by Kathryn Casey
Over the decades, I've spent a considerable amount of time in courtrooms. It’s part of the job. Awhile back, I sat in on a long trial, seven weeks. (There I am below right.) On the first day, I heard a phrase I hear in nearly every trial I attend these days. The prosecutor had the crime scene specialist on the stand, and the D.A. said something on the order of, “It’s not exactly CSI, is it, Sir?”
The investigator said, “No, it’s not.”
It may seem odd that a television program was a topic of testimony in a murder trial, but the CSI-type shows come up more often than not in courtrooms. Prosecutors increasingly feel compelled to defuse the myth, to explain to jurors who watch the sophisticated CBS series and others like it that not all the gadgets and techniques they see in television are gospel, and that even the ones that do exist often aren’t available in run-of-the-mill, budget-strapped cop shops.
What types of crime solving methods? You know, like the holographic facial reconstruction on Fox’s Bones. At times, it can actually be pretty comical. I once had lunch with a homicide cop and a crime scene officer, while they laughed about a CSI Miami episode in which a murder was solved based on an ant bite. Bite evidence is, of course, not unusual. But in this case, the TV sleuths measured and mapped an ant bite on a corpse, reconstructing the little critter’s minuscule mandible, then linked the resulting information not only to a certain species but – forgive me if this is wrong I am getting it second hand – to a specific ant colony. Wham! Crime solved. Wow. I was impressed. But everyone else at the table found the plot less than plausible.
Why is the CSI effect a bad thing in a courtroom? Prosecutors fear jurors who watch such unrealistic, forensic heavy programs may expect too much. They may expect absolute physical evidence to convict.
Of course, there’s another side to the coin. Many defense attorneys object to the CSI comment. Why? For the defense, it’s not usually a bad thing for juries to assume all the stuff on CSI is real world. If they believe the TV show is gospel, jurors figure their local P.D. hasn’t met the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” in a case without iron-clad forensic evidence. After all if CSI is viewed by many as a real-world guideline for how a crime scene is investigated, what’s to be made of a police department without equipment to measure an ant bite and conclusively tie it to the correct ant hill? Of course that assumes a police department has an unlimited budget, a state-of-the-art lab, and the likes of David Caruso on staff.
Maybe it’s not surprising or new that we’re getting drawn in by dramatic presentations on television and confusing them with real life. I remember the first murder trial I sat through as a fledgling reporter, more than two decades ago. I’d grown up watching Perry Mason on my family’s black-and-white television, and I was shocked that witnesses weren’t allowed to ramble on without waiting for lawyers’ questions and, even more so, that neither the prosecutor nor the defense attorney cornered a single witness on the stand and spurred a confession.
Actually, to this day, I’m still waiting to be in a courtroom where a suspect yells out: “All right, I did it!”Tweet