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?