LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
Post Mortem, the ongoing NPR-Frontline-Pro Publica investigation series, has exposed how death investigations in America are nothing like what you see on TV. Many prosecutors complain that shows like "CSI" actually make their job harder. Jurors now demand ultra high-tech tests to convict suspects. But Frontline's Arun Rath reports that the media and the courts may be overstating the CSI Effect.
ARUN RATH: The fictional forensic investigators in shows like "CSI" put old-time sleuths like Sherlock Holmes to shame. They can read a crime scene like it's a glossy magazine.
(Soundbite of TV show, "CSI: New York")
Unidentified Man (Actor): (as character) Now, if Westwick's form was cut first, we'd had gravitational blood drops like this all over the crime scene, but there is none, which means Alex was stabbed in the back first before Westwick's arm was slashed.
Mr. P. MICHAEL MURPHY (Coroner, Clark County, Nevada): I think that "CSI" has done some great things for medico-legal death investigations. It has brought what we do from the shadows, where people really didn't want to know and didn't care what we do, to the bright light of day.
RATH: P. Michael Murphy is the coroner for Clark County, Nevada. His office was the model for the original "CSI" show.
Mr. MURPHY: It's also caused some problems. And some of those problems are people expect us to have DNA back in 20 minutes or that we're supposed to solve crime in 60 minutes with three commercials. It doesn't happen that way.
Mr. ANTHONY ZUIKER (Creator, "CSI"): Our job really is to make great television, first and foremost. And so, we have to, quote, "sex it up."
RATH: Anthony Zuiker created the "CSI" franchise.
Mr. ZUIKER: I think Americans know that DNA doesn't come back in 20 minutes. I think Americans know that there's not some magical computer that you press and the guy's face pops up and where he lives. I think America knows that the timesheets when you're doing one hour of television have to be fudged a bit. Americans know that. They're smart.
RATH: But a lot of legal experts are concerned that juries may well be confusing fact with fiction. It's called the CSI Effect. Prosecutors have been complaining that shows like "CSI" create the expectation that every trial must feature high-tech forensic tests. They worry that when they don't show off "CSI"-style technology, juries might let criminals get away with murder.
Judge Donald Shelton, the chief judge of Washtenaw County in Michigan, was skeptical. He began to notice that reports about the CSI Effect were long on anecdote, and short on data. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Watenshaw County]
Judge DONALD SHELTON (Chief Judge, Watenshaw County, Michigan): One of the things that surprised me when I started doing research into the CSI Effect was that there was no empirical research. That even the so-called studies that were out there were simply surveys of lawyers' opinions.
RATH: So, Judge Shelton and his colleagues came up with their own study.
Mr. SHELTON: What we decided to do was survey people who'd been called for jury service before they were actually selected.
RATH: More than 2,000 jurors divulged details of their TV-watching habits and how they got their information about the criminal justice system. Then they revealed their expectations for scientific evidence in a variety of scenarios in criminal trials.
Mr. SHELTON: The final thing we did was to compare what television programs they watched with their demands for scientific evidence. What we found did not support that prosecutor's version.
RATH: Juries do expect to see scientific evidence in murder cases, but their expectations have nothing to do with the TV shows they watch.
Mr. SHELTON: Blaming CSI or any type of television show is just too simplistic. It's much bigger than that.
RATH: People don't need to watch CSI to be aware of advances in technology. They're much more likely to be affected by the technology in their own pocket. Judge Shelton's study showed that owning the latest BlackBerry has a much bigger impact on how jurors evaluate scientific evidence.
Mr. SHELTON: The more sophisticated technological devices that jurors had, the higher their expectations for the prosecution to present scientific evidence in criminal cases.
RATH: Despite the lack of empirical evidence, the belief persists that shows like "CSI" make it harder to get convictions.
John Grossman is undersecretary of forensic science and technology for Massachusetts. He worries the CSI Effect raises the bar for forensic pathologists who testify in court.
Mr. JOHN GROSSMAN (Undersecretary of Forensic Science and Technology, Massachusetts): I think it makes it much harder for the experts. Juries now expect high-level science to be done on lots of cases where again we don't have the resources to do them and in many cases, the science doesn't exist to do them.
RATH: Whatever the substance of the connection, lawyers, judges, and death investigators are acting as if the CSI Effect is real.
Some states now allow lawyers to strike potential jurors based on their TV habits. Judges are issuing instructions that warn juries about expecting too much scientific evidence based on what they see on TV.
Judge Shelton says death investigators sometimes run useless tests, just to show they went the extra "CSI" mile.
Mr. SHELTON: They will perform scientific tests and present the evidence of that to the jury even if the results don't show guilt or innocence either way, just to show the jury that they did it.
RATH: This is coming at a time when death investigators in America have no resources to spare. Our investigation shows some states have already opted not to do autopsies on suicides. Others don't autopsy people who die in traffic accidents. And many don't autopsy people who die over the age of 60.
Coroner Mike Murphy expects things to get worse.
Mr. MURPHY: You know, we're in budget cuts right now. Everybody's in budget cuts. Las Vegas is no different than anybody else. We're hurting. We're going to feel that same crunch as everybody else.
RATH: A committee assembled by the National Academy of Sciences looked at what it would cost to bring America up to speed. It included Dr. Vincent Di Maio, who's been a medical examiner for over 40 years.
Dr. VINCENT DI MAIO (Medical Examiner): And it's going to cost you. It's going to cost you about $2.25 to $2.50 a person in your community per year, which is probably less than what you pay for a Coca-Cola in a movie theater.
RATH: Whether legislators around the country have the political will to make it happen is an entirely different matter.
For NPR News, I'm Arun Rath.
HANSEN: You can get a better understanding of death investigations by going to our website, NPR.org.