The “CSI effect”.
Television dramas that rely on forensic science to solve crimes are affecting the administration of justice.
OPENING a new training centre in forensic science at the University of Glamorgan in South Wales recently, Bernard Knight, formerly one of Britain’s chief pathologists, said that because of television crime dramas, jurors today expect more categorical proof than forensic science is capable of delivering. And when it comes to the gulf between reality and fiction, Dr Knight knows what he is talking about: besides 43 years’ experience of attending crime scenes, he has also written dozens of crime novels.
The upshot of this is that a new phrase has entered the criminological lexicon: the “CSI effect” after shows such as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”. In 2008 Monica Robbers, an American criminologist, defined it as “the phenomenon in which jurors hold unrealistic expectations of forensic evidence and investigation techniques, and have an increased interest in the discipline of forensic science.”
Now another American researcher has demonstrated that the “CSI effect” is indeed real. Evan Durnal of the University of Central Missouri’s Criminal Justice Department has collected evidence from a number of studies to show that exposure to television drama series that focus on forensic science has altered the American legal system in complex and far-reaching ways. His conclusions have just been published in Forensic Science International.
Criminals watch television too, and there is evidence they are also changing their behaviour. They are learning on the TV shows how not to be caught. Most of the techniques used in crime shows are, after all, at least grounded in truth. Bleach, which destroys DNA, is now more likely to be used by murderers to cover their tracks. The wearing of gloves is more common, as is using tapes — rather than the DNA-full licking—of envelopes, leaving fewer traces of themselves behind.
Mr Durnal does not blame the makers of the television shows for the phenomenon, because they have never claimed their shows are completely accurate, nor had the intention of teaching criminals how not to leave traces behind.
In that respect, unfortunately, life can and has imitated art.