Crime Scene Investigation: Understanding The CSI Effect

Programs such as Forensic files, Law and Order, CSI, CSI Miami etc may be hugely popular and thoroughly entertaining but they have created what is know in academic and professional circles as the ‘CSI effect’

According to Max Houck, director of the Forensic Science Initiative, a program that develops research and professional training for forensic scientists, “The CSI effect is basically the perception of the near-infallibility of forensic science in response to the TV show,”

The main distortion between fictional portrayals and the application of forensic science in the real world is ‘time frame’. It can take several weeks, sometimes months to get results back from the lab, however, in the fictional world of forensic science and crime scene investigation, results invariabaly come back straight away.

The CSI effect in action

It would seem that the CSI effect is most visible in the court room, particularly among jurors. Max Houck mentioned above, argues that Prosecutors fear the CSI effect among juries because they may question why everything is not subject to forensic analysis, when in fact not everything has to be. Equally, Defence attorneys are concerned about the CSI effect because jurors may perceive the science of forensics as completely objective and totally accurate, thus ignoring the possibility of human or technical error.

Writing for USA today Richard Willing outlined a number of examples that highlighted the CSI effect in action. These included:

A murder trial where jurors alerted the judge that a bloody coat introduced as evidence had not been tested for DNA. In fact, the tests were not needed because the defendant acknowledged being at the murder scene. The judge stated that TV had taught jurors about DNA tests, but not enough about when to use them.

A murder trial where jurors asked the judge if a cigarette butt found during the crime scene investigation could be tested to see if it could be linked to the defendant. The defence team had ordered the tests but had not introduced them into evidence. Upon doing so, the tests exonerated the defendant, and he was acquitted.

The fact that prosecutors are now being allowed to question potential jurors about their TV-watching habits.

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