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Thursday, April 21, 2005

The "CSI Effect"

US News & World Report has a very interesting story this week (no, not on the law school rankings) about the impact of TV shows like CSI and Law & Order on jury verdicts in criminal cases.  As a former prosecutor I found it to be right on the money.  Juries increasingly expect forensic evidence in cases, and prosecutors are having to spend more time in their case in chief explaining, for example, that in reality people almost never leave a fingerprint on a gun and that shooting and killing someone from across the street will not leave any DNA to be analyzed.  The article also makes some good points about the problems associated with different forensic tests in general and with crime labs in particular.  It's worth a look.

Update: Dan notes also this interesting paper by Tom Miles (rising prawf at Chicago) in JLE about the effect of America's Most Wanted on apprehension rates for fugitives.

Posted by Jennifer Collins on April 21, 2005 at 06:43 PM in Criminal Law | Permalink

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» How Does TV Impact Criminal Trial Practice?: from The Volokh Conspiracy
Lawprof and former prosecutor Jennifer Collins, guestblogging at Prawfsblawg, links to an [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 22, 2005 1:02:29 AM

» "The CSI Effect" from Overlawyered
A disappointed jury can be a dangerous thing. Just ask Jodi Hoos. Prosecuting a gang member in Peoria, Ill., for raping a teenager in a local park last year, Hoos told the jury, "You've all... [Read More]

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I've also recently written a paper on how TV and movie depictions of rape have made rape prosecutions even harder. Specifically, I argue that juries have become numb to the run-of-the-mill rape cases because they have been bombarded with sensationalized rape narratives and imagery through fictional and non-fictional media. The article will appear in next year's Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, but a draft is on SSRN at: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=701267.


Posted by: Corey Rayburn | Apr 22, 2005 8:24:20 AM

The CSI effect is something I'd read through a little while ago in some niche media outlet. While it does serve a negative effect in the respect described creating some unreasonable expectations of overworked & underfunded crime labs around the nation, it also has deflated some of the reliance on eyewitness testimony which can be unreliable.
The CSI shows are process shows telling a story, but a great swath of the americna populace does not separate fiction (storytelling) from reality when the show is not fantastical. In a similar fashion, LA Law may be one of the reasons we saw a rise in Law School applications back in the day from the perception that the show was a semi-accurate description of life in a firm. It goes back to the questions of life & art imitation and which came first. In this situation, it appears that life is being challenged by the art.

Posted by: Joel | Apr 22, 2005 9:30:11 AM

An interesting article, and I have seen prosecutors voir dire jurors on this CSI effect more often of late. Most jurors seem to get it, though, as far as I can tell—and the jury selection process allows prosecutors to kick those jurors they suspect do not. So, I sense that the “CSI effect” on jury fact-finding is no greater than the many other inaccurate outside influences jurors bring with them. The lawyers are there to deal with it. It is important to recall, as the article itself notes, that sometimes juries are perfectly reasonable to question the lack of forensic evidence, or to discount seemingly spectacular scientific evidence that in fact may have marginal value or credibility. And, the 25-word, one-sided illustrations of unreasonable jury verdicts should be viewed cautiously. You need to hear all of the evidence as well as both summations to understand a case fully and accurately. While the prosecutor in this article sincerely may have found that jury’s verdict “ridiculous”—a jury verdict second-guessing we tend to discount pretty quickly when it comes from the defense—the verdict simply may have reflected the jury’s assessment that the complainant wasn’t credible. Or maybe that the DNA evidence wasn’t so clean cut after all. Or any number of other reasons squarely within the jury’s province. The point is that you can’t reliably evaluate this kind of blurb as proof of the broader point without having sat in the jury box, or at least the courtroom.

To the extent that a “CSI effect” does permeate jury decision-making, these shows may not only make life harder for prosecutors. In addition to the “CSI” effect, we have the “Law & Order” effect—those ubiquitous crime shows that portray the hard work and drama of investigating and prosecuting crime. These shows are quite prosecution-friendly, if for any reason because they deeply personalize the work and lives of the investigators and prosecutors who are the main characters. Defense lawyers, to the extent they are shown at all, seem not even to have names—just “counselor.” Or, “that *!&*#! Legal Aid” on NYPD Blue. If jurors are absorbing the CSI tech stuff, they must be absorbing this stuff too, no?

Posted by: Brooks | Apr 22, 2005 2:23:32 PM

Back in the 1980's, a relative who served on a jury recounted how a juror refused to convict where the police had failed to test a crack vial for fingerprints.

Back in the 1990's, it seemed fashionable for a while for prosecutors to blame jury acquittals on the "O.J. Simpson case", although I'm not sure I ever understood the logic.

Now, its a "CSI Effect", probably manifested by such things as... jurors who hang juries because the police didn't test crack vials for fingerprints.

What would be more interesting than the latest pop-prosecution-psychology explanation for why juries sometimes acquit would be some form of objective measure. Are acquittals in fact becoming more common?

Posted by: Aaron | Apr 22, 2005 5:01:05 PM

Building on what Brooks says, I had previously heard the term ``CSI Effect" used in a pro-prosecution way. The claim is that jurors have come to expect that the prosecution used state-of-the-art ``slam-dunk" forensic evidence to find the defendant, only to have that evidence thrown own on technicalities by sneaky defense attorneys.

It is not at all clear which way the CSI Effect ultimately tips the scales, pro-prosecution or pro-defense. Perhaps more important, do we have any way to either guage or mitigate it?

--Gus

Posted by: Gus | Apr 22, 2005 5:08:07 PM

Guagin it would require peeking into the black box that is the jury. Furthermore, we then have to cull the self-report data from jurors with the psychological implications of their actions. This is an interesting theory, but not one that can be empirically tested.

Posted by: Joel | Apr 22, 2005 5:19:01 PM

Just another example of what happens when academia is filled with those without real world experience. The reality of "life in the trenches" is that most cases are eyewitness cases (such as cops observing a drug sale, a victim seeing a burglar, etc).

When a defense attorney starts pulling the CSI defense the simple response from the prosecutor is, why do you think we don't CSI evidence? Do you really want to waste your taxpayer dollar? Is the defense that desperate? The defense wants you to check your common-sense at the door. etc.

- k

Posted by: karl | Apr 25, 2005 9:26:49 PM

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