CBS has CSI and CSI Miami. NBC has Law & Order and Law & Order: SVU. Court TV has Forensic Files. As these courtroom dramas and docu-dramas draw a combined audience of over 50 million viewers, it is not surprising that the effect of their popularity is becoming evident in the real world, specifically in real-life criminal trials.
According to recent reports from CBS News and USA Today, jurors now increasingly expect irrefutable forensic evidence, such as DNA and fingerprint analysis, to be present in every single case. If the prosecution lacks such evidence, analysts say, the jury won't convict.
Judges, defense lawyers, and prosecuting attorneys have dubbed this the "CSI Effect," and it has prosecutors and defense attorneys alike scrambling to employ different strategies.
To some defense attorneys, the CSI Effect seems like a dream come true. As Richard Willing of USA Today points out, the CSI phenomenon is "affecting action in courthouses across the USA by, among other things, raising juror expectations of what prosecutors should produce at trial."
The recent acquittal in the Robert Blake murder trial provides a high-profile example of how the CSI Effect could prove a boon for defense lawyers. Jury foreman Thomas Nicholson explained that prosecutors simply did not have the evidence to convict: "They couldn't put the gun in his hand...There was no blood splatter. They had nothing."
Nothing that is, except for "the big picture." The prosecutor in the Blake case attempted to dismiss the importance of DNA and gunshot-residue tests, and instead ask the jury to convict on the basis of motive and opportunity, Loyola Law School Professor Laurie Levensen told CBS News.
But the CSI-savvy jury didn't bite.
In a nation where defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty, the CSI Effect serves as a reminder that the burden of proof rests on the prosecution. But for defense attorneys, the phenomenon has become a double-edged sword.
In a recent Boston murder trial, the jury acquitted the defendant due to lack of DNA evidence, in spite of the testimony of two eyewitnesses. According to DNA specialist Dan Krane, on shows like CSI, viewers "never see a case where the sample is degraded or the lab work is faulty or the test results don't solve the crime. These things happen in the real world all the time," Krane told USA Today
For defense attorneys, this aspect of the CSI Effect can spell disaster, because any forensic evidence presented by the prosecution will likely be perceived as absolute and irrefutable.
While defense lawyers often must work to dispel this myth, prosecutors say the CSI Effect has made getting a conviction all the more difficult. Prosecutor Joshua Marquis told USA Today: "Defense attorneys will get up there and bang the rail and say 'Where were the DNA tests?' to take advantage of the idea that's in the juror's mind. You've got to do a lot of jury preparation to defeat that."
Across the country, prosecutors are coming up with creative ways of doing just that. In Arizona, California, and Illinois, prosecuting attorneys have begun using "negative evidence witnesses" in order to convince jurors that, contrary to what they might see on TV, it is not uncommon for crime scene investigators to come up empty-handed in the real world with regard to evidence such as DNA and fingerprints.
While the CSI Effect may force lawyers on both sides to work harder in order to prove their cases, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges alike agree that the crime scene dramas have increased juror interest in forensic evidence.
"Talking about science in the courtroom used to be like talking about geometry - a real jury turnoff," jury consultant Robert Hirschhorn told USA Today. "Now that there's this obsession with the shows, you can talk to jurors about (scientific evidence) and just see from the looks on their faces that they find it fascinating."
And as for crime labs, the CSI Effect is beginning to take its toll in the form of an increasing workload. Jurors are increasingly requesting more forensic analysis be done, and judges often honor their request, ordering crime labs to do more tests. Even without court orders for analysis, lawyers are heaping more and more work on forensic investigators in an effort to be as prepared for trial as possible.
According to Beth Carpenter of the Oregon Crime Lab, jurors now have expectations that far exceed reality, and she told CBS News that has increased the work load "quite a bit." But due to the increasing popularity of crime scene dramas, more and more undergraduates are enrolling in forensic science degree programs. Apparently, the CSI Effect has begun to spread beyond the jury room.
When creating CSI, Anthony E. Zuiker never expected the series to have such a sweeping impact on the real-world criminal justice.
"The CSI Effect is, in my opinion, the most amazing thing that has ever come out of the series," Zuiker told CBS News. "For the first time in American history, you're not allowed to fool the jury anymore."
Still think watching television doesn't make you smarter?
Tune into CSI, and think again.