Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The C.S.I. Syndrome

The 'Effect'

C.S.I., a program about a team of crime scene investigators in Las Vegas, started late in the fall of 2000 and by 2001 had become a phenomenon that spawned a spinoff C.S.I. set in Miami. It wasn't long before a third show came out set in New York, just as Law and Order attempted its fourth spin-off. There were also such programs as Criminal Minds, Bones, Crossing Jordan, Without a Trace, Cold Case and NCIS, as well as Cold Case Files, Forensic Files, and other cable network programs. By 2005, according to the Nielsen ratings, six of the ten most popular shows on television were crime dramas, and that trend continues to hold. In November 2007, C.S.I. was the number one show for several weeks running, and its Miami version was number one around the world. In fact, C.S.I. even spoofed the phenomenon in an episode, "I like to Watch," in which a film crew followed crime lab supervisor Gil Grissom, as he quipped, "There are too many forensic shows on T.V."

Linda Fairstein
Linda Fairstein

These programs have offered the public an education of sorts about forensic science and investigation, which has had a three-fold effect on juries. Until recently, a key issue in the criminal trial process has been the translation of scientific testimony to laypeople on a jury, but these television programs have made potential jurors savvier about scientific methods and evidence. They listen now, whereas they used to stare at such experts with dull, vacant expressions. Yet with such knowledge comes an expectation that the type of evidence found on TV shows will be present in most, if not all, cases. Jurors may expect better results than can be produced or techniques that may not exist. Thus, say many prosecutors, they translate testimony from imperfect or technologically unsophisticated investigations into "reasonable doubt" and decline to convict. Thirdly, they have watched shows that hypothetically solved the cases before evidence was presented in court, so some jurors have gained what they view as insight into proper investigatory procedure.

Linda Fairstein, former director of the Sex Crimes Unit of the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, commented at a Virginia Institute of Forensic Sciences conference that when potential jury members are questioned for possible service on cases that have already inspired a fictional crime show, many of them say they already know how it ends. They don't, but they think they do, and that can be detrimental to the interests of justice.

In sum, the C.S.I. Effect is alleged to be this: thanks to these programs, people on juries erroneously believe they know all about forensic science and investigation. The problem worsens when shows make a grab for actual stories, blending fact with fiction.

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