Does the “CSI Effect” Really Exist?
Anyone who’s turned on a TV lately knows that crime is big business on the small screen. With shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, NCIS, Law and Order and Criminal Minds occupying top slots on every network, formerly obscure terms like “chain of custody,” “blood spatter analysis” and, of course, “forensic evidence” are now common parlance.
In fact, CSI and other crime TV shows are so popular that many people believe their influence extends beyond the living room and into the courtroom. Prosecutors, in particular, have blamed high acquittal rates on the so-called “CSI Effect.”
The “CSI Effect” theory is that jurors to anticipate the kind of sophisticated forensic evidence they see on TV in even the most routine real-life cases. It seems that no matter what the circumstances or nature of the crime, many jurors expect to see forensic evidence.
In reality, however, scientific evidence isn’t always necessary to prove a defendant’s guilt. Nor is forensic technology, such as DNA profiling and ballistics microanalysis, as fast or fail-proof in the real world as it is on TV.
Forensic science has made great strides in the 21st century; it’s much harder to get away with a serious crime today than ever before. But that doesn’t mean that every crime investigator drives a van with a lightweight and portable gas chromatograph, a forensic tool used to ID foreign substances, in the back, like on CSI. Gas chromatography is an expensive, labor-intensive and potentially messy science that can produce powerful results—just not in 15 minutes.
Proving guilt can be a messy business, and even though pop culture sensations like CSI make easy targets, they’re not the sole determining factor for every complex sociological phenomenon in the country. Case in point? A 2006 survey led by Honorable Donald E. Shelton that polled more than 1,000 random selected jurors in Ann Arbor, MI, found that exposure to CSI and similar programs had little impact on a juror’s likelihood to acquit or convict a defendant.
Survey respondents were presented with 13 scenarios describing a range of criminal charges (murder or attempted murder, rape, physical assault, crimes involving firearms, any crime, etc.) and kinds of evidence, from fingerprint, DNA and other scientific evidence to eyewitness and victim testimony. Only four of the 13 scenarios drew different responses from crime-TV viewers versus non-viewers. Even those discrepancies, according to Shelton, were “inconsistent.”
The survey did confirm, on the other hand, that jurors have high expectations regarding evidence, in general; close to half the respondents wanted to see scientific evidence of some kind when evaluating every crime. Clearly, the American public, crime-TV viewers and non-viewers alike, recognize that forensic science has become essential to the broader field of criminal justice—itself essential to a smoothly functioning society.
Police officers, detectives, probation officers and forensic technicians, may not operate within the same parameters as their fictional counterparts, but they are even more important. CSI may keep us entertained, but it’s the real criminal justice experts who keep us safe.