CSI: Reality vs Fiction

CSIWe have all seen some form of those crime television programs, whether it’s CSI, NCIS or some other program with an arm length acronym. They all seem to follow the same cookie cut scenarios: a crime is committed, the overly good looking CSI guys arrive and collect the smallest traces of physical evidence which no human would be able to find without super-vision. Then they race back to their state of the art labs where they instantly identify exactly who committed the crime, rush off to arrest the suspects and deliver a clever line about how could they think they would get away with the crime. Although these shows are extremely interesting and most of the techniques are accurate, the time frame is often enormously exaggerated. For example, in my lab we enjoyed watching this clip from CSI where what took them 60 seconds, would take us an entire day, not to say we were lazy and took our time, if they were to show the entire process it would be extremely boring and the show would lose all suspense.

Horatio CaineSo although CSI is based on accurate information, it is largely a fictional program. It would be illogical to have someone like Horatio Caine working on a case from beginning to end, if the criminals knew who is working with a sample which could alter the verdict of their sentence, they would try their upmost to influence or threaten that person.  So in reality, the forensic analyst works with anonymous samples so there is no bias or chance of influencing the results.

Another interesting byproduct of these shows is a new psychological effect, called the ‘CSI effect’ named after the original crime scene program but all of these crime scene programs adds to the effect.

You would think this ‘CSI effect’ would not have any real world ramifications, however, the effects are being felt in America courtrooms where they use a panel of their peers to decide the verdict of a criminal case. During jury selections, potential jurors are now being asked whether they are avid watchers of CSI related TV shows as these people may have unrealistic expectations in certain cases. They expect to have some form of DNA or physical evidence linking the criminal to the crime scene everytime and without it they are less likely to find the defendant guilty, as well as they jury have a higher conviction rate if DNA evidence is available. With jurors heard to complain that “they didn’t even dust for fingerprints on the lawn”, the level of unrealistic expectations has increased.

A paper was published in the journal, National Institute of Justice, where they looked at this CSI effect. The survey indicated jurors that, 46 % they expected some kind of scientific evidence in every criminal case, 22% expected some kind of DNA evidence, 36 % expected fingerprint evidence, and 32% expected some kind of ballistic or firearm lab evidence. However, contrary to the expectations of the study, jurors were more likely to find a defendant guilty than not guilty even without scientific evidence if the victim or other witnesses testified, except in the case of rape. So although crime scene TV shows caused jurors to have higher expectations for scientific evidence than there non-watching counterparts, these expectations had little effect on the jurors propensity to convict.

Although there is anecdotal evidence that this ‘CSI Effect’ which has increased the layman’s knowledge of these scientific practices exists, there does not seem to be any real world influence, at least in the case of jurors.

Anyone who watches these programs will say they are extremely interesting, whether they are skeptical or believe every part of the show is a different story.  In South Africa where crime seems to be a pastime, it is sweet respite to be able to watch these guys on TV find and arrest criminals using physical evidence, whether its ballistics or DNA evidence, hoping that these techniques are being used to catch our criminals here.

Grant

This week’s blog entry was written and compiled by Grant Godsmark, a Genetic Hons student who works with The DNA Project and conducts DNA Awareness Training in the KZN Region. Read more about Grant here

Grant Godsmark

Grant Godsmark

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