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Redux: Bye-bye CSI?

Monday, December 28, 2009
posted by Douglas Keene

Back in August of this year we wrote a blog post titled ‘Bye-bye CSI?’ after the reports on dirty forensic labs were published. Now some new research challenges our assumptions that there really is a “CSI Effect”. (The “CSI Effect” refers to a belief that popular television shows focusing on forensic evidence—such as the CSI frasnchise—result in jurors requiring a definitive level of scientific evidence from prosecutors)

The “CSI Effect” has been talked about for years and and widely presumed to be true. A standard voir dire query has been to learn about television shows jurors watch. We even blog about it. But a soon to be published study (summarized here) conducted on a narrow sample of Michigan jurors brings the CSI Effect into question.

The same Michigan researchers wrote a paper in 2006 (upon which their new study is an expansion). In truth, this appears to be research that doesn’t make that much of a difference. What these authors said in 2006 is there is a ‘tech effect’ independent of television viewing habits.

According to the researchers, a rabid CSI viewer has an equal expectation of prosecutors and defense attorneys. Asking about television shows still has merit for other reasons, but if this research is to be accepted, the impact of forensic television shows is not the reason.  Overall, the standard of scientific sufficiency for either side of a case has definitely been raised (especially in cases where the evidence is largely circumstantial). In 2006, the authors concluded the following:

  1. “Juror expectations of and demands for scientific evidence are the result of broader changes in popular culture related to advancements in both technology and information distribution.”
  2. “Those broad and pervasive changes in technology lead jurors to expect that the prosecutor will obtain and present the scientific evidence that technology has made possible.”
  3. “These increased expectations and demands of jurors therefore could be more accurately referred to as the ‘tech effect.’”

The authors go on to say the justice system needs to adapt to jurors increased awareness of forensic evidence gathering procedures and be prepared to invest more money into forensic evidence collection and analysis. In the meantime, litigators need to become better explainers of just why that data isn’t available in their specific cases.

While we’ll watch for the publication of the updated article, we think it boils down to an increase in juror sophistication, wariness, and sense of justice. Jurors are questioning authority more these days. They want proof. They take their obligations very seriously and don’t want to make mistakes.  Your role as a litigator is to reassure them that your position is meritorious. What can you do to give them the certainty they seek?

Hon. Donald E. Shelton, Young S. Kim, and Gregg Barak (2006). A Study of Juror Expectations and Demands Concerning Scientific Evidence: Does the “CSI Effect” Exist? Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment and Technology Law, 9(331).

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