originally published July 23, 2014
You can have your John McClanes, your Alex Murphys, your Jimmy McNultys. When it comes to picking out the Hollywood super-cops, we shouldn’t look any further than network television’s procedural potentate: the CSI family of formulaic programming. On the CSI shows, the stars are scientific swamis, investigative prodigies, precocious and apt interrogators, and almost inevitably the gun-bearing heroes who take down the guilty party, usually within 44 minutes.
Unsurprisingly, in the 14 years since Gil Grissom first suited up and embedded CBS’s flag atop the summit of Mount Nielsen Demographic Age 34-55, enrollment in college forensic courses has exploded, while the public’s perceived understanding of crime scene minutiae has ballooned. That’s perceived understanding – if one bases one’s knowledge on what Horatio Caine says or does right before he takes off his sunglasses and elicits Roger Daltrey’s unrestrained shriek, then one is most assuredly not a forensic specialist.
Experts in the fields of law, law enforcement and science call this the CSI Effect, and the reverberations of its repercussions can tingle the spines of professionals all across the justice spectrum. We know more, we expect more, and we understand more, but all stemming from the basis of fiction. If that doesn’t scare you just a little, then you simply aren’t trying hard enough.
CSI was not the first dramatization of the justice system to throttle public perception into a bewildered shimmy. Jurors who regularly feasted upon the antics of Perry Mason between 1957 and 1966 often awaited the dramatic confession on the stand; one juror actually admitted to a defense attorney that his jury had voted ‘guilty’ because the prosecution’s key witness hadn’t erupted in a tearful admission of wrong-doing.
The so-called Perry Mason Syndrome – and Perry gets the grubby end of this shabby toothpick for having been the preeminent legal drama of his day, though a glop of blame could probably also fall on Quincy M.E., Matlock and the Law & Order juggernaut – would implant a false sense of understanding in accused persons, who would believe they knew enough about the legal system to defend themselves. As though a few years of sitting in front of CBS on Thursday nights could adequately supplant a law degree.
Me, I knew better. Though until recently I believed that all judges were also amateur magicians in their spare time.
The bitter swill of truth is that a realistic show about CSI investigators would be tedious and gory. They swab a lot of grotesque fluids, and do all the things Greg Sanders or Eric Delco or Mac Taylor do at the crime scene, but that’s it. A different team has to handle the lab work, lest the impartiality of the scientific process get splattered to the wind like the DNA slime at a hooker murder scene. The CSI team does their job, takes pictures, dusts light switches and seals all the semen-stained bedsheets for transport back to the lab, then they wait for the next crime scene to roll in. Oh, and paperwork. Lots of ratings-quashing paperwork.
Even the high tech toys, which are already sitcom-esque in their ludicrous depiction of a typically underfunded police force, are mostly crap. Forensic scientist Thomas Mauriello figures that around 40% of the sciencey stuff on CSI is the product of complete fiction. Remember when the Vegas team made a plaster mold of the inside of a wound so that they could determine what kind of knife was involved in the stabbing? Yeah, that wouldn’t really work. But it makes for a compelling pre-commercial-break cliff-hanger.
There is no clear-cut documentation of the CSI Effect – no juror is likely to express, or even be aware of their innate bias – but it’s believed to have two effects on the trial process. First, jurors possess a greater confidence in forensic evidence. This is good – DNA is science and it should be afforded the weight of our collective respect. But sometimes juries value forensics above all else, resulting in a higher rate of acquittal when such evidence isn’t present. Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley believes actor Robert Blake got away with murder because there was no DNA evidence presented. Two witnesses smeared Blake with a day-glo streak of hot-pink guilt, but no one had swabbed the area for semen I guess, so Blake walked.
The other potential bias works the other way: the unquestioning faith jurors place in DNA evidence can lead to a higher rate of conviction when such evidence is presented. Yes, forensic science is science (otherwise, I assume they’d have to change the name of it), but there are other LEGO bricks needed to construct a viable case. Maybe the semen was there from before. Maybe the guy’s just a chronic ejaculator. That exists, right?
Five years into CSI’s seemingly unending ratings run, prosecutors began altering their approach to a trial in order to counteract the CSI Effect. They’d pepper their opening and closing remarks with reminders to the jury that justice in reality doesn’t necessarily look like justice on TV. They’d ask potential jurors during the selection process what their TV-watching habits might be. In one murder case in Australia, the defense pushed for a judge-only trial, believing the DNA evidence would likely be misinterpreted by the dozen yokels that would show up for jury duty.
A couple of researchers from Eastern Michigan University worked with a judge to conduct an extensive survey of over 1000 jurors. The results showed that yes, TV procedurals have strengthened their confidence in DNA evidence, but thankfully it does not appear to have swayed their decisions to convict or acquit. Still, I’m guessing it wouldn’t be hard to find a tanker-full of judges and lawyers who remain suspicious.
The most disquieting side-effect of CSI’s sprawling reach across the tube might be that criminals are learning from the show. The United States solve rate for rape cases was sitting at 46.9% in 2000, the year the show debuted. Five years later it was down to 41.3%. A number of rape victims have stated they were ordered to clean themselves with bleach and to shower after their assaults. There are numerous anecdotal cases of criminals going to elaborate lengths to conceal their crimes – some even stating that they’d learned to do so from television – all on the rise over the last 14 years.
While some might applaud the drastic upswing in forensics students at colleges across the continent, it’s not necessarily a good thing. Jobs in forensics aren’t rising at even a remotely equivalent rate, and besides, most of these “crime scene students” are taking weak-ass courses by schools just looking to cash in on the craze. It used to be that forensic investigators started off with a science undergrad degree, then snagged their masters in forensics. Now people are thinking they’ll take a few classes on the topic, then if being Gil Grissom doesn’t work out, they could just switch over and become an Andy Sipowicz, a Barney Miller or a Sledge Hammer.
Most of us don’t spend much time interacting with real forensics, so the impact of the CSI Effect won’t likely remain fresh and fertile in our active mind-dirt. Just remember – don’t believe everything you see on police shows. Unless it’s on The Wire. I’m still betting that show is just swimming in reality.