Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The CSI Effect

by Jenna Jackson

Some of the most popular shows on television right now—CSI, Law and Order, Criminal Mindsare having a real effect on courtrooms across the country. When I started at CBS News 10 years ago, most of the people I would call for a story had no idea how DNA testing actually worked—they had no clue it was blood spatter, not splatter.

These days, people are far more savvy. Nearly every day, I'm asked a question that throws me—what kind of DNA typing was done at a scene, whether a person was polygraphed and by which expert. People know to ask detailed questions about criminal cases—and they learn most of what they know from watching TV dramas.

But most of the time, I have to explain that although CSI portrays a criminal investigation one way (DNA takes minutes, instead of months), real life is a lot slower and more complicated.

I think juries have become much more savvy, too—and they expect a lot more. This can be good and bad. It has certainly made trials more interesting to watch. Lawyers on both sides of the courtroom are forced to ratchet up the drama when presenting their cases—juries watch enough of these shows that they expect a show in the courtroom.

They also often want real, physical evidence to connect a defendant to a crime in order to convict. This is making things a little tougher on prosecutors, who for years have had the clear advantage from the opening of a trial.

Juries seem to expect a case where all the loose ends are tied up—but most real-life cases aren't delivered to a prosecutor in a neat little package. This is especially true in cold cases where evidence at the scene may have been scarce or not properly collected—and where witnesses have disappeared or died.

I recently covered a case in Houston where there was absolutely no physical evidence connecting the defendant to the murder scene. These types of cases are difficult for all sides—and tend to leave unanswered questions even after a verdict is returned.

But there is a case right now—half a world away in Perugia, Italy—where physical evidence was collected at the scene of a brutal murder. A suspect was arrested within days—but the physical evidence doesn't necessarily match the suspect in this case. She just matches the police theory of the crime, which can sometimes be an entirely different thing than concrete evidence. Amanda Knox (pictured above), a Seattle college student living in Perugia to attend college, definitely gave police reason to be suspicious. But as every good detective knows, people can act suspicious for a number of reasons.

48 Hours is airing a one-hour show on this case Saturday at 9 p.m. CDT. It centers around two beautiful college students—one, a victim of a vicious murder, and the other, a possible victim of an overzealous police force. I didn't have anything to do with producing this particular case, but it is so intriguing because of the issues it raises: how an American is treated as the target of a criminal investigation in a foreign country; how police can sometimes get tunnel vision and focus on one suspect to the exclusion of other possibilities; and how scenarios are created that make false confessions possible and almost probable.

Because there were so many questions in this case, 48 Hours hired a private eye to conduct his own investigation. He came up with a stunning theory of his own: Amanda Knox was being railroaded by the Italian authorities.

This case is one of those that makes you realize you can't always trust how a story looks in the beginning—once everything unfolds, it can turn into an entirely different tale. Even after nearly a decade with this show, I learn that lesson every single day.

Be sure to check out this week's Mystery Man for more details—he has a unique, behind-the-scenes vantage point of this particular case.


Kathryn Casey said...

Sounds like an amazing case, Jenna. I'll have to be sure to watch. Painters are here today and I have spatter all over me. LOL

Leah said...

I am spattering myself with paint because I am a fool and doing it myself.

I will definitely be watching this because she seems guilty to me. The one image that was shown a lot that stuck with me is her embraced with her BF next to a tree and he is kissing her face as she is posing for the camera...all the while cops are in and out of the crime scene. She looks too comfortable and like she is acting for a movie rather than standing only a few feet away from a murder scene in her own home.

I cannot wait to see what this investigation uncovers.

Stacy Dittrich said...

Fantastic post, Jenna! You hit one of my largest sore spots regarding the crime scene television shows.I have personally stood in the courtroom and watched as thieves, rapists, armed robbers, and violent criminals walk out of the courtroom after having been found "not guilty." The evidence against them was overwhelming, but on several of the cases I was so livid I questioned a few jurors. Their responses? "You should have used a SNAKE LIGHT," or "Why wasn't a DNA test performed? I know you cops can do that in less than an hour, I see it on CSI!!"

We now refer to it as the "CSI Curse."

It has gotten so bad, our prosecutors are starting off their opening statements with, "Forget everything you see on shows like CSI. This is real life."

I've always thought those shows should put a disclaimer at the beginning.

Again, great post and I can't wait to watch the show!