Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : October 2006

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Pondering the "CSI Effect"

An estimated 30 million television viewers religiously tune into forensics-laden crime dramas like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. But while that particular series has subsequently spawned numerous franchises including CSI: Miami and CSI: NY Taunya Lovell Banks, Jacob A. France Professor of Equality Jurisprudence and Francis & Harriet Inglehart Research Professor of Law with the University of Maryland School of Law, traces the mass appeal of such shows to a single event.

TV no longer
simply reflects
the world in
which we live;
it shapes it,
as well.


Prof. taunya Lovell Banks

"Most people got their introduction to forensics through the OJ Simpson trial," Banks told the audience that gathered on September 14 at the University of Maryland School of Law for a program entitled The CSI Effect on Criminal Prosecutions: Truth or Fiction? "Ninety-one percent of all television audiences were glued to the set when the verdict was read."

"TV no longer simply reflects the world in which we live; it shapes it, as well," Banks reflected.

The afternoon's program centered around two panel discussions between guest speakers that included prosecutors, defense attorneys and forensic specialists addressed the so-called "CSI effect": a growing concern, particularly among some prosecutors, that the popularity of such shows and their influence upon jurors' expectations is leading to an increasing number of acquittals. Question-and-answer sessions between the panelists and those in attendance followed.

"Is there a CSI effect?" posited guest-speaker Paul W. O'Connor, Baltimore Office of the State's Attorney, in a panel discussion moderated by Andrew D. Levy, a Partner with the firm of Brown, Goldstein & Levy, LLP. "Absolutely."

"Far too often, the jury expects investigators to be looking for fibers, looking for DNA," O'Connor added, noting that budgetary limitations often preclude more thorough gathering of such evidence evidence which, he contends, is often simply not there, anyway. "Technology has evolved, no question about it, [but] evidence is what it is. I try to allay the expectations of the jury right out of the gate, [telling jurors] what we have, what we don't have. This is not TV; there are not eight, 10 people looking at a crime scene under a microscope. In reality, it is probably an overworked, underpaid crime laboratory technician looking for anything that might link a suspect to the scene eight, 10, 12 months down the line."

Such admissions, however, were music to the ears of O'Connor's fellow panelist, defense attorney Kenneth W. Ravenell, a Partner with the firm of Schulman, Treem, Kaminkow, Gilden & Ravenell, P.A. "I love when a prosecutor tells a jury what he doesn't have," admitted Ravenell. "I want the list to go on and on."

It would make sense, Ravenell contended, if programs like CSI do influence jurors' expectations because "more people watch [these shows] than go into court and are involved in an actual courtroom."

"If something is missing, [jurors] want it and will often ask for it," added Ravenell, who suggested that many jurors, accustomed to the concept of wrapping up potentially lengthy trials within the parameters of a one-hour episode, hold out for a definitive turning point. "[They wonder] when the [actor] is going to walk in and deliver the piece of key evidence. [They] expect it to come together into a neat package, and we try our best to keep it from [doing that, to] show the jury that more can be done than is being done."

While Ravenell acknowledged that reasonable doubt and a lack of forensic evidence can be a boon for the defense in the minds of a jury, he admitted that, conversely, it can be particularly damning when it does exist. However, he suggested that higher numbers of acquittals and not-guilty verdicts for defendants could as likely be attributed to more conventional reasons, such as public distrust of police or eyewitness testimony.

"Eyewitnesses often have worse records than the defendant," said Ravenell, adding that many eyewitnesses are more driven to offer their testimony for self-serving purposes (such as negotiating lesser or reduced sentences for themselves) than out of any interest in furthering the cause of justice.

Looking at the empirical evidence, another panelist, Diane Hoffmann, Associate Dean for Academic Programs and Director of the Law & Health Care Program and Professor of Law, University of Maryland School of Law, echoed the findings of Viewing CSI and the Threshold of Guilt: Managing Truth and Justice in Reality and Fiction, a study by New York University Professor Tom R. Tyler published earlier this year in The Yale Law Journal . In his study, Tyler concluded that, "although no existing empirical research shows that [the CSI effect] actually occurs, on a basic level it accords with the intuitions of participants in the trial process."

Though Ravenell maintained that one of the biggest problems with shows like CSI is that, simply, "a lot of the technology and the science [depicted] does not exist yet" on any practical level, all sides agreed that further development and broader applications of such sciences could only benefit the justice system.

Rounding out the afternoon's program the first in the University of Maryland School of Law's series "Linking Law and the Arts" was a second panel discussion which included W. Lawrence Fitch, Director of Forensic Services, Maryland Mental Hygiene Administration, and Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry, University of Maryland School of Medicine; Dr. Robert T.M. Phillips, Medical Director, Forensic Consultation Associates, Inc., Associate Professor of Psychiatry, University of Maryland School of Medicine, and Adjunct Professor, University of Maryland School of Law; Dr. Mary Ripple, Deputy Chief Medical Examiner, Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner; and the Honorable Paul W. Grimm, Chief Magistrate Judge, United States District Court for the District of Maryland, and Adjunct Professor, University of Maryland School of Law.

Professor Taunya Lovell Banks, University of Maryland School of Law,
 fields questions from audience members

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: October 2006