched CSI would find the defendant guilty if only eyewitness testimony—no DNA or other forensic evidence—was presented. It would seem that shows like CSI are giving jurors unrealistic expectations of what law enforcement and forensic testing can do. In fact, police are constantly surprised by the number of people who demand fingerprinting and DNA tests be done after their car radio is stolen. The truth is that police departments don’t have the time or money to do most of these tests—especially for small cases. Most of the tests and procedures seen on TV are only available to the highest-funded police departments, and forensic testing can take weeks or (more likely) months, not just the length of a commercial break. In fact, the problem has gotten so bad that Arizona, Illinois, and California regularly use “negative evidence” witnesses to explain to jurors why certain test were not done and why DNA testing and other staples of crime scene TV are, in reality, extremely hard to perform and rarely done. Of course, some say that the CSI effect has actually helped in the courtroom because jurors today are more aware of complex forensic tests and procedures than they were 10-15 years ago. That makes prosecutors and defense attorneys’ jobs much easier. Instead of having to wade through long explanations of procedures and scientific testing, they can simply refer to DNA testing, fingerprint analysis, etc., and jurors know that they are talking about. The CSI family of shows are among the most popular on television, and accompanied by the Law & Order shows as well as Without a Trace, Cold Case, Body of Proof, and many others, they make it into just about every television-watching living room in America on a weekly basis. Whether or not the CSI effect is good or bad, it is definitely changing the way we think about and look at reality. Do you agree?


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