The ‘CSI effect’ on both sides of the courtroom


The increased reliance on forensic science in courtrooms over the last decades has been a positive development in many ways. DNA testing has freed 218 innocent people, prevented countless wrongful convictions and helped apprehend the actual perpetrators in thousands of cases that may have not been solved otherwise. DNA evidence has also revealed vulnerabilities of traditional investigation techniques, like eyewitness identification procedures and admissions of guilt. The hard science of DNA testing has also led the way in creating momentum to standardize forensic science, finally banishing misleading and unreliable practices from the courtroom and bringing more reliability to criminal trials.

But improved forensic science has also caused a dilemma for prosecutors, defense attorneys and defendants. Prosecutors complain about a ‘CSI effect,’ resulting from the popular – and seemingly omnipresent – television crime dramas. In the TV show, lab technicians identify a suspect through analysis that isn’t – or shouldn’t be – possible in the real world. They match bullets to guns to gun owners, they track footprints and fingerprints in unlikely places, they match fibers from the crime scene to a car or piece of clothing. These unreliable methods usually aren’t available, and when they are they’ve led to wrongful convictions. Prosecutors are right to tell a jury that there’s no forensic evidence rather than stretching to make a connection that isn’t there (as the scientists in CSI might). But then they say juries are skeptical of a case without fancy forensics.

"The 'CSI' effect is a real phenomenon in the courtroom," Anchorage District Attorney Adrienne Bachman told the Anchorage Daily News this week . "(A jury's) expectations might be too high in a given case — that's certainly a possibility — but that's something that prosecutors have to face head-on. We can't ignore it or avoid it."

On the other side of the courtroom, defense attorneys find it hard to challenge scientific evidence when prosecutors take pseudo-scientific findings too far. If a prosecutor claims that scientific methods have “matched” a fiber to a suspect’s sweater, jurors tend to believe it, because they’ve seen it on TV.

"Juries are so impressed with scientific evidence," said Rex Butler, a prominent Anchorage defense attorney. "And, of course, scientific evidence is so much harder to challenge than the statements of witnesses and things of that nature."

Read the full Anchorage Daily News article here

. (06/15/08)

A major facet of the Innocence Project’s mission is to apply the lessons of DNA exonerations to bring about reform in the criminal justice system. One reform we’re actively seeking is to standardize the forensic science in American courtrooms. Many forensic practices, such as bite mark analysis and fiber comparison, operate outside of any set of regulations. The Innocence Project is working  – often in conjunction with mainstream forensic science leaders and law enforcement – to bring about strong oversight standards in this critical area.

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