Any defense lawyer would most likely offer up their own theory and thoughts about the CSI effect and perhaps mention some cases in which they believed the effect either worked well for their client or worked somewhat against them. The truth is, the well known social circumstance can cut both ways. In essence, the CSI effect is the perceived notion by the American public about the necessity of DNA evidence or other scientific “proof” necessary to find a defendant guilty or innocent.
USA Today coined the term in the early 2000’s, to explain in part, how television programs, like CSI, has many times falsely educated the public on how investigations and crime scene evidence is found, tested, and used in a court of law. The stories often times investigate, bring charges, try and convict a defendant in less than an hour. Though the essence of the stories may indeed be true, that’s where the similarity to the real truth may end.
Because the jury is formed of those who are presumably influenced by the quick action of one or two characters in a TV show who not only investigate the crime scene, process evidence, and chase down the alleged criminal and participate in the trial, they may be suspect of any crime scene which produces no evidence at all. That never happens on TV, after all. Unfortunately, the truth is never that easy. DNA evidence, fingerprints, hair samples, or other processable evidence is often not available. Any criminal defense lawyer faced with the lack of scientific evidence of their client’s actions, moreover, is not out of the woods with the jury, as circumstantial evidence is usually very compelling and can be difficult to repute. Still, it is how the jury weighs the evidence which is of utmost importance.
The CSI effect, however, is known to influence jurors as they desire the concrete evidence shown on their favorite TV show. The jury in the infamous Casey Anthony case, for example, cited the lack of “proof” she was responsible for her daughter’s death. The baby’s remains were found in a swampy area of Florida after any fingerprints, DNA, or other scientific proof had long washed away. The circumstantial case showed Ms. Anthony was the last one who had custody of the child, the last seen with her, and there was evidence of decomposition in the trunk of her car. But, the jury wanted more, and it wasn’t available.
Certainly not every case is widely reported and each detail printed for mass consumption. But the media reflects the public’s consumption of TV in many ways. The Law and Order franchise has been in the mainstream for 27 years, and its effect on the perception of our society is replete with the dramatic effect which, though entertaining, is far from the truth. Professional Forensic Scientists in tracking the CSI effect have often noted clear untruths about not only the judicial process portrayed, but also note up to 40% of the techniques used in TV programming depicted as tests do not even exist. In addition, evidence collected and processed which can take months in authentic criminal cases to complete is communicated in minutes and is then depicted as the absolute truth of guilt or innocence.
In reality, a lawyer must also have the testimony, eyewitness accounts, the testimony of the defendant, and attend to all the circumstances of the crime. It is the preponderance of the evidence, and not an eyelash found in a vacant field, which summarizes an entire case. Even the earliest accounts of the CSI effect can be traced back as far as the Perry Mason show, which revolutionized TV as a source for criminal justice information, or the lack of it.
Many attorneys and legal professionals in other positions have reported in surveys, by a margin of 80%, that they believe cases in their career have been influenced by the CSI effect. Because of the focus on the media, in turn, becomes the focus of the jury pool deciding on guilt or innocence, it is easy to see how the influence has become one of the most investigated and written about social conditions in the modern history of Law. Perhaps, the understanding of the phenomena will lead to enhanced jury education, questioning techniques, and disclosure by media on where the real truth exists.