In 2002, CBS launched a crime drama that featured a team of investigators who used the latest advances in forensic science to solve a seemingly never-ending series of homicides and complex crimes. The show, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, blossomed into a mega-hit, running for 15 seasons, spawning three spin-offs, a book series, video games, and even museum exhibitions. The show’s enduring popularity, however, has been credited, rightly or wrongly, with casting a dubious influence over real-life criminal trials. The phenomenon, known as the “CSI effect,” is the idea that television shows like CSI have created in the minds of jurors the expectation that the only credible evidence is highly technical, science-based, forensic evidence. Thus, the CSI effect causes some jurors to expect, if not demand, DNA tests, fingerprint analysis, computer forensics, and other specialized “scientific” evidence. When such evidence is presented, these jurors are almost certain to believe it. When it is absent, however, more traditional nonscientific evidence, such as witness testimony and documents, may be disregarded.
It is difficult to measure the influence that the CSI effect actually has on verdicts. Nevertheless, the CSI effect has been an enduring concern for defense attorneys and prosecutors alike. Because of the prevalence of high-tech forensic tests in fictionalized depictions of the criminal justice system, and society’s increasing comfort with, and reliance on, technology in general, in our experience, the CSI effect is something a trial practitioner should be cognizant of in all phases of trial. But, like all juror expectations, the CSI effect can be managed effectively with sufficient preparation and focus. In this article, we explore how the CSI effect can influence all phases of the trial, and we share specific steps criminal law practitioners can use to either mitigate or exploit this pop culture phenomenon.
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