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Thriller Thursday: The CSI Effect

Due to this post from Roni Loren (thank you for the warning, Roni) I’ve decided to remove most photos from Thriller Thursday. I hope you’re still able to enjoy them!

Forensic science is key to our justice system, answering vital questions in criminal trials. It’s a broad spectrum title, with subdivisions ranging from the lesser known forensic astronomy to botany, engineering, linguistics, entomology, geology, meteorology, to the ever popular trace evidence and forensic psychology.

Forensics not only takes years of study but more importantly, time–something shows like CSI don’t have the luxury of using. They’ve got to fit their case into sixty minutes (less commercials), so the liberties taken with the field are understandable. Unfortunately, the popularity of the show and its various offspring have led to a phenomenon known as “the CSI effect.” Legal professionals believe the over-the-top portrayal of forensic science on television influences the public’s perception of what’s really possible in the field.

Unfortunately, many police investigations result in no fingerprints or DNA. When they are found, they usually take several weeks to process, even by the FBI. Some of the crime labs across the country are poorly equipped, resulting in even slower results because they have to farm everything out. On television, the technicians are plentiful and well trained, with all the latest technology. Not always the case in real life.

What’s the big deal, you ask? It’s television–pure entertainment. And that’s true. But many legal experts believe shows like CSI taint the jury pool. Many jurors expect flashy and detailed forensic evidence, which raises the standard of proof for prosecutors.

Don’t get me wrong–the standard of proof should always be as high as possible. But because much of America is unaware of the inequality of death investigations in this country, the methods shown on television can have a harmful effect on criminal trials.

One of the first instances of the CSI Effect occurred in Galveston, Texas in 2004. Jury consultant Robert Hirschhorn was hired to help defense attorneys pick jurors for the trial of Robert Durst, a wealthy real estate heir accused of murdering his neighbor, Morris Black. The body was dismembered and the head never found. The defense’s theory was that wounds to the head would have supported Durst’s claim that he killed Black in self-defense.

So what did Hirschhorn do? He advised the defense to seek out jurors familiar with shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation so they would focus on the gap in forensic evidence. Turned out to be an easy goal: in a survey of 500 people in the jury pool, the defense discovered 70% watched CSI or something similar.

When Durst was acquitted, legal analysts pointed to the affect of CSI and other forensic shows, claiming they raised jurors expectations of what prosecutors should produce at trial. Source

While shows like CSI have created a new interest in forensic science that benefits the field,    they also purport the false believe that forensic science is fast, sleek, and infallible. Experts  insist the CSI Effect has altered the way lawyers prepare their cases and the expectations on already-stressed crime labs.

In 2011, PBS ran a disturbing series called Post Mortem, focusing on death investigations in the United States. Did you know that since a coroner is an elected official, many don’t even have a medical degree? The investigation starts and stops with the coroner, and practices vary state to state depending on politics and funds. Errors due to poorly trained or underfunded staff are a lot more common than any of us wants to imagine.

The Post Mortem series showed that death investigators in this country have absolutely no resources to spare. According to their report, some states have already stopped doing autopsies on suicides, while some don’t autopsy people who die in traffic accidents. Many don’t autopsy anyone who dies over age sixty. Source

Doesn’t exactly sound like Kay Scarpetta, does it?

So what happens now?

The creator of CSI, Anthony Zuiker, is disappointed the show and it’s offspring didn’t generate more support to fund death investigations.

“I’ve done my job. You know, we’ve launched three shows that cater to 73.8 million people a week and is a global phenomenon and the largest television franchise in history. We hoped that the show would raise awareness and get more funding into crime labs so people felt safe in their communities. And we’re still hoping that the government will catch up.” –Anthony Zuiker.

The sad thing is that after a major study by the National Academy of Sciences, experts say it would only cost America about $2.25 to 2.50 a person, per year/per each community, to bring death investigations up to level they should be. Source

In a country where Congress can’t seem to agree on anything, the chances of that happening seems incredibly unlikely.

What do you think? Has CSI affected the way you view forensic science and the ability of investigators? Did you know death investigations were so poorly funded?

29 comments on… “Thriller Thursday: The CSI Effect”

  1. Great post! I know in the Casey Anthony trial, several witnesses referred to the evidence in NCIS, CSI terms that the jury would relate to and understand.

    Dr. Jan Garavaglia, or Dr. G, as she’s known to fans of her TLC series “Dr. G: Medical Examiner” also tried to relate to the jury in such terms. She made it quite clear that the technology to do what shows like NCIS and CSI do is not available in their office, and that the jury should realize that these are just shows. She was criticized by several people for promoting her show instead of being the medical examiner for the case. So sad. We have become so anesthetized, some of us even believing a crime can be solved and a murderer revealed in the course of an hour, putting expert witnesses in real criminal trials at a disadvantage.

    • Thanks, Jenny. On the one hand, shows like CSI and NCIS are great for bringing forensics to the forefront and help people understand their importance. Unfortunately, things just aren’t that simple.

      I love Dr. G. It’s too bad more medical examiners aren’t like her. I didn’t realize she’d spoken out about the shows, but she’s absolutely right. Much of the technology these shows use, even if it is possible, just isn’t available to many offices.

      Thanks for your great comment!

  2. WOW, Stacy I had no idea there was a CSI affect…this is really scary…and affecting real people’s lives. I never thought it would taint me on how a case would be run, although I have never been on jury duty. CSI is one of my fave shows and I always sit and wonder how many hours in real life would go behind what they find…its hard drudgery, research work…so I dont guess I’ve been glitzed by the glamour of it. I hope! And coroner’s dont have medical degrees? another WOW. And I cant even fathom a lawyer asking the jury to turn to TV to help them in their decision? REALLY? Thanks for an insightful, well researched post!

    • Yep. It’s quite interesting. I’ve never been on jury duty, either (knock on wood) but I’ve no doubt I’d be influenced, although I watch more Investigation: Discovery shows than CSI. It’s always annoyed me, frankly. And you’re right – forensics is more hard work, tedious and research heavy than it is on tv.

      You’re very welcome. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Not sure. That’s tough because beforehand I didn’t have any impression of forensics or how it worked. But I do love all the cool gadgets on the show. I stopped watching it b/c it got too graphic for me. Enough that I stopped enjoying it.

    • The show does have a lot of cool gadgets – which many forensic crime labs don’t have, lol. I don’t mind the graphic stuff, but the over the top crime stuff bothered me. I just never got into it.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  4. I was wondering if those shows had an effect. I’m smart enough to know that Abby and Ducky’s labs on NCIS are pure fantasy, the ideal environment for forensics. It is a shame we don’t develop our resources more in real life. How many people are in jail for 20 years until somebody gets around to processing forensic evidence with the latest technology. But then again, America never seems to fund public services adequately.

    • You know, you’d think most people are, but I think a lot of people just don’t think about it. They just make the assume it’s an accurate portrayal with the exception of the fast timetable. And yes, it is. The Post Mortem series was really shocking. It’s amazing the differences in death investigations in this country.

      And no, they don’t. Public services always suffer. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Great post! I took some criminal investigation courses a few years back, and I remember the instructors emphasizing a lot that “It’s not like CSI, no, really, it’s not.” Forensics is a really fascinating field (or maybe that should be fields…).

    • I would love to take some criminal investigation course. Can I ask where you took them? Was it at a local college or through the police department.

      Yes, it is. If I were scientifically inclined, I would have gone into that field.

  6. My husband was a CID (Criminal Investigation’s Division) agent in the Marine Corps and spent a 3-year tour with NCIS when it was referred to as NIS (Naval Investigative Service). He absolutely cannot stand these shows. We understand they need the ratings, but they are so over dramatized it’s not even funny. They do more harm because of the public’s perception on what “real” law enforcement should be able to do. Like the medical profession where doctor’s are expected to know your ailment, investigator’s are supposed to know who the bad guy is automagically.

    It doesn’t work that way, but when the public expect answers based on ignorance, it puts the pressure on and that’s not fair at all. How many suicide’s at NYPD this year? Gee, I wonder why.

    • Ooh, your hubby sound fascinating, lol. I would love to pick his brain sometimes. I know next to nothing about how the NIS works. It’s amazing how they over dramatize things, and I think they could still have a good show without all the over the top tech stuff. Then again, that’s what people are into these days. And we live in a world of instant gratification, so it’s not really at surprise.

      Yes, that’s a sad statistic. I can’t imagine what a cop endures.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  7. I liken it to the Perry Mason or L.A. Law effect for court cases. People often mistakenly think that legal shows accurately represent trials. They don’t. The shows cover the highlights, with all of the meticulous expert testimony, legal arguments regarding admission of evidence, long periods of witnesses telling their story, and huge amounts of paperwork omitted. (I have worked as a legal assistant.)

    We all need to understand that TV is dramatization. It is fiction. It is life with the boring parts left out and a dose of imagination. I had only briefly heard of the CSI effect. You covered it beautifully, Stacy. I do think we should fund investigations better, which would probably save us money in other areas of the justice system in the long run.

    • Good point. My parents loved L.A. Law. And yes, it always kills me how different trials on tv (like on ID Discovery or Court TV) are, and how different the prosecutors are. A lot of them are good but never the great orators we see on tv dramas. And yes, you never see all the tedious stuff, do you?

      Thanks so much for the compliment. This was a hard topic because there is a lot of info out there and figuring out what to feature was tricky. Absolutely agree on better funding for death investigations. I’m going to cover Post Mortem some day, I think.


  8. Wow, it would take so little! I had no idea! I watched these shows in my youth. But never get a chance now!

  9. clueslady

    Stacy, congratulations on covering a much misunderstood topic! Not only is there a misconception about the forensics available for crime investigations, but televised trials (beginning with the OJ fiasco) have changed the public’s concept of what should occur in a courtroom. Viewers—potential jurors—have become instant experts on guilt and innocence, forensics, body language, etc. I am a retired professional investigator and my greatest pet peeve is trying to have a discussion on the state of our “justice” system only to have people explain to me that those of us who work (or have worked) in criminal defense roles only strive to “get people off.”

    Grace Elting Castle, CLI
    Editor, PI Magazine, the journal for professional investigators

    • Wow, thanks so much. This was tricky for me to cover because there’s so much information out there, and sorting out what was relevant was difficult. That’s so true – potential jurors are much more affected than they realize, I think. It’s not that they’re naive, it’s just that we are inundated with flashy forensics and it’s hard to know what’s real and what isn’t. How cool you’re a retired investigator! I would love to pick your brain sometime.

      Thanks so much for commenting, and welcome to the blog:)

  10. I had heard of the CSI effect. You did a fine job of covering it. I do not watch CSI (or any of those shows). I do watch ID Channel. I like The First 48 Hours, too. I can’t remember what channel it airs on. I used to watch a show called Crime 360 that focused on the equipment used in investigations. I found all these fascinating, moreso than I think I would a fictional show. What I’ve learned from all my crime documentaries is that there is so much stuff I as a writer do not know. LOL

    • Thanks. I don’t watch CSI. I did watch SVU and of course still watch Criminal Minds. The First 48 is a great show and very realistic. I think it’s on A&E, maybe? Yes! I loved Crime360. I think you can get that on Netflix. There is another one called Case Files that’s good, too. I’m the same way. For the most part, I enjoyed those more than fake show.

      And me, too. Wish we could take a class together, lol?

  11. Interestihng quote by Anthony Zuiker along with that cost estimate of making real investigations as thorough as those on TV. Several things seem to stand out in CSI, NCIS, Bones and Body of Proof: cutting edge equipment that most investigators don’t have, results from lab tests back in minutes or days that take weeks or months in real life, and the ability of the intire staff of an agency to devote full time work to a single case.

    Nice post.


    • Absolutely. As much as I love Bones, they probably fall in the same category. Some of their equipment and abilities – especially Angela’s – are just off the charts. I don’t even know if all that technology exists. And that’s another good point I didn’t touch on – on tv, it’s all about one case, but in real life, there are several to juggle resources and funds for.

      Thanks so much!

  12. Great post. When I was researching my D.H.Dublin books, I heard many complaints about the CSI Effect going both ways: prosecutors complaining about jurors expecting reams of forensic evidence in every case, but defense attorneys complaining that jurors were inadequately skeptical and put too much faith in forensic evidence, especially less than conclusive evidence like hair samples. Fascinating how the fiction drives the reality.

    • Thank you. I could see it going both ways, actually. If the jurors don’t understand how forensics work and that they’re not like they are on TV, the effect could go both ways as the defense is saying. Circumstantial evidence can be compelling but is being pushed aside for the kind of evidence you mentioned. You’re right, it is fascinating. Thanks!

  13. I really don’t know how I feel about a television entertainment show effecting the outcome of jury selection and verdicts. My initial reaction is that it doesn’t feel right, but there are two sides to it. Instead of being completely ignorant to the process, at least they are versed in the subject. That being said, are the true facts being portrayed on CSI? One can only hope. Great post, Stacy!

    • You’re right, there are two sides. It’s good the prosecutors and defense teams are kept on their toes, too. The CSI creator says all their equipement is real, and I’m sure that’s true. The thing is that the vast majority of labs in this country can’t afford it or to train people how to use it.


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