'CSI effect' being felt in jury rooms; jurors want to see forensic evidence or crime is not proven, they indicate
The trial was all over the news this summer. A woman named Casey Anthony had been charged with the murder of her 22- month-old daughter, Caylee. Most media reports painted the prosecution's case as strong, as there was considerable circumstantial evidence suggesting that the defendant was guilty.
Anthony had never even reported her daughter's disappearance. When relatives inquired where Caylee was, the mother made up various stories to explain her absence. After over thirty days of not seeing Caylee, and suspicious of the smell of human decay from Casey Anthony's car, the grandmother called authorities. Caylee's badly decomposed body was found months later, not far from her home.
The jury returned a verdict of not guilty that shocked many. Later, some jurors cited a lack of forensic evidence to convict. In this case, the body had been subjected to the elements and by the time it was found, no forensic evidence could be gathered, and the medical examiner was not able to establish how she died.
Many speculated that the not guilty verdict was due to the "CSI Effect."
CSI- which stands for crime scene investigation- is a popular television show about crime scene investigators who, with baggie and tweezers in hand, gather and analyze forensic evidence to solve murders.
Every week there is a scene with a scientist looking through a microscope at a piece of evidence found at a crime scene or on a dead body. The scientist looks up at his boss from the microscope and says, "we have a match!" Every week the crime is essentially solved by science. The concept is so popular, it has produced four other spin-off series, and all five CSI shows are currently among the top 25 rated shows on television.
The CSI Effect refers to the seemingly enhanced expectations jurors have for forensic evidence, and a corresponding disregard for circumstantial evidence. Supposedly, juries are influenced by what they see on these shows, and have the expectation that every crime scene will contain forensic evidence that unequivocally identifies the guilty party, and that, absent this evidence, a crime remains necessarily unproven.
The truth is, of course, that forensic science is not always available, it is not always perfect, and it is not always conclusive.
In the real world, most criminal cases get resolved without any scientific evidence. When we do have evidence that is sent to the crime lab, we do not get the results after the next commercial break. Depending on the type of evidence and the type of case, it may take weeks or even months to get the lab results (we do not have enough crime labs to keep up with the demand). Sometimes forensic evidence is compromised by contamination or by the elements, such as occurred in the Anthony case. Sometimes analysis is not performed due to time and cost.
While we do have cases with forensic evidence, these cases only make up a small percentage of the total caseload. When it exists, it often has a significant impact on the negotiations, and most of the cases I have handled that involve forensic evidence have settled.
For example, I handled a case just recently that involved DNA evidence. A burglary had been committed. The police had a suspect, but had only circumstantial evidence that the suspect had committed the offense. A few weeks after the burglary, the victim noticed a cigarette butt in his garage. The cigarette butt was sent to the lab and DNA was found that was consistent with the DNA of the suspect. The case was ultimately settled and the suspect pled guilty to the burglary.
So...is there a CSI effect? It is not clear. While it probably cannot be debated that the mass media affects our culture, I cannot find any empirical evidence of a CSI effect.
What is clear from the TV ratings is that crime drama shows are good entertainment. Millions of people tune in every week to watch investigators and scientists solve crimes. As is often the case, however, what we see on the screen is not always a "match" with what happens in the real world.
As always, remember it is your court.
Paul Rasmussen is a District Court Judge in the Ninth Judicial District. He is chambered in Clearwater County and works primarily in Clearwater and Hubbard Counties.