Tuesday, 25 March 2014

The CSI Effect

Ever heard of the 'CSI Effect'?

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
It is the term used to describe that way in which public perception has been influenced by the exaggerated portrayal of forensic science on crime television shows such as CSI:Crime Scene Investigation and CSI:Miami. The popularity of crime dramas and the use of DNA forensics on TV has generated a lot of interest in forensic science, but has also created unrealistic expectations of forensics. More than this – researchers now say it has influenced jurors. Now, that’s really serious!

The CSI effect generates the belief by laypersons that they have some knowledge or expertise in the area of forensics, because they have seen it on TV. This is worrying when it affects jurors’ expectations with regard to evidence and forensic analysis techniques.

Taken at CSI Portsmouth
The CSI Effect can also lead to disruption at crime scenes. In April last year, a forensics student in Texas witnessed a shooting and rather than waiting for the experts to arrive on the scene, began taking matters into her own hands. First, she told a neighbour to call police. Then, she ran to her truck and grabbed her camera, began taking pictures and improvised. She drew a diagram of a bullet casing found in the middle of the road, then placed it in a plastic bag provided by a neighbour with tweezers. The fact that she was studying forensics and had been taught to process a crime scene does not change the fact that she interfered with a crime scene in which she had no authority or qualifications to do so…

So what are the implications of the CSI effect in court? Research in the US has come up with the following: 

i)                 It can induce jurors to believe they have expertise regarding forensic evidence and therefore increased expectation of forensic investigators. Jurors can conclude that if certain evidence is not found or is proved to be negative – then the defendant is not guilty. Many US prosecutors say this accounts for an increase in acquittals. In research involving 102 prosecutors in Arizona, in 2005, 38 percent said they had lost a case due to the CSI effect.

ii)               Legal professionals have had to change their behaviour in order to accommodate the perceived changes in jurors’ attitudes – such as giving cautionary instructions. 72 percent of the (above) Arizona prosecutors said that they believed jurors were unduly influenced by fictional CSI details. As a result, prosecutors have started to ask jurors about their TV viewing habits and to educate them in police procedures.

iii)             More students are enrolling on forensic science programmes as they regard it as a 'glamorous' career.

iv)             The general public tends to think that CSI-style programmes are instructing criminals on how to destroy evidence and cover their tracks.

Here are three common Misconceptions resulting from the CSI Effect:

1.  That evidence of a person’s DNA at the crime scene proves guilt. Here’s an example: A party is held at a celebrity’s home with caterers. Two weeks later, the house is burgled. The suspicion is that one of the caterers had cased the home during their visit, but DNA does not show when it was left and so there is no way of knowing whether the caterer left it during the party or during the burglary. It takes oldfashioned detective work to determine guilt.

2.  Television shows depict scientists determining if DNA came from saliva, tears, cremated remains, or sweat. In fact, DNA is just DNA. There is also no scientific process that determines the DNA’s source. Moreover, scientists cannot draw DNA from cremated remains. Cremation heats the body at temperatures that reach 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit or above, destroying all sources of DNA. 

3.  While a TV crime lab is filled with chatter, a real DNA lab is silent. Experts in a DNA laboratory are gowned up in lab coats, gloves and face shields. There is no talking in the lab unless it is case specific. Even speaking over the evidence can contaminate the DNA. There is also no eating or drinking (or banter!) while conducting tests.

Thanks to Timothy Kupferschmid, executive director of Sorenson Forensics for details of misconceptions. See more at: http://www.sorensonforensics.com/forensics-lab-forensic-dna-testing/dna-forensics-lab-news-forensic-lab-development/the-csi-effect-myths-versus-truths#sthash.kOzxeaxC.dpuf

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AJ Waines is the author of Psychological Thrillers:  The Evil Beneath and Girl on a Train.
Both books went to Number One in 'Murder' and 'Psychological Thrillers' in the UK Kindle charts.