Every year, popular media becomes increasingly prevalent in the world. Through avenues such as cable, satellite television and the internet, people all over the world are accessing different shows and movies that affect the way that they perceive reality in different ways. Scientists have been documenting the effects of popular media on people for years now and they have been able to uncover various issues such as the mean world syndrome. Criminologists, lawyers and law enforcement figures have raised a similar issue with regard to the crime genre in television shows and movies. The events surrounding criminal investigations and court hearings have always formed a significant genre in the entertainment industry.
Since the onset of the 21st century, the focus of these shows has shifted to a very specific arena, the use of science and technology to solve crimes. Through shows like the immensely popular CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Bones and Numb3rs entertainers have created a new type of show within the crime genre that focuses on the methods that law enforcement officers use to collect and document evidence that they then use to construct their cases. Because of the impact of such shows, different experts are claiming that such programs are making jurors’ expectations to surpass the reality of the field, a phenomenon that they call the CSI effect. While the CSI effect does result in jurors that are have higher expectations, the general impact on criminal proceedings is negligible, especially with regard to convictions.
Description of the Problem
Background of CSI Effect
Over the years, the entertainment industry has generated different kinds of shows within the crime genre. One kind used the courtroom as a vehicle for drama. Such television shows depicted real cases, with some even offering live coverage of such cases for information and entertainment purposes (Shelton, 2008). Such programs fell within the realm of reality television. Other shows within the crime genre were similar to the courtroom dramas in that they portrayed real cases. However, the editing and narration in these programs enhanced the dramatic effect such that they began to blur the lines separating fiction and reality (Shelton, 2008). Programs such as American Justice and Dateline NBC applied these techniques to great effect as they attracted millions of viewers from America. The last category of shows in the crime genre is the “reality-based” drama. These shows combine facts and issues from actual cases with the drama and exaggeration of the entertainment world to create compelling views for the audience. Bones, Numb3rs and CSI all fall under this category as they use the issues surrounding forensic science to weave stories that attract as many as thirty million viewers per episode (Shelton, 2008).
Players in the criminal justice system started raising issues about the CSI effect in the early 2000s. After various shows in the crime genre had become popular within the American audience, judges and lawyers started claiming that it was becoming increasingly difficult for jurors to find the accused guilty because of the expectations of the former. After players in the criminal justice system had made the claims, journalists coined the term “CSI effect” to describe the phenomenon. Heinrick (2006) defines the CSI effect as a situation where jurors are influenced by television shows to the extent that they are unlikely to convict a defendant because the investigation did not involve procedures similar to those in the crime programs. Because of the way the television shows portray criminal investigations, the jurors develop impractical expectations of the procedures in forensic science. An additional effect related to the shows in the crime genre is that of enlightening criminals on how cases against them are developed. Some experts claim that the prevalence of programs such as CSI and Bones has coincided with increasing attempts by criminals to cover their tracks by clearing DNA evidence and wearing gloves as they commit crimes (The “CSI Effect”, 2010).
Dynamics Surrounding the CSI Effect
Though the CSI effect has not been fully documented, scholars have carried out studies showing the way that television affects the reactions of jurors. One study that looks at the CSI effect was carried out in the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office (MCAO), where researchers asked prosecutors about their experiences with jurors. One hundred and two prosecutors participated in the study as the research team asked them questions about dealing with jurors who exhibited signs of the CSI effect (Heinrick, 2006). According to the results, the vast majority of participants pointed out that the CSI effect was a significant problem in Maricopa County, negatively affecting the results of criminal cases. With the MCAO being one of the largest prosecutorial bodies in the United States, scholars argue that there is a high likelihood that the CSI effect has taken root in larger areas such as Chicago, New York and Los Angeles (Heinrick, 2006).
Schweitzer and Saks (2007) also carried out a study looking into the different ways that procedural crime dramas affect the perceptions, knowledge and expectations of jurors. To find out whether the CSI effect is real, the scholars conducted a study using forty-eight university students that were eligible for jury duty. The students were presented with a scenario detailing a murder investigation in which the principle piece of evidence was a hair claimed to belong to the perpetrator. After going through the scenario, the students then filled in a questionnaire that asked for their reactions to the case and sought to discover details such as the frequency with which they watch crime dramas.
Using this study, Schweitzer and Saks (2007) revealed several issues concerning jurors and television shows. Firstly, viewers of forensic science television shows believed that they had a better understanding of the processes involved in processing a crime scene and evidence. The same people were also more critical of the evidence presented in the scenario than those who were not regular views of crime dramas. Additionally, the viewers of crime dramas were less likely to believe that the evidence presented in the scenario was conclusive (the researchers explained that one of the statements made by the hypothetical defendant in the scenario was misleading and assumptive, thus making the evidence dubious) (Schweitzer & Saks, 2007).
Following their results, the researchers concluded that television shows in the crime genre are capable of influencing jurors. One of the main conclusions that Schweitzer and Saks (2007) arrived at, is that the procedural crime dramas make have higher expectations for the science-based evidence that the prosecution presents in courts. With these findings, Schweitzer and Saks (2007) also concluded that the CSI effect does exist but only within the viewers of crime dramas that focus on procedural matters of forensic science.
Other scholars dispute the fact that the CSI effect was a real phenomenon and that it was having an influence on criminal proceedings in the United States. Shelton (2008) argues that the arguments concerning the CSI effect lack backing based on empirical evidence as they are mostly anecdotal. Many of the scholars arguing that the effect is real used information provided by prosecutors, judges and jurors, many of whom claim to have had experiences related to the phenomenon (Shelton, 2008). Shelton’s (2008) study into the matter looked into the perceptions and attitudes of one thousand jurors in relation to procedural crime dramas such as CSI and Law & Order. His study found that the two shows were quite popular, with CSI being watched by forty-five percent of the participants as Law & Order attracted a viewership of forty-two percent from the same group (Shelton, 2008).
The findings of his research showed that viewers of crime dramas had generally higher expectations than non-viewers did. In some cases, the viewers had better knowledge of evidence relevant to a particular crime than the people who did not watch procedural crime dramas. Additionally, the researchers do concede that the viewers of such shows may have been generally better informed than their counterparts (Shelton, 2008). Even though the study found a direct correlation between crime dramas and juror understanding of evidence in criminal cases, the researchers claim that the exposure to shows in the genre did not necessarily mean that a conviction would be harder to achieve (Shelton, 2008). Specifically, the study found that increased expectations from jurors in terms of evidence did not mean that the proof would become an important prerequisite for a guilty verdict. In some cases, jurors with extensive exposure to procedural crime dramas still found the accused guilty without the prosecution having to present scientific evidence in the manner portrayed in the shows. The study particularly found that other aspects of a criminal case such as eyewitness and victim testimonies were enough for a juror to convict the accused, even without the presence of any scientific evidence (Shelton, 2008).
Influence of the CSI Effect on Criminal Proceedings
The CSI effect influences criminal proceedings in a different number of ways. The study by Schweitzer and Saks (2007) found that it has affected the criminal justice system positively by helping create better-informed jurors. The same claim was made by Shelton (2008) after studying the way crime dramas affected up to one thousand jurors. Schweitzer and Saks (2007) were unable to obtain conclusive results on the direct influence that the CSI effect had on juror verdicts. Contrastingly, Shelton (2008) found that the effect did not change the likelihood of a juror settling on any particular verdict.
The findings of the studies detailed in this paper mean that the arguments revolving the CSI effect are again reduced to anecdotes and experiences that lawyers and judges have gone through. One incident popularly highlighted with regards to the CSI effect is the Robbie Blake murder trial. In the case, the prosecution claimed to have had a strong case after they found the accused to have a weak alibi. Additionally, past events raised doubts about Robert Blake’s murder after a witness at the trial testified that the defendant had tried to hire somebody to kill his wife and even discussed the issue openly (Heinrick, 2006). With this seemingly circumstantial case, the prosecution strongly believed that it would secure a conviction. However, after failing to see physical evidence such as gunshot residue and blood on the defendant clothes, the jurors found Blake not guilty and acquitted him (Heinrick, 2006). Following this conclusion to the case, the district attorney openly criticized the jury, arguing that the CSI effect had led to the acquittal of Robert Blake. Other incidents that Heinrick (2006) highlights have seen jurors request DNA evidence for cases where it was not necessary, making some judges argue that they do not seem to understand the various occasions on which such proof is required.
Other incidents have seen the CSI effect have a positive influence in criminal proceedings. One incident in Virginia saw jurors highlight an issue that had not been observed in court proceedings. The defense had failed to raise the issue of DNA tests carried out on a cigarette butt found at the crime scene. The jurors asked the judge about it and when the evidence was observed, it successfully exonerated the defendant (The “CSI Effect”, 2010). Such incidents highlight the arguments made by Schweitzer and Saks and Shelton that though the CSI effect may not be influencing court verdicts, it is helping produce jurors who are more informed on issues concerning forensic science.
The fact that scholars are still not in agreement over the CSI effect means that the problem will persist for a while before being solved. Some scholars have already proposed certain recommendations concerning the increasing problem of wrongful convictions and acquittals in the United States. Stevens argues that the criminal justice system should be held more accountable in the event of wrongful convictions (Stevens, 2010). This should extend to the prosecutor’s or defense lawyer’s conduct in criminal proceedings, especially if the result of the case sees a person spend years behind bars. Another proposed solution for this problem is a reform of forensic laboratories to make sure that they are using the latest technology (Stevens, 2010). This could be achieved through radical action such as privatization but doing so would also increase the chances of the laboratories becoming highly competitive effectively locking out some defendants and leading to different forms of unethical behavior (Stevens, 2010). Lastly, some scholars have proposed that prosecutors carry out extensive reviews of all felony cases before launching court proceedings. Doing so would require an increase in staff and result in longer investigations but it would reduce the likelihood of the accused being convicted wrongfully (Stevens, 2010).
The CSI effect is a divisive issue in the field of criminal justice with some scholars claiming that it has a negative influence on criminal proceedings as others claim that the impact is negligible. Different studies have revealed that the effect is real and that jurors do have higher expectations of evidence in modern courtrooms. However, the influence of the effect has been mostly positive, as jurors now understand the different technicalities behind the evidence, with some incidents even seeing jurors help exonerate defendants. Despite strong arguments about the negative influence of the CSI effect, few scholars can claim with conviction that it leads to wrongful acquittals and guilty verdicts.
Heinrick, J. (2006). Everyone’s an expert: The CSI effect’s negative impact on juries. The Triple Helix, 59-61.
Schweitzer, N.J. & Saks, M.J. (2007). The CSI effect: Popular fiction about forensic science affects public expectations about real forensic science. Jurimetrics, 47, 357-364.
Shelton, D.E. (2008, March). The ‘CSI Effect’: Does it really exist? NIJ Journal, 259, 1-7.
Stevens, D. J. (2010). Media and criminal justice: The CSI effect. Sudbury, Mass: Jones and Bartlett.
The “CSI effect”. (2010, April 22). The Economist. Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/node/15949089.
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