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The CSI Effect Phenomenon – Criminology Essay

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Updated: Apr 29th, 2020


The increase in popularity of crime investigation series such as Without a Trace, Bones, and Crime Scene Investigation has created a perception now referred to as the ‘CSI effect’. This is the response of the public who have been exposed to forensic science evidence from a fictional point of view. As a result, most people expect to see a manifestation of what they watch on television in court. What the public fails to realize is that there is a huge gap between the real and fictionalized forensic evidence.

It is important to note that the technology and procedures behind scientific proof had taken many years of research before actually being tried and adopted. These processes are too complex to be learned and mastered after watching only one episode of crime shows. One of the institutions that have been tremendously affected by the ‘CSI effect’ is the jury.

The jury is one of the most respected institutions in America. The American society considers the jury a symbol of justice and impartiality. However, the jury has been blamed for predisposition. The juror holds preconceived views and expectations even before a trial begins. These ideas affect legal proceedings and ruling.

According to Cole and Villa, the jury is confused about the real potential of forensic proof (1337). Amongst other types of evidence, the panel of judges looks forward to see DNA samples, expert testimony and fingerprints. The fact that this evidence can be contaminated is taken lightly. Currently, trials without a high standard of proof are acquitted while the same trials would have led to convictions a few years ago. Based on these facts, it is clear that the credibility and competence of the jury is threatened by the ‘CSI effect’.

This realization poses a risk to the judicial system and questions the jury selection process. If crime related shows negatively determine the decision of the jury, then the jury’s selection system must be altered. This paper addresses the correlation between crime related shows and the judicial system to determine how popular customs and jury selection can create a possible skewed jury. It further addresses the need to change the jury selection structure.

Common misconceptions in crime related shows

One of the greatest challenges about crime related shows is the fact they generate and promote a lot of scientific evidence myths and misconceptions. Consequently, the misconceptions created spread through prosecutors, lawyers, members of the jury, and judges alike. The only people who are spared from these misconceptions are those who can discern the boundaries of each form of evidence. There are four primary misconception discussed by Durnal in his article, Crime Scene Investigation (As Seen on TV).

The first area is the capability of various analytical procedures. Crime shows are created to develop a fallacy where all you need to do is click a button on a computer or machine to obtain the results (Durnal 4). However, this is not true. Most procedures require the sample be carefully prepared before it can be tested or scanned. In most shows, the police department usually has a database that contains all the information. While it is true that such database exist, it has limited functions.

The second delusion is in the division of duties and responsibilities (Durnal 5). CSI creates a scenario where investigators and scientists are available all the time. Each person has a special duty and no cases of overlap or backlog arise at a particular time. With regard to evidence, crime shows communicate that there is abundance of evidence left behind after a crime. If this was the case then investigators would have such an easy task. However, criminals tend to leave no evidence that will point towards them.

The final misconception was about timing. In CSI, all the investigator has to do is buy football tickets for the lab specialist and he gets his evidence tested in ten minutes. No wonder a respondent in a survey had this to say about the jury, “They believed DNA was a test that only took a few minutes to do; they had seen it used “all the time” on CSI” (Robbers 91).

The correlation between the need for forensic evidence in court and the increase in crime related programs

In order to determine the extent to which crime related shows has influenced jurors’ expectations, it is imperative to establish the relationship between the need for forensic evidence in court and the increase in crime related shows. Research done by Baskin and Sommers in their article, Crime Show Viewing Habits and Public Attitudes towards Forensic Evidence: The “CSI Effect” Revisited, highlight this correlation.

The authors claim that pretrial feelings do not influence the rate of acquittal or conviction based on the availability of scientific proof but, instead, crime show viewing has a direct impact on jurors’ decisions (Baskin and Sommers 101).

In a survey where the main aim was to determine whether the public consider forensic evidence more reliable than other types of evidence after watching crime show, and whether crime dramas or other factors have an effect on these views. The authors concluded that forensic evidence has indeed become popular over the years.

Results from the survey carried out revealed that the public believed that evidence and testimonies had different degrees of credibility and reliability. Scientific evidence was highly regarded compared to other forms of evidence such as eyewitness testimony. DNA was the most popular type of scientific evidence. This was followed by fingerprints, medical expert and police testimony in that order. Majority of the response indicated that the testimony of the injured party and eyewitness would not bear any weight during a trial.

According to the survey, more than half the people did not think the presence of DNA highly significant in a rape case. Even without this type of evidence the prosecution still held a strong case. However, a good number of people would condemn offenders in a rape case without forensic evidence as compared to defendants in a murder case.

A Bivariate examination of the survey revealed that the degree of influence depends on several factors. This means that several issues determine the hold of CSI effect on a person’s life. These issues include nationality, sex, unfair treatment, race, level of education and crime related shows. For example, a high significant number of white people would trust the testimony of a police officer and fingerprints as opposed to other forms of proof.

On the other hand, white residents are less likely to convict an offender in a murder case if forensic proof is absent. Normally, white people find it so easy to believe in justice and the hand of the law rather than forensic science. This however, does not hold true for women and scholars. Majority of the women and highly learned respondents did not have confidence in the evidence provided by eyewitness (Baskin and Sommers 105).

Respondents who had been victims of crime disregarded the testimony of medical specialist compared to respondents with no account of victimization. The most reliable evidence for people with high levels of education was forensic evidence, fingerprints and the authentication of police officers. Majority of the respondents who had served in the justice department thought the evidence of police was more dependable compared to medical specialist evidence.

In addition, the study showed that the number of hours spent watching crime related shows greatly determined the predisposition toward scientific evidence (Baskin and Sommers 110).

The findings of the survey confirm that the most reliable form of proof is scientific evidence. Moreover, it authenticates that the number of hours spent watching crime dramas has a significant influence on the preference of evidence by members of the jury. Basically, crime related programs directly influence the views and the opinion of the public and the jury concerning forensic proof (Baskin and Sommers 110).

The ‘CSI effect’ effects

Cole and Villa in their article, Investigating the ‘CSI effect’ Effect: Media and litigation crisis in criminal law argue that criminal investigation dramas are disadvantaging legal proceedings and ruling. The ‘CSI effect’ has different effects on the members of the jury, the prosecutors, defense attorneys, television producers and the public (1343). All these people react differently to the effects of CSI.

To support this claim, Hughes and his colleagues allege that civilians attempt to correct the actions of law enforcement agents in their article The Perceived Impact of Crime Scene Investigation Shows on the Administration of Justice (261). The main objective for each party is to meet the expectations of the jury. These effects culminate into what the authors refer to as the “CSI effect effect”. In the end, the verdicts issued in courts mostly expose the effects of CSI on the criminal justice system.

The authors allege that the CSI effects trigger other effects: “the strong prosecutor’s effect”, “the weak prosecutor effect”, “the defense effect’’, and “the police chief effect (Cole and Villa 1344).

The Strong Prosecutor’s Effect

“The strong prosecutor’s effect” gives the jury an upper hand as opposed to the prosecutor during a trial. Essentially, this means that the jury expects more from the prosecution in terms of forensic evidence. Furthermore, the jury requires the scientific evidence presented to be more persuasive. In the event that the expected evidence is absent or insufficient, the cases are usually acquitted. In order to find out the effect of CSI on the jury, a study was carried out.

The survey focused on citizens who had been awarded jury duty in Michigan. The respondents were questioned on crime shows viewing habits and presented with a variety of crime related cases. They were further questioned about the types of evidence they expected in a hypothetical trial (Cole and Villa 1350). The results reveal that respondents who spent more time watching crime related programs expected a high standard of proof compared to individuals who did not watch crime related shows.

The Weak Prosecutor Effect and the Defense Effect

The second effect is “the weak prosecutor effect”. Cole and Villa allege that this effect changes the prosecutor, not the actions of the members of the jury. This influence has forced prosecutors to change their strategy because they have knowledge that the jury expects forensic evidence. As a result, the prosecution tries to show that the evidence provided by the defense attorney is not sufficient (Cole and Villa1344). The third effect is triggered by the defense attorneys in an attempt to make the ‘CSI effect work to their advantage.

It is known as “the defense effect’’. Attorneys strategize to augment the credibility of forensic evidence and expert testimony (Cole and Villa 1345). Baskin and Somers support this effect by claiming that, “The impact of the presumed CSI effect has reverberated throughout various sectors of society, with attorneys reporting changes in trial strategies so as to counteract it” (100).

The Police Chief Effect and More Physical Evidence

The fourth effect dubbed “the police chief effect” describes the countermeasures used by criminals to distort or contaminate evidence (Cole and Villa1344). To hide their crimes, criminals wear gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints on the crime scene. In addition, law enforcement agents have been affected by all these effects.

Durnal in the article “Crime Scene Investigation (As Seen on TV) supports this effect by arguing that outside the court of law, the police department experience unwarranted expectations from the public, jurors, defense attorneys, and the prosecution. He says, “The police, alongside actual crime scene investigators and evidence technicians, are now finding themselves gathering more pieces of physical evidence than they ever dreamed necessary” (Durnal 4).

The problem of gathering so much evidence is that the police have no space to store it. In addition, it is difficult to keep track of the number of evidence that comes in. This is one of the important truths that producers fail to show in the crime related programs. The fact that the evidence is not easy to manage means that it can easily be lost, destroyed, altered, or contaminated.

CSI Effect Effect

To curb the effect of CSI, the media has tried to educate the public on the CSI effect. However, the actions of the media have triggered another effect known as the “CSI effect effect” (Cole and Villa 1371). It points out the attempt of the jury to correct their predisposed notions. This corrective mechanism is biased because the juror pities the prosecution and takes side without giving thought to the evidence presented by the defense attorney. Consequently, the juror sides with the prosecution during trial.

These effects reflect the “CSI effect” as a strategic game played by the jury, prosecutors, attorneys and the police in a court of law (Cole and Villa 1371). Bearing the burden of equity, are judges who have the mandate of ensuring that justice is fair. Judges in America are frustrated by the predisposed notions influenced by the effects of CSI.

Apart from doing their job, they have to take time and ensure that the members of the jury understand the limits of scientific proof. However, research shows that the efforts of the judges have been futile in the past (Durnal 9). It is important for law makers to realize that the ‘CSI effect presents a deep-seated legal and social problem that need to be addressed.

The role of the media and “Junk science”

Mann in his editorial The CSI Effect: Better Jurors Throughout Television and Science claims that the media is to blame for the biased expectations of jurors that threaten the credibility of the justice system. Hughes supports this claim when he says, “One potential source of cognitive expectations is television” (260). As the viewing habits of jurors increase, the jurors are exposed to crime and criminal proceedings in a negative way. They hold the notion that fingerprints can be obtained in less than ten minutes.

On the other hand, the jury expects evidence of DNA in every crime scene. Mann goes ahead to explain that these shows are not realistic; particularly considering the time it takes to collect the evidence and the availability of evidence in the crime scene.

They last for a maximum of 45 minutes and by that time, crimes have already been solved and the criminal convicted. Additionally, Mann conveys the challenges faced by the prosecution and jury in court to meet the new standards set by crime related shows. The prosecution is under pressure to present evidence that meet legal and “Hollywood” ideologies (Mann 216).

Another analogous view on this issue is that of Robbers in her article blinded by science: the social construction of reality in forensic television shows and its effect on criminal jury trials. The author alleges that a greater part of the guidelines dealing with crimes are misrepresented or distorted depending on what television producers present. She relays the fact that the media has influenced both the public and the jury in a similar way.

For instance, Robbers claims that “not only does it appear juries expect the same level of evidence in a court room as they see on television shows (regardless of agency’s resources), but they also expect evidence to be produced extremely quickly” (84-85). Following these claims, the media is depicted as the force behind the negative changes experienced in court. This therefore explains why the CSI effect is a threat to the criminal justice system.

In order to illustrate the role played by the media in promoting the ‘CSI effect’, Mann looks back at the history of court proceedings (217). He asserts that in the past, criminals were acquitted by bribing or threatening inexperienced prosecutors. Because this trend was threatening the purpose of justice, the government introduced forensic science in an attempt to reform the justice system. Nevertheless, the jury did not readily accept this type of evidence.

Therefore, the government made several efforts to convince the public about the significance of scientific proof by using the media. Even though these efforts were successful, they cannot be compared to the effect of crime related shows on jurors’ decision. Mann emphasizes that “ The finite time allowed to a single episode of a television show, coupled with the public’s demand that scientific answers come quickly and mysteries be solved neatly, result in a portrayal of forensic science that could not be more contrary to real life” (220)

The author does not dispute the importance of the body of knowledge revealed to the public from crime shows. But, there is a difference between promoting knowledge and threatening an institution which takes pride in applying scientific knowledge. The present day members of the jury fail to remember that what they see on television is only entertainment. In fact, some television producers make money by recreating popular story lines from events that capture the attention of the public.

For example, in the case of the Oklahoma bomber Terry Nichols, a potential juror initially informed the court that the accused was guilty because another accused Timothy McVeigh, had previously been convicted for a similar later (Mann 222). Later, the court learned that the opinion of the juror did not originate from the case of McVeigh, but on views aired in a popular crime related drama (Mann 222).

In another incidence, a mother who drowned her five children was acquitted because of the testimony of an expert. The witness argued that a similar story had once been aired in the popular drama Law & Order (Mann 223). In that episode the accused was released on a plea of insanity. In the same way, the psychiatrist who argued in favor of the accused testified that the mother was insane.

This incidence demonstrates how confusing it is to distinguish between fiction and reality even for individuals who are highly learned. To promote his allegations, Mann asks “if an expert is confused as to what reality is and what fiction is, how we can blame a juror from being confused” (223).

According to the author, CSI effect activates one more issue dubbed “junk science” (Mann 231). It means that even the most reliable scientific proof can sometimes be flawed. This can be illustrated in case of Martha Stewart. The prosecution presented the evidence of an expert who lied to the court. In another public case, the public did not understand why they had to wait for DNA results for two months while it only took hours in Crime Investigation Scene.

In addition, the fact that forensic scientists work with different employers also questions their creditability. For each case, the scientist can work for either the prosecutor or the defense. Depending on the client, scientists will take up the objective of the client as their own (Mann 232). This means that scientists can change or contaminate evidence in their favor. It is sad to think the very evidence the jury believes in to make their decision in court can be modified to favor one party.

What the Juror Expects

According to Trask in her editorialThe “CSI Effect”: Popular Culture’s Effect on Civil Juries,” the effect of CSI” is a phenomenon where crime related dramas endorse idealistic hopes about forensic science amongst jurors (1). Therefore, Jurors regard forensic science as a determinant of whether an accused is innocent or guilty. Similarly, jurors have changed their expectations about the burden of proof. Instead of looking at evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt”, the jury totally depends on forensic evidence (Trask 1).

During some trials, jurors would go as far as asking why forms of evidence were not presented (Hughes and Magers 263). The prosecution is tasked with testing DNA sample, obtaining fingerprints or hair strands; for fear that the jury will acquit the case for lack of CSI evidence. Consequently, the prosecution or defense attorney can even lie in court to make their evidence look credible.

For this reason, some legal scholars are worried that the “CSI effects” will revolutionize the justice system if the government is not careful. According to Trask, one of the fundamental principles in law “deductive reason” is gradually being substituted by a call for absolute “forensic substantiation” (Trask 2). Trask alleges that jurors have less consideration for credible evidence but, instead, they expect lawyers and the prosecution to submit evidence similar to that seen on television.

To support her allegations, she provides statistics of the number of people who watch the CSI franchise series in a week. Her statistics show that crime related dramas as ranked among the top ten shows with more than 45 million viewers in a week (Trask 2).

To further support her claim, the author points out that the juror fails to consider that forensic evidence can be contaminated or compromised by human beings (Trask 2). In addition, prosecutors have claimed that the juror acquitted cases that lacked scientific evidence even though forensic evidence was immaterial or unavailable.

The other expectation of the jury is the presentation of the evidence in court. Members of the jury can be influenced by the arguments of lawyers and their ability to support the evidence presented. This finding is consistent with the study done by Robbers in her article blinded by science: the social construction of reality in forensic television shows and its effect on criminal jury trials. The author claims that after watching the way in which evidence is presented on television.

The jury expects the defense and the prosecution to present evidence in a similar way. In a survey carried out, she points out that the prosecution felt the need to go through the scientific evidence following the testimony of an expert (Robbers 95). On the other hand, the defense attorneys spend unnecessary time convincing the jury about the credibility of the forensic evidence presented. Robbers reports that more than two thirds of the respondents noticed these changes as the popularity of crime related programs rises (95).

To illustrate the expectation of the jury, Trask says “They are used to seeing such farfetched technology as: pouring caulk into knife wounds to make a cast of the weapons. They expect machines that can identify cologne from scents on clothing” (Trask 2). This statement advocates that jurors have their minds made up about what a trial should look like. They expect lie detectors, professional testimonies, fingerprints illuminators, and microscopes amongst other devices.

For example, In Robert Blake trial, one of the members of jury defended the accused because the prosecution was unable to provide sufficient physical evidence. The jurors claimed the evidence provided was “insubstantial” because the prosecution could not prove that gun residue was found in Blake’s body or clothes.

Instead of carefully considering the reality and credibility, prosecutors, defense attorneys, investigators, and law enforcement officers struggle to gather evidence to satisfy the expectations of the jury. What the jury fails to do is take time and ponder over the motives of the crime.

Although Trask agrees that there is little empirical fact to support the influence of CSI on the Juror, she understands that subjective and qualitative data makes it difficult to disregard the effect (4). To prove this point, she relates the effect of CSI to other topics such as pre-trial publicity and media campaigns. Trask likens the “CSI effect” to pre-trial publicity. Jurors are more likely to believe the report presented by the media even if the evidence is inadequate.

An accused in a case highlighted by positive publicity is likely to get acquitted as compared to a similar individual exposed negatively by the media. Mancini notes that the jury does not take time to examine evidence presented by the media before they make a decision (157). In the same light, if a producer of a crime show implies during one of the episodes that one type of evidence is more plausible than the rest, the jury will assume the evidence is reasonable in a real court.

Robbers supports Trask that the members of the jury have developed a high expectation on the type of evidence and the time taken to gather the evidence. To endorse her allegations, she illustrates what the reactions of the jury to scientific evidence. She divides the observations of a survey conducted into themes. The first theme shows statistics of precise instances where the jury favored forensic evidence instead of eye witness testimony (Robbers 91).

Another specific instance is whereby the jurors dismissed the police because they think officers are incompetent if they fail to present DNA tests as part of their substantiation. Despite the fact than no DNA testing is required; the jury expects nothing less from the crime scene investigators. For example, in a case where the defendant knew the person who slit his throat in an attempt to kill him, the jury still insisted that the blood of the victim found on the crime scene be tested.

Similarly, Robbers observed that the jury demands forensic evidence despite its irrelevance in the case. If evidence is unavailable, the police are blamed for a “sloppy job” (Robbers 91).The last specific instance is where the jurors are not able to tell opinions from facts.

The second theme describes the changes in the way attorneys, judges, prosecutors, and members of the jury carry out their work. Majority of the respondents representing 86 percent of the people interviewed, felt like the effect of CSI had changed their duties (Robbers 94). They are now forced to spend more time talking about scientific evidence. Judges spent more time ensuring that the jury comprehends the role of forensic evidence.

The attorney and prosecutors spent more time differentiating CSI evidence and the real evidence while the jury tried to understand the difference. As a result, trials take more time and money. The third theme narrates other effect of CSI. The most common effect is the impractical expectations of jurors. This includes the belief that the police department has all the resources required for scientific testing and all the time to gather the evidence.

Civil Cases

Trask discloses that the effect of CSI manifests differently in civil cases as compared to criminal cases. On the other hand, she notes that the expectation of the jury does not waver. The jury has failed to distinguish the difference between civil and criminal cases. The panel of judges forgets that they are dealing with a technical lawsuit and still expect to see hard evidence. For example, in a civil case highlighted by Trask in her article, a plaintiff filed a case against her employer (5).

The plaintiff accused the owner of a food chain of being raped because of poor security at her place of work. During the proceeding, the jury agreed that the owner of the restaurant was negligent on his part. However, the jury doubted that the girl was raped because there was no DNA to confirm her plea.

Lawyers have been blinded during proceeding due to the expectation of the jury. Instead of proving a case for or against the client, they waste time looking for evidence that may be immaterial or absent. Mancini claims these heightened expectations have led to acquittance of many criminals and the questioning of the defense lawyers’ capacities (163).

Changing the jury selection system

Based on these findings, it is clear that the effect of CSI is moving among the multitude like bush fire. This phenomenon has affected the criminal justice system both positively and negatively. This study has mainly highlighted the negative impact which is high standard of expectation of the jury. It is also clear that some of the jurors’ expectations are not reasonable.

These high expectations do not lead to the improvement of the system but threaten it in a way that it might eventually collapse if action is not taken. To make matters worse, “CSI effects” further trigger other effects that threat the credibility of the entire justice system. Essentially, these expectations have created a skewed jury whose central objective is to “prove beyond a reasonable doubt”. For this reason, the jury selection process needs to be altered.

Education is the first key in implementing change in the jury’s selection system. If the Jury is aware of the “CSI effects” to watch out for, then it will be easy to mitigate issues arising. Education involves briefing the jury prior to a trial about the principles and procedures approved by the constitution and the rule of law. For example, for civil cases, it is important to let the jury know that forensic evidence might not be relevant or available.

It is better for the members of jury to understand why a certain type of evidence is not available than to create their own assumptions. In view of the fact that CSI has led jurors’ belief in ‘beyond a doubt’ instead of ‘reasonable doubt, it is essential for jurors to understand what the law considers reasonable. Other important terms like motives, opinion and facts should be highlighted to avoid confusion. Practitioners in the justice department should take time and discuss their complaints.

Correspondingly, such discussion will enable the different parties to understand the different aspects of the effects. Understanding these ideas will help the jury distinguish between the real evidence and tailored evidence for entertainment purposes. In addition, it may be essential that lawyers and judges take into consideration, from the beginning, that prospective members of jury may hold predisposed ideas that were formed through viewing in crime related shows and these ideas may contribute to their decision making.

Currently, the common trend adopted by criminal justice professionals is to excuse practitioners who work in the organization from jury selection because they have information about the system. However, the effect of CSI might force this trend to change. Selecting professionals who have knowledge may be beneficial to the system in the long run. This is because these professions have knowledge that there are other forms of reliable evidence apart from forensic proof.

More importantly, jurors should go through a series of interviews before they are selected. In the Bivariate analysis results shown earlier in the study, there are other factors that affect jurors’ predisposition such as race, age, sex, nationality, and level of education. These factors can be taken in to consideration during interviews.

For example, the selection panel can ask a potential juror about his or her profession, his or her age, what he or she does during his or her free time and his or her thoughts about the justice system, amongst other details. Another useful strategy to select jurors who are not clouded by the “CSI effect” is to use questionnaires. Instead of judging from the appearance, it is best to ask questions before selecting the jury. Implementing these strategies will ensure that the jury rises above the effects of CSI.

Works Cited

Baskin, Deborah R and Ira Sommers B. “Crime-Show-Viewing Habits and Public Attitudes Toward Forensic Evidence: The CSI-Effect Revisited.” The Justice System Journal 31.1 (2010): 97-113. Print.

Cole, Simon A and Rachel Dioso-Villa. “Investigating the CSI Effect: Media and Litigation Crisis in Criminal Law.” Stanford Law Review 61.6 (2009): 1335-1373. Print.

Durnal, Evan W. “Crime Scene Investigation (As Seen on TV).” Forensic Science International 199.1-3 (2010): 1-5. Web.

Hughes, Thomas and Megan Magers. “The perceived impact of crime investigation shows on the administration of justice.” Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture 14.3 (2007): 259-276. Print.

Mancini, Dante E. “The CSI Effect Reconsidered: Is It Moderated by Need for Cognition?” North American Journal of Psychology 13.1 (2011): 155-174. Print.

Mann, Michael. “The CSI Effect: Better Jurors Throughout Television and Science?” Buffalo Public Interest Law Journal 24 (2005-2006): 211-237. Print.

Robbers, Monica LP. “.” Criminal Justice Policy Review 19:84 (2008): 84-103. Web.

Trask, Tara. “The “CSI Effect”: Popular Culture’s Effect on Civil Juries.” ABA Section of Litigation Annual Conference, 2007. Print.

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