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Forensic science on television

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Whether it’s the farcical one-liners in CSI: Miami, the cutting-edge forensic technology of CSI: Las Vegas, or the brilliant DNA experts from CSI: New York deciphering unsolvable crimes, one thing is for sure: television viewers continue to be captivated by the mysteries of forensic science. Each week, approximately 70 million people watch some type of crime scene investigation show such as Criminal Minds or Law & Order. The question now presents itself; how many of these CSI enthusiasts report for jury duty on Monday morning?

The “CSI Effect”—a term used quite often by judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys across America—refers to the effects that forensic science programs are having on juries within the courtroom. Attorneys have come to notice that when trying a case involving forensic evidence, jurors not only expect DNA to be present but they also believe that forensic DNA testing will establish guilt or innocence of the accused. According to a survey conducted by Judge Donald E. Shelton of Ann Arbor Michigan, 46% of jurors expect to see some kind of scientific evidence in every criminal case and another 22% expect to see DNA evidence in every criminal case whether it is relevant or not. His survey concluded that CSI watchers expect more evidence than non-CSI watchers.

In addition, jurors now have unrealistic expectations of what forensic science can deliver. Jurors have the misconception that criminal cases can be solved at break-neck speeds. They are led to believe that the science is fast, faultless, and that it will always catch the perpetrator. In reality, an investigation could take years, results can be inaccurate, and the case may never be solved. Prosecutors feel that as a result, these TV shows can make it more difficult to convict a suspect of a crime where DNA evidence is nonexistent or even irrelevant. Defense attorneys also say that these programs make jurors too dependent on forensic DNA testing and resistant to the fact that results can be inaccurate due to human and technical error. However, both sides can agree that jurors are influenced by these shows and for these reasons the CSI effect has changed the way many trials are now presented.

Another consequence of the “CSI Effect” is an influx of student enrollment into forensic science programs and other science-related courses within universities across the United States. The typical Hollywood glitz and glam portrays what is at times a very gruesome profession, as a very alluring and sexy industry. While most forensic experts appreciate the increased interest in this field, a shortage of positions is beginning to occur. Graduating forensic analysts are discovering that obtaining a position in a forensics lab can be unyielding and quite competitive. It is not unusual for two or three hundred applicants to apply for an available position.

An additional avenue to explore is the criminal side of this effect. Are we ultimately just training criminals to be better at what they do? Are these shows teaching miscreants how to be more efficient at the art of crime? Is Hollywood simply giving them new ideas and instructing all wrongdoers how not to get caught? The use of bleach to cover-up forensic evidence at a crime scene has become all too common, and the police are seeing perpetrators going to far greater lengths to cover their tracks.

Ultimately we in the forensic science, legal, and law enforcement communities can’t solely blame Hollywood for the effects that these shows have on the criminal justice system. As jurors, future forensic analysts, and even criminals learn and adapt from what they see on television, so must the attorneys, forensic laboratotires, and police. It is necessary to upgrade our technology, educate the jury, and simply outsmart the criminal.

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