Imagine being a juror for just a moment (we know you have). Picture sitting in your numbered seat, in an air conditioned, stale-smelling courtroom as you listen to lawyers argue. You hear a bunch of legal terms you recognize from Law & Order, but you only understand, like, half of them. You want to make sure you’re doing your civic duty the best you can, but you really just want to go home.
It’s an assault case. North Baltimore. A bunch of guys jumped a father and his teenage stepson one night in. The father is the plaintiff; he claims that the defendant was among the gang bangers who jumped him and his stepson. Among the weapons used to beat him were: a 2×4, a bat, a cinderblock, and a bicycle. The defendant was being accused of slamming the father over the head with the cinderblock.
It would seem like an open and shut case, but there’s a problem. Where’s the DNA evidence? Sure, there’s blood at the crime scene, but none of it belongs to the defendant. No fingerprints were found on the cinderblock. It was nighttime, it was dark. There’s no guarantee that the plaintiff saw the defendant’s face clearly.
While you’re deliberating with the other jurors. You discuss the likelihood that the defendant very well might have been involved in the beating of the father and stepson. He admitted that there was beef between his family and the plaintiff’s family. He admitted to witnessing the assault, but not to participating in it.
But where is the DNA evidence? How do we know for sure that the defendant was involved in the assault? You just saw a repeat episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation a few nights ago just like this.
You bring it up to the other jurors. They’re intrigued. You, the jury, ask the court for more “forensic evidence” to connect the defendant to the crime scene.
One problem. The prosecution doesn’t have any. All they’ve got are photographs of the crime scene, of the weapons used, and testimony from the witnesses. There’s no forensic evidence to present.
Half an hour later, you’ve acquitted the defendant. Not guilty on all charges. Did a guilty man walk free? Or was an innocent man saved from an impossible situation? The prosecution could not convince you, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant was guilty.
No DNA evidence? There’s your doubt. Case closed.
Does this sound familiar? It might. For the past decade and a half or so, there’s been a theory hopping around courtrooms that might explain this kind of behavior. It’s called the CSI: Effect. And it has potentially been doing harm to our justice system ever since the series aired in 2000.
According to Anthony Zuicker, the creator of the CSI franchise, “Our job is really to make great television, first and foremost. And so, we have to, quote, ‘sex it up.’ I think Americans know that DNA doesn’t come back in 20 minutes.
“I think Americans know that there’s no some magical computer that you press and the guy’s face pops up and where he lives. You think America knows that the time sheets when you’re doing one hour of television have to be fudged a bit. Americans know that. They’re smart.”
Prosecutors, crime scene investigators, and medical examiners, however, feel differently about the effect the hit crime drama has had on jurors. Because the average person often confuses scientific determinations for being “vague,” like “consistent with,” or “similar to,” rather than a “DNA match.”
That kind of perceived ambiguity is what prosecutors say makes their lives more difficult when it comes to prosecuting a case. Because they’re unable to provide juries with a 100% accuracy confirmation, that gives jurors just enough “reasonable doubt” to acquit a guilty person.
The Casey Anthony case might be one of the most notable examples of the CSI effect. Because the prosecution was unable to provide the jury with any “concrete” evidence of Ms. Anthony’s involvement in the murder of her daughter Caylee, she was acquitted.
The truth is, police work is messy and imprecise. More often than not, there isn’t any DNA evidence for the prosecution to use. Mostly what you will hear in a trial is circumstantial evidence, witness testimony, and physical evidence. But you will very seldom find an exact DNA match in a criminal trial. That’s just not a reality.
Until we get to a Minority Report kind of future, we’re going to be sticking with a very simplistic kind of crime scene investigation. Future jurors need to keep this in mind going forward. They need to look at the evidence presented, forget the expectations set by television, and use their common sense.
Picture yourself, once again, as a juror…