A man has been hit by a car and left for dead. The only evidence is a paint fragment about the size of a pinhead. Within minutes of rushing the trace evidence to a crime lab, scientists have narrowed the paint chip down to a specific make and model of car.
Within an hour, investigators have a suspect.
Maybe that happens on television shows, but not in real life.
Yet, prosecutors say, potential jurors more and more expect to see the kind of evidence they see on shows such as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” – the results of lots of forensic science – as well as quick results and unquestionable conclusions.
“They expect all the whiz-bang stuff – all the technology, all the tricks they see in ‘CSI,’ ” said Nona Dodson, a trial consultant since 1993 for Cathy E. Bennett & Associates in Texas.
“I do surveys and almost everyone has seen the show,” said Dodson, who has done nationwide research on jurors.
Prosecutors now are taught at seminars throughout the nation to address “the CSI effect” with jurors.
Jack Driscoll, Spokane County’s chief deputy criminal prosecutor, said he often explains the difference between TV and reality in his opening statement, and sometimes he re-addresses it in his closing or by asking a detective or expert witness to explain the evidence on the stand.
John Rodgers, a Spokane County public defender, said he doesn’t think the so-called CSI syndrome is anything new.
“Jurors have always come in with certain expectations, or presumptions – whether it’s DNA evidence in every case or that police are always right,” Rodgers said. “It’s a juror’s job not to presume, base a decision on the law and not what they think the law should be.”
A juror’s potential bias stemming from crime dramas is usually discovered during jury selection. At times, the person’s perceptions about crime is so skewed he or she is disqualified to serve on a jury.
Deputy Spokane County Prosecutor John Love said he doesn’t conduct a jury selection without discussing “CSI.” If potential jurors expect an unreasonable amount of forensic evidence, or say they can’t convict without it, they can be disqualified.
Since “CSI” made its debut in 2000, lawyers have worried that jurors would expect crime scenes to be “dripping with forensic evidence,” said Lansing Haynes, a Kootenai County 1st District Court judge.
The television drama often shows two or three scientists entering a crime scene rich with fingerprints, DNA samples, spent shell casings, traceable paint fragments, or a carpet fiber that can be tracked to a suspect’s home. And all this can be tested within minutes.
“In most cases, we don’t have all that evidence, and it’s up to the jurors to figure a case out,” Dodson said. “A criminal case doesn’t have a beginning and an end. They don’t figure it all out for you. It’s not going to be wrapped up in an hour for you.”
No one has tracked whether the CSI syndrome has led to more not-guilty verdicts. It’s been more “anecdotal than empirical,” Haynes said.
But Spokane police Sgt. Jim Faddis cited a recent case in which he and others involved believe jurors’ exposure to the show affected the trial’s outcome.
In that rape case, a teenager reported that a 35-year-old co-worker had molested her using his finger in the alley behind the business where they worked. Investigators found the suspect’s DNA on the girl’s neck, but nowhere else on her body.
The evidence came down to the 16-year-old’s testimony and the DNA on her neck, where she said the co-worker had licked her, versus the suspect’s contention that they’d been kissing, despite no prior relationship. Other female co-workers also testified that the man had given them unwanted attention. And investigators proved the man had been in the alley, despite his denials that he’d been there.
The result: no conviction due to a split jury. Though there’s no way of knowing for sure, those involved with the case suspect exposure to “CSI” had something to do with the verdict. Past juries likely would have convicted the suspect based on circumstantial evidence and the victim’s testimony, Faddis said.
“In years past, I think that would have to be the case because we did not have the scientific evidence that we do these days,” he said. “They want DNA because that makes the decision simple” and they expect multiple samples.
The jury in this case also wanted surveillance video, “because this is a video world and that’s what they expect,” even though no video cameras existed in the alley, Faddis said.
Before prosecutors could retry the case, the accused man confessed.
Bill Culnane, a Washington State Patrol crime lab supervisor in Spokane, said he has only seen a couple of episodes of “CSI.” But he said it’s often inaccurate. The wrong machine was used to process DNA in one episode he watched.
And the quick turnarounds portrayed in the show are unrealistic.
“It would take a lot of stress off of us if we could have DNA results in an hour,” Culnane said. “It would help the whole criminal justice system.” A TV show based on a real crime lab would be boring – it takes two weeks to process one sample.
Dodson, the trial consultant, said potential jurors are often asked, on a scale of 1 to 10, how realistic they think the show is. “A majority of people give it a 7 or 8,” she said. “I wouldn’t say it’s a burden, but it’s certainly an issue to overcome.”