“CSI effect”-DMN column June 21, 2005

Jacquielynn Floyd: Dallas Morning News Columnist
‘CSI effect’ real, but not realistic

09:01 PM CDT on Monday, June 20, 2005

Get ready for more prime-time guts-and-crime than ever before. This fall will see an unprecedented number of TV broadcast hours devoted to fictional crime “procedurals,” stoked by the popularity of the many flavors of CSI and Law & Order.

Some authorities believe these shows have introduced an entire generation of TV viewers to the creepy-but-compelling world of forensic evidence.

It’s a contemporary parallel to the earlier process by which millions of Americans learned that the cops sometimes arrest the wrong person by watching make-believe District Attorney Hamilton Burger. Mr. Burger, you’ll recall, was Perry Mason’s TV courtroom nemesis and the all-time losingest prosecutor in the history of jurisprudence. How a guy with such an embarrassing record kept his job is a secret the venerable series never revealed.

We’ve come a long way, though, from Perry egging hundreds of real crooks into 11th-hour courtroom confessions. Now we have coded clues written on rotting bodies and tiny fibers and micro-droplets of blood, waiting to be uncovered by tough-talking crime-scene cops. We have DNA, the forensic-evidence gold standard, a mortal lock in a test tube. Thanks to television, we all know how this stuff works.

Or do we? There’s a cautionary swell of legal opinion out there that some jurors, fed a steady diet of fictional crime drama, might think they know more about police procedure than they really do.

They call it the “CSI effect”: juries, who see these “procedurals” week after week on TV, expect every trial to showcase conclusive forensic evidence. In one particularly notorious case, a Maryland jury acquitted a man of stabbing his girlfriend to death because police did not test a half-eaten hamburger at the crime scene for DNA.

The “CSI effect” is real, veteran Tarrant County prosecutor Alan Levy says.

“Absolutely, it has a major effect,” Mr. Levy said. “Based on all these programs, people come in expecting a certain method of handling crime scenes.”

One expectation, he said, is that there will be such evidence in every case. If there aren’t any fingerprints or DNA tests, lawyers can’t assume jurors won’t be thinking about it.

“If there isn’t any forensic evidence, they want an explanation of why not,” Mr. Levy said. “They come in expecting to hear it.”

Dallas defense attorney David Finn said that twice in the last week he has heard judges warn prospective jurors not to rely on what they’ve seen on CSI.

“One of them said, ‘This is not CSI: Miami. I have yet to see a single case solved by Saran Wrap,’ ” Mr. Finn said.

Fictional crime dramas can pose a problem when courtroom reality fails to conform to the tidy, conclusive, fast-moving cases jurors have seen on TV.

“They believe people walk around in these space suits picking up evidence” at every crime scene, Mr. Levy said. In reality, the scenes are sometimes messy, confused and contaminated before police ever get there.

And first-time jurors who have seen a lot of this crime-scene TV stuff are in for another big shock: A lot of forensic evidence testimony, even in the goriest, most shocking crimes, is almost numbingly dull. It takes an attentive jury to understand and absorb complicated testimony about DNA, fiber analysis, blood-spatter patterns and bullet trajectories.

Mr. Finn said he believes that juries sometimes afford too much weight to so-called “scientific evidence,” in part because of what they see on television, and in part due to an appellate court decision that prohibits Texas jurors from receiving a definition from the court of “reasonable doubt.”

Left to figure out a definition on their own, Mr. Finn said, juries sometimes equate a lack of forensic testimony with reasonable doubt – or, to the detriment of the defense, they assume that scientific evidence trumps everything else they hear.

I suppose crime-procedure shows offer an entertaining look at the highlights of modern police work and criminal justice.

Viewers should keep in mind, though, that reality is often less clear-cut. And it’s almost always more boring.

E-mail jfloyd@dallasnews.com

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