Is There Evidence of a "CSI Effect"?

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Dioso-Villa, Rachel
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Kevin Strom and Matthew Hickman
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2015
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Abstract

Crime show dramas, such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation , are among the top-rated programs on television amassing millions of viewers each year. Unlike other law- or police-based television programs, in these shows, forensic science and its scientists take center stage. The protagonists are crime scene investigators who tirelessly examine the physical evidence to solve gruesome and often graphic crimes using the latest scientific technology to identify perpetrators. The investigations are often carried out without assistance from the police and entirely outside of the courtroom, as science becomes law’s truth-telling tool to resolve disputes without ambiguity and all within the hour program. This fascination with the capacity and role of forensic science in the criminal justice system would not necessarily be problematic, except the portrayals of forensic science and its examiners are exaggerated and distorted, and do not reflect reality (Houck, 2006), which begs the question, is the criminal justice system affected by CSI -type programs? This chapter assesses whether or not there is a “ CSI effect” and what effects forensic-based television programs have on jurors and on the activities of prosecu-tors, defense attorneys, and judges in the legal system. When jurors watch these programs, do they take what they see on television into the courtroom? Are they convicting or acquitting defendants based on their expectations and understanding of forensic science as portrayed on programs like CSI? If they are, then the responsibility to prevent and correct these expectations may fall on the justice system, which makes this particular topic important to address. For example, judges and attorneys may question television-viewing habits at voir dire prior to the start of the trial to identify potential jurors who believe the portrayals of forensic science on CSI- type programs. Prosecutors may seek forensic evidence in cases where it is irrelevant or unnecessary to satisfy a conviction if CSI had never aired. As a consequence, on the front end of the justice system, this may create a strain on police personnel to collect additional evidence at crime scenes, and on the back end, it may exacerbate the backlog of evidence requiring analysis by crime laboratories. Defense attorneys may seek counter-experts to contest the forensic evidence presented by the prosecution or highlight the lack of forensic evidence based on the assumption that CSI- viewing jurors have an exaggerated faith in the capabilities and reliability of forensic science. In this chapter, I first review the popular depictions of forensic science in television programs, then propose a plausible theory from media and communication studies that might explain how CSI might come to influence jurors’ perceptions of forensic science. I define the various definitions of the CSI effect based on earlier work with Simon Cole that analyzed news stories and media accounts of the term (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2007). This is followed by an analysis of the empirical research that tests whether forensic-based television programs impact the criminal justice system to determine if the CSI effect is, in fact, real. Whether there is evidence of a CSI effect or not, legal actors, expert witnesses, and jury members are faced with the possibility that it is real and therefore must acknowledge it as a potential factor influencing criminal cases. If necessary, they may also adopt practices to limit the possibility of CSI expectations effecting jury verdicts and case outcomes.

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Forensic Science and the Administration of Justice: Critical Issues and Directions
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Criminology not elsewhere classified
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