‘CSI Effect’ turns jurors into instant experts - East Valley Tribune: Get Out

‘CSI Effect’ turns jurors into instant experts

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Posted: Friday, July 1, 2005 10:43 am | Updated: 9:43 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Arizona Department of Corrections officers stumbled upon a dirty syringe in a cell with a note signed by "Jimbo," and tracked him down. Sure enough, "Jimbo" had a fresh red mark on his arm and admitted the needle was his.

But the jurors didn’t buy it.

They wanted to know where the DNA evidence was, where the fingerprints were and why there was no handwriting analysis.

They were suffering from what experts call the "CSI Effect" — looking solely for scientific proof and disregarding witnesses and police testimony.

In a letter Thursday, Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas asked local affiliates of NBC, ABC and CBS to put a disclaimer at the beginning of television shows such as "CSI" and "Law & Order" to get a message across:

The shows are fictional. " ‘Dragnet’ used to have a disclaimer saying the names are changed to protect the innocent," Thomas said. "We think things have gotten off track." In a 2005 study by the county attorney’s office, 38 percent of more than 100 prosecutors interviewed believed they had at least one trial with an acquittal or hung jury because forensic evidence wasn’t readily available, despite a convincing amount of other information.

About 40 percent of the time, jurors in court mention things such as latent prints, ballistics or mitochondrial DNA, the study showed.

"The shows give the impression that these are the types of things we should be looking for in trials," Thomas said.

In reality, crime show investigating techniques aren’t always a part of the case — especially lower-level offenses such as auto theft or drug possession.

"It’s fiction," said Sgt. Scott Yarbrough, Chandler forensics supervisor. "If you take a little truth and mix in some fiction, then you’ve got a great TV show."

The biggest inaccuracy in TV forensics is the unrealistic time frame, Yarbrough said. Labs just don’t churn out results that fast. Many of the scientific techniques used on the show are reserved for certain cases. It isn’t costeffective or realistic to use DNA testing and fingerprinting in every situation.

"I’d probably expect to see some things from ‘CSI’ in a case," said crime show fan Mike Bates, 24, of Scottsdale. "It’s kind of educational."

"You can tell things take more time (in reality), but there are some things the show explains that you never really think of," he added.

Officials are confident that adding disclaimers before the shows will help provide a much-needed dose of reality to drama seekers.

But another way they plan to help combat the CSI Effect is through educating juries.

Local affiliates of NBC and ABC could not be reached for comment, and CBS declined comment, saying they have not yet read the letter.

"It’s good to increase public awareness of what goes on in the criminal justice system," Thomas said, "but when people expect this evidence to be used in every single trial to convict someone, it becomes a problem."

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