‘CSI effect’ puts burden on real crime labs

The popular TV show is leading jurors to question evidence.
Friday, April 27, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:52 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Criminal attorneys across the state and the nation are clamoring about a new courtroom phenomenon known as the “CSI effect,” the impact of forensic science shows such as Court TV’s “Forensic Files” and CBS’s “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” on real jurors around the country.

Prosecutors say that these shows inflate juries’ expectations regarding the amount and quality of evidence that prosecutors must present in the courtroom.

“I see the ‘effect’ quite often,” said Dan Knight, Boone County prosecuting attorney. “But the law does not require that DNA or any other trace evidence is provided in order to convict someone.”

Knight said that the labs used by county and state authorities are comparable to those in the bigger metropolitan areas in the show like New York and Miami but, unlike “CSI,” “there is no way that the lab is going to have the resources to examine every square centimeter of a garment for evidence.”

It used to be that prosecutors had to spend time explaining to jurors the intricacies of DNA evidence because it was such a new technology. Now prosecuting attorneys like Knight are sometimes calling expert witnesses to explain why finding no DNA evidence at a crime scene isn’t unusual.

Jurors are just one group of a larger audience affected by crime shows. Schools around the country have begun adding new criminal and forensic science courses, and police departments are seeing an increase in applicants for lab technicians.

David Berman and Jon Wellner, two researchers and actors for “CSI,” talked about the “CSI effect” during a presentation at MU’s Cornell Hall on Thursday night.

“Obviously, we know that the show is not exactly like the real world,” said Berman. “It’d be kind of a boring show if it was just someone sitting in front of a screen,” referring to the fact that crime scene lab technicians rarely spend time in the field.

The two researchers and actors compared images of real evidence labs, complete with pale florescent lighting, boxy analyzing machines, cramped spaces and even VCRs, to images of the labs and offices from the show — dimly lit examining rooms with sophisticated microscopes and flat screen monitors, all set up to bring a sexy appeal to an otherwise colorless job.

Jim Nichols, a detective for the Columbia Police Department, says that “CSI” gives a false impression to people who are interested in becoming lab technicians.

“If you can get a crime scene job at a police department out of school, you’re going to be a wearing a jumpsuit and a driving a panel van,” Nichols said.

Berman and Wellner said that most of the criticism the show receives is from police and, although it is does not accurately represent a technician’s responsibilities, it has stimulated interest in an important and sometimes neglected field.

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