"CSI Effect" has big impact on courtrooms, law enforcement

By: Barbara Harrington Email
By: Barbara Harrington Email

It's a practice that could soon become more common: judges asking potential jurors about their favorite TV shows. Last week, a Massachusetts Court ruled such questions are OK, because they help ensure an impartial jury.

It is a measure prompted by the rising popularity of shows like CSI and Law and Order.

Examining reality in TV
On television, solving acrime takes only a matter of minutes. Forensic pathologists arrive on a crime scene and just forty-five minutes later, case closed.

It makes for good television.

But what makes for good television is also giving viewers some unrealistic expectations.

“Perhaps the biggest myth or misconception is the time of death determination. I, as a forensic pathologist, with few exceptions, cannot accurately determine the time of death. There are so many variables involved in the timing of the things we look for in bodies to estimate the time of death I cannot pinpoint the time of death like they do on television," says Dr. Joseph Prahlow, a forensic pathologist.

It is one of dozens of myths spread by popular crime shows that are causing an increasingly common phenomenon called the “CSI Effect.”

The “CSI Effect” essentially means that many jurors nowadays have come to expect high-tech, scientific evidence to be presented in trial, like those shown on television.

In some cases, that type of evidence is not necessary or simply is not available, and prosecutors argue it is negatively affecting some trials.

"I have heard anecdotal stories of it happening. Where you hear, 'Well someone was not convicted and jurors were talked to afterwards and they said there was no DNA evidence,'" says Prahlow.

In reality, death investigations take much more time and often turn up fewer results than they do in Hollywood.

And unlike when you turn off your TV, real forensic pathologists do not always walk away from a case knowing exactly what happened.

“I will do the autopsy which will take a couple of hours or so in the morgue and, for example, a drug related death, I may be at the end of the autopsy and have absolutely no explanation for death. There's no anatomic explanation for death,” explains Prahlow.

So next time you turn on your favorite show, don't believe everything you see.

Dr. Prahlow says the shows aren't completely inaccurate; they often get the actual science right. But DNA and crime lab tests can take weeks to complete, instead of just hours, like on the shows.

That means it sometimes takes up to three months before investigators know what, or who, killed a person.

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