The CSI Effect
You’ve no doubt heard of the CSI Effect but what exactly is it and does it actually exist? Both the definition and whether it is real or not are controversial with experts weighing in on both sides of the issue.
It derives from the many CSI or forensic science shows on TV, both fictional and documentary-style. Many point to the CBS series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation as the beginning of the effect, which then expanded with the appearance of the “CSI clones” and other shows such as Bones, NCIS, Cold Case, and Forensic Files.
The CSI Effect is basically the impact of these shows on the public, criminals, law enforcement officials, juries, and courts as they have created a level of expectation that simply isn’t realistic. They portray crime labs as being fully equipped and staffed, and magically able to uncover the most esoteric evidence. They make the very rare seem commonplace. They suggest that all these wonderful tools are widely available and frequently employed in criminal cases. The truth is vastly different. DNA is involved in perhaps 1% of cases and it isn’t available in 20 minutes. Crime labs do not have plasma screens TVs and holographic image generators. The lab techs, though talented and dedicated, aren’t prescient and can’t magically solve complex crimes by simply “seeing” the solution in a microscope, or within their minds. It doesn’t work that way.
So how does all this information—or is it misinformation–affect the public, criminals, and the police and courts? Simply put, they teach criminals how to avoid leaving evidence at a crime scene and unrealistically raise the expectations of the public.
Criminals alter their behavior as these shows teach them not to leave behind fingerprints and DNA, to hide from surveillance cameras, to avoid using cellphones and computers in their criminal activities, and a host of other things. Fortunately, these shows are not always accurate and don’t cover all contingencies, proving the old adage that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. The criminal thinks he has thought of everything but while focusing on one bit of evidence others are ignored.
The public, and thus juries, comes away from these shows believing that high-tech investigations are involved in every case and if the police or prosecutors fail to make DNA or blood analysis part of the case they must have done something wrong. Defense attorneys latch on to this and use it to undermine the police investigation. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, juries wanted confessions and eyewitnesses, both of which we now know can be false and erroneous. Now, after the saturation of our psyche with forensic science, they expect DNA and other sophisticated evidence. This not only makes gaining a conviction more difficult but also gives prosecutors pause before filing charges in cases without such evidence.
So, it can be said that the CSI Effect alters the criminal justice system in many ways. It helps criminals avoid detection, creates unrealistic expectations in the public and in juries, and makes prosecution of some crimes problematic.
But there are positive aspects in that this increased interest in forensic science has led to more people choosing this as a career and indeed the number of colleges offering forensic science curricula and degrees has mushroomed.
For more on this and all things forensic science check out my latest forensic book—an updated 2nd Edition of Forensics for Dummies due from Wiley on 2-29-16.
DP Lyle, MD is the Macavity and Benjamin Franklin Silver Award winning and Edgar, Agatha, Anthony, Scribe, Silver Falchion, and USA Best Book Award nominated author of many non-fiction books as well as numerous works of fiction, including the Samantha Cody, Dub Walker, and Jake Longly thriller series as well as the Royal Pains media tie-in novels. His essay on Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island appears in Thrillers: 100 Must Reads and his short story “Even Steven” in ITW’s anthology Thriller 3: Love Is Murder.
His next projects include an update of Forensics for Dummies (February, 2016) and Deep Six, the first in his new Jake Longly comedic thriller series (July, 2016).
He has served as Guest of Honor at Killer Nashville, SleuthFest, and other writer’s conference. He teaches extensively, is International Thriller Writer’s VP for Education, and runs CraftFest, Master CraftFest, and ITW’s online Thriller School.
Along with Jan Burke, he is the co-host of Crime and Science Radio. He has worked with many novelists and with the writers of popular television shows such as Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Peacemakers, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, 1-800-Missing, The Glades, and Pretty Little Liars.