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The CSI Effect

College and University Forensic Science Programs:
Cashing in on CSI Television

The characters portrayed in the “CSI” television dramas have no counterparts in reality. In real life forensic scientists do not carry guns, interrogate suspects, make arrests, or spend time at crime scenes. They wear white coats, remain in the lab, and work in narrowly defined scientific disciplines. They are not crime fighters and the work is not glamorous. Instead of agonizing over the identities of dangerous and clever criminals, crime lab personnel worry about keeping up with their workloads, passing proficiency tests, and maintaining their scientific integrity. They also have to deal with evidence that has been contaminated at the crime scene, improperly packaged, or otherwise mishandled before it arrived for analysis.

For most high school and college students real forensic science was not an appealing field until the CSI shows distorted the reality of the profession. Now, college bound kids without backgrounds or interest in science enroll as forensic majors because television has made the field look exciting and glamorous. Colleges and universities have been happy to accommodate this interest with lightweight programs that teach them more about how to play the role on TV than work in the nation’s crime labs. For colleges and universities, the CSI phenomenon has been a cash cow.

There are, of course, high school students seriously interested in hard science. But for them the news isn’t good. According to a series of recent nation-wide studies, America’s high school science labs are under-equipped due to lack of funds. Moreover, science education in general is sub-par due to inferior curricula and unqualified teachers.

The “CSI Effect:”
Reality or Myth?

Television shows like “CSI,” “Forensic Files,” and “The New Detectives” have fostered public knowledge and interest in forensic science, even ramping up scientific expectations for those involved in real-life criminal investigations and prosecution. Prosecutors call this “the CSI effect,” the expectation among jurors that the prosecution will feature physical evidence and expert witnesses. The CSI effect has also, according to the theory, caused jurors to expect crime lab results far beyond the capacity of forensic science. In cases where there is no physical evidence, some prosecutors either eliminate potential jurors who are fans of “CSI” or downplay the necessity and importance of physical evidence as a method of proving a defendant’s guilt. The CSI effect, according to some, has benefited defense attorneys who can point to all of the forensic evidence missing from a prosecutor’s case.

A recent study published in the Loyola of Los Angeles Entertainment Law Review called “The CSI Effect and other Forensic Fictions,” reveals that the CSI effect is a myth. The study’s author, Kimberlianne Podias, points out there are no case studies or statistical basis supporting the idea that the CSI effect is responsible for acquittals in criminal trials. It’s a belief system held by prosecutors who have lost cases they felt they should have won. Toronto defense attorney Alan Gold, in a piece by Jennifer McPhee in Law Times News, calls the CSI effect “a bit of common prosecutorial folklore that they use to rationalize their loses.”

As part of her study, Kimberlianne Podias surveyed assistant district attorneys and found that most of them believe in the CSI effect. But the majority of the cases they cite as examples resulted in convictions. To determine how “CSI” influenced jurors, Podias questioned 98 people on jury duty, 134 jury eligible adults, and 306 university students. She also examined whether the CSI effect influenced 538 mock jurors. Regarding the mock jurors, the study showed that “CSI”-viewing jurors did not rely on the CSI factor in reaching their verdicts. She writes, “Only a very small portion of either group referenced such factors at all. Accordingly, it does not appear that there is a CSI effect in light of the empirical data.”

This page was last updated on: Wednesday, January 16, 2008

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A. James Fisher
Dept. of Political Science & Criminal Justice, 146 Hendricks Hall
Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Edinboro, PA 16444
e-mail: jfisher@edinboro.edu blog: http://jimfishertruecrime.blogspot.com