Criminal Justice System Sees 'CSI Effect'

Michigan Judge Donald Shelton and Carol Henderson, of the National Clearinghouse for Science, Technology and the Law, talk about the "CSI effect" — and juries' increasing demand for cases to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Coming up: We're going to travel to a conference of funeral directors, where the topic of discussion is preserving life.

But first, we're going to take a weeklong look at new ideas about crime and criminal justice. Recently, the National Institute of Justice held its annual conference in Washington, D.C. The organization assembled some of the country's brightest minds to look at new research and technology to help control crime and improve the criminal justice system. Today, we want to talk about the "CSI" effect.

(Soundbite of TV show, "CSI")

Mr. GEORGE EADS (Actor): (As Nick Stokes): Check for DNA in the sexual assault kit and the fingernail, please.

Ms. JORJA FOX (Actress): (As Sara Sidle) Everything has to be in CODIS ASAP.

Mr. ERIC SZMANDA (Actor): (As Greg Sanders) Oh, is that all? Want to know who's going to authorize my overtime?

Ms. FOX: (As Sara Sidle): Suck it up, Greg. You're well rested.

MARTIN: Every week, millions of people tune in to television shows like "CSI." That's short for "Crime Scene Investigator." That clip was from the Las Vegas series. There are also versions set in Miami and New York. On those shows, we try to solve the crime alongside the police and those glamorous forensic scientists.

But a new study says all this TV sleuthing has in fact made us more demanding as real-life potential jurors. This phenomenon has even been given a name - the CSI or tech effect. Here to tell us more is Judge Donald Sheldon. He is the presiding judge of the Washtenaw County Circuit Court in Michigan. He authored the study. Also with us is Carol Henderson. She is a professor and the director of the National Clearinghouse for Science, Technology and the Law at Stetson University. They're both here in the studio.

Welcome to you both.

Judge DONALD SHELDON (Washtenaw County Circuit Court, Michigan): Hello.

Professor CAROL HENDERSON (Director, National Clearinghouse for Science, Technology and the Law, Stetson University): Thank you.

MARTIN: What on earth made you think of this as a subject for a study? I have to tell you, as a journalist, you know, I'm fascinated by these shows, but it also makes me crazy when the details are changed - even though I understand that that's generally done for legal reasons or for good fictional reasons. But what made you think of this as a study - as a subject for study?

Judge SHELDON: It was all the complaining. The prosecutors and judges, law enforcement people were all complaining that jurors were wrongfully acquitting defendants they thought were guilty because they didn't have the type of evidence that they thought they ought to have based on watching "CSI."

MARTIN: So don't leave me in suspense. Is there a "CSI" effect? Do they do that? Have you found that they do?

Judge SHELTON: Well, we found a couple of things, that jurors do have increased expectations for scientific evidence, and that in some cases, if they don't get it, they will acquit a defendant, but that it had nothing to do with watching television.

MARTIN: Really? What did it have to do with?

Judge SHELTON: Well, our theory is that it has to do with all of the changes in our culture. I call it the tech effect instead of the "CSI" effect. We really have come from a lot of sources to expect modern scientific evidence to be presented in criminal justice cases.

MARTIN: Speaking of expectations, Carol, I understand that most of these shows, if not all of these shows have technical advisors who come from the fields that they are portraying who try to help them depict reality, to keep them, you know, make the show as close to reality as possible.

Prof. HENDERSON: They do. In fact, we did a presentation at the American Bar Association just a few years ago. And we had some of the writers from "CSI" on there. And they said they do have technical consultants. But they also - about 80 percent of what they put on there is real, but then there's 15 percent that, of course, they have poetic license - one could argue - to do whatever they felt was good TV.

MARTIN: But the 15 percent that is poetic license, does that have to do with the quality of the equipment that they have? Does it have to do with the - I mean, is that part of what your concern about in setting expectations that real life can't match?

Prof. HENDERSON: Yes. I think a couple of the concerns we have is sometimes they'll have equipment that does not exist. For example, they'll say, they'll take an eyeball, you know, an iris out and say, here, we can see the person that someone was looking at at the time of the crime. That doesn't exist. They have other pieces of equipment that are of really great, you know, fascinating pieces of equipment, but no laboratory has the money because of budget concerns in order to purchase this kind of equipment.

And also, I think, the other thing is the timeframe in which they go ahead and do these tests are so quick, we would never get tests back on DNA in the same show, for example.

MARTIN: Now, Judge, you mentioned that your initial interest in this topic came because the prosecutors were complaining because they are of the belief that jurors more likely to acquit because the government couldn't make cases as iron clad as jurors were expecting them to be. But I'm wondering, though, is there an effect on both sides? I mean, does defense counsel complaint that people have - don't allow for human error?

Judge SHELTON: Absolutely. It's a two-edged sword. And the defense is finding that, on the other hand, if the prosecution does present scientific evidence, the jury's going to believe it. And so now the defense is being forced to come forward with its own scientific evidence, or at least to do a lot more research than they did before.

MARTIN: Well, does your study show that the tech effect, as you put it or the "CSI" effect as some call it, does it redound to the benefit of one side or the other more often?

Judge SHELTON: The anecdotes are that it read downs to the benefit of the defense because the prosecution, for the reasons Carol just said, in many cases doesn't have the resources to do the modern testing that the jurors know is available. But they still expect it. One of the results was that 43 percent of the jurors expected scientific evidence in every case. And we found that many of those jurors were going to acquit the defendant if they didn't get it in those kind of cases.

MARTIN: Now that you have these findings, do you address them in your, say, in your jury instructions?

Judge SHELTON: Part of our study was a challenge to the lawyers to say that the government has to respond to this in one of two ways: either you need to provide the resources and get these tests that the jurors are demanding, or you need to do a much better job of explaining to the jurors why you don't have that evidence.

One of my anecdotes was interviewing a jury afterwards after an acquittal. And one of the jurors said, well, we didn't think that prosecution did a very good job. I said, what do you mean? He said, well, they didn't even dust the lawn for fingerprints. The police will all tell you that that's a physical and scientific impossibility. But as a sort of thing that if it's not possible, then the prosecution needs to anticipate that and tell the jury that's not possible.

MARTIN: Final question, tell the truth. Do either of you watch "CSI?"

Judge SHELTON: I have to admit that I do not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Judge SHELTON: It's too much of a busman's holiday for me.

MARTIN: Well, I'm sorry. I don't know that. What does that mean? Too much like work?

Judge SHELTON: It's too much like what I do all day.

MARTIN: Oh, Okay.

Prof. HENDERSON: Well, I have to say I do watch it, not all the time, but I was asked to be a consultant on the "CSI: Miami" show. And they had called me when some of the writers were struggling with one of the script. I think it's good TV, although as a person who does a lot with forensic scientists, we know it's - they have poetic license. I'll use that term. But I think that we really need to educate the public more about the actual forensic science, which is very exciting and very fun.

MARTIN: So, Judge, it just makes you crazy. You just watch it - are you just - are you, like, arguing with it, you know, with - if you were to watch it, you're just saying, that's not how it really would be.

Judge SHELTON: Well, when I have watched it, the common complaint is that the rest of the people in my family can't hear it because of the muttering.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I can imagine.

Prof. HENDERSON: I think explaining it to family members, too, is interesting. My mother called me one time and said, I didn't know that they could put caulk in a stab wound and, you know, tear it out and then show the striations mark from…

MARTIN: Can they do that?

Prof. HENDERSON: No, they cannot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. HENDERSON: So I said, mom, they can't do anything like that. That's totally impossible. She said, but it looked really good on TV.

MARTIN: You're right about that. Carol Henderson is director of the National Clearinghouse for Science, Technology and the Law. And Donald Shelton is the presiding judge on the 22nd Circuit Court of Michigan. They both joined us here in the studio. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Judge SHELTON: Thank you, Michel.

Prof. HENDERSON: Thank you.

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