The CSI Effect: Are Cop Shows Brainwashing Us?

The CSI EffectThe CSI Effect is a real condition that’s influencing jurors across the globe. In its most basic form, people who watch cop shows like CSI, Criminal Minds, NCIS, and Bones, to name a few, tend to either discount expert testimony at trial or put too much weight on weak forensic evidence.

Let’s look at a couple of examples.

In the Robert Blake—aka Barretta—trial, there was little forensic evidence linking him to his wife’s murder. But the circumstantial evidence was overwhelming. On the night of May 4, 2001, Bonny Lee Bakley was shot twice—once in the head; once in the shoulder—while she sat in the passenger seat of Blake’s car.

After getting behind the wheel, keys in the ignition, Blake suddenly remembers he left his .38 in the booth at Vitello’s restaurant, where the couple had just eaten their last meal together. At the time they were involved in a custody dispute, and they went out to iron out the details…allegedly. Rather than driving the block-and-a-half to the restaurant, Blake decided to walk. During the time it took him to retrieve his gun—how someone leaves their gun in a restaurant is mind-boggling all on its own—and return to the car his wife was shot and killed.

The murder weapon was not a .38. It was a Walther P-38 pistol, which was found the next morning in a dumpster near the crime scene. Investigators found gunshot residue (GSR) on Blake’s hands, but the defense claimed it could’ve been transferred from Blake handling his .38. And that’s the thing about GSR; it very well could have. However, the jury disregarded the overwhelming circumstantial evidence, like Blake trying to hire not one but two hitmen in the weeks before the murder. Or witnesses who testified that Blake did not go to his wife’s side to comfort her as she bled out, that his behavior seemed disingenuous, and his tearless crying appeared forced. Police found a note in Blake’s handwriting that looked like a murder plot to kill his wife and bury her in the desert. Additionally, no wait staff or patrons could verify Blake’s alibi that he’d re-entered the restaurant that night.

Because of the CSI Effect, the jury also disregarded expert testimony and instead created their own timeline of events, resulting in a finding of not guilty.

The CSI EffectThe UK had a similar case where the jury relied on weak forensic evidence to convict Barry George rather than looking at the case as a whole. On April 26, 1999, British television presenter Jill Dando was shot and killed outside her home. Barry George made the perfect suspect because of his past history of obsessing over celebrities. However, police could find no evidence that he obsessed over Dando. At the time George was busy fawning over Freddy Mercury from Queen.

Sure, George was a bit eccentric, a hoarder, with a basement flat 500 yards from Dando’s home. Investigators found one dot of GSR in his jacket pocket, equaled to one-half of a thousand of an inch. George did own a gun that fired blanks, but he was not considered a gun enthusiast by any means. Such tiny GSR could easily be transferred in any number of ways. The jacket had been removed from its protective bag and placed on a work surface in a photographic studio that housed ammunition. Items found at the crime scene, such as the bullet and cartridge, as well as Miss Dando’s front door (which is where the bullet hit after passing through her head) were also photographed in the studio. Contamination could easily have occurred.

The search team, who recovered the jacket, did not wear forensic clothing while searching George’s flat. One of the officers present at the scene, and who handled the jacket, had also handled ammunition while wearing the same clothing. That fact alone would give me pause. But when combined with other evidence—for instance, contrary to procedure, the vehicle where police found the jacket wasn’t sampled; what if GSR was present and that’s how it transferred to the jacket?—I’d have a hard time convicting this man.

Because the jury suffered from the CSI Effect, they put so much weight on that one piece of weak forensic evidence (the GSR), they convicted Barry George on July 2, 2001. A later appeal proved his innocence.

How can we lessen the damage of the CSI Effect?

Attorneys are now instructing jurors about the dangers of cop shows. Danger in this sense means these shows are made for entertainment and do not depict actual forensic procedures. For instance, Crime Scene Investigators do not go to the crime scene, collect evidence, interrogate suspects, and then make arrests. Yes, they do collect evidence, but that evidence is then sent to the crime lab for processing. DNA, for example, can take weeks or months to come back, sometimes years if the crime lab is backlogged, which is often the case. And even then, the majority of the time it doesn’t point to a specific person. Not everyone’s DNA is in the system.

Unlike CSI, investigators don’t input the data and out pops a perfect match in fifteen minutes. And forensic anthropologists, like Temperance Brennan, do not question suspects and assist the FBI on murder cases. For the most part, they don’t leave the lab.

DNA evidence mainly works by including or excluding suspects to a certain degree—for example, Sue’s blood matches the DNA at the crime scene to a certainty of 99.991%. In cold cases, the sample is often too degraded to determine anything of value.  DNA is considered “circumstantial evidence” because it’s infallible. In my example, there still exists .099% of a chance that the DNA belongs to someone else. If we include my blood relatives, we increase the chance that it’s not mine. What if I had an identical twin? What if the real killer was in that .099%? It happens. Truth is always stranger than fiction. Which is why, as jurors, we need to look at the entire case and not only base our verdict on one piece of evidence.

Does it help to have a DNA match? Sure. But unlike these cop shows, forensic evidence only exists is 5% of criminal cases. And the suspect’s DNA or fingerprints must be in the database to have any value at all.

Fingerprints and DNA are classified as “identification evidence,” and I believe this is where most of the confusion lies. Because DNA has a label that implies identification, jurors trust DNA and fingerprint evidence as proof of guilt. There are several reasons why forensic evidence could be at a crime scene, and it’s the investigator’s job to find out how or why it relates to the crime. It’s our job, as jurors, to listen to the entire case. For example, let’s say I worked at a factory that built filing cabinets. Later, someone murders a woman in her home by smashing her head against that file cabinet. When the police dust for prints they find mine on the corner. Am I guilty of murder? No. But in a juror’s eyes I am. How else would my fingerprints get on the murder weapon?

By relying solely on weak forensic evidence innocent people are going to prison. Conversely, when there’s a lack of DNA or fingerprints, guilty people walk free. Why? Because the jury believes it should be there. In their mind, the police didn’t do their job if no forensic evidence exists.

I’ve got news for you. They did.

To disregard evidence because it doesn’t fit with what we see on TV is ludicrous. But jurors across the globe believe they know more about forensics from watching these cop shows than the experts do.

See the problem?

The CSI Effect in fiction.And it’s only getting worse. With every new show that skews the facts—and believe me, they all do—the entertainment business is brainwashing jurors. Same holds true for crime fiction. As authors, we have a responsibility to show actual investigative procedures and not make it up as we go along. If we’re not knowledgeable in forensics, say, and don’t want to learn about the field, then we should exclude those elements from our stories. Or write cozies with amateur sleuths so it doesn’t come across as factual. When we choose to write police procedurals or hardboiled crime we owe it to the public to get it right. Otherwise we’re only adding to the problem.

You might say, “But Sue, I hate doing research. What’s the big deal? It’s fiction.”

The big deal is some readers believe our lies. The big deal is talented writers can make anything sound plausible. The big deal is our fiction is spilling over into the real world. Guilty men are walking free. Innocent men are going to prison. These are huge consequences, life and death consequences. Don’t you think we have a responsibility to at least try not to add to the problem? But when we make up facts that’s exactly what we’re doing.

Or we can always just follow Grisham’s example and add an author note to the end of our books:

“Some overly observant readers may stumble upon a fact or two that might appear to be in error. They may consider writing me letters to point out my shortcomings. They should conserve paper. There are mistakes in this book, as always, and as long as I loathe research, while at the same time remaining perfectly content to dress up the facts, I’m afraid the mistakes will continue.” ~ John Grisham, The Confession

 

About Sue Coletta

Member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is an award-winning, bestselling, multi-published author in numerous anthologies and her forensics articles have appeared in InSinC Quarterly. In addition to her popular crime resource blog, Sue co-hosts the radio show "Partners In Crime" on Writestream Radio Network every third Tuesday of the month from 1 - 3 p.m. EDT/EST (see sidebar for details). She's also the communications manager for the Serial Killer Project and Forensic Science, and founder of #ACrimeChat on Twitter. 2017 Award-winner of Feedspot's Top 50 Crime Blogs (Murder Blog sits at #6), contact Sue for speaking engagements, book signings, reading, and events.

39 Comments

  1. If the post consisted of just that one line – “forensic evidence only exists is 5% of criminal cases” – it would have already been a big eye-opener for me! You make a fine point, and, like you, I see no way the situation can improve. Not until CSI reality matches the extravagant claims of cop shows, anyway!
    Nicholas C. Rossis recently posted…How People Fit Social Media into their Lives: the Surprising TruthMy Profile

    • That statistic shocked me, too. But after researching endless true crime cases, I can see why. Even though shows like CSI skew the reality of forensic science, they’re making criminals more aware of leaving evidence behind.

  2. I am a bit on the fence here on this issue. I love crime dramas — on TV and in books. I, like many people, realize that it is fiction.

    On the other hand, I am a research ‘nut.’ Even when reading blogs, I will always check any facts that I find interesting with reliable sources.

    I understand that not everyone does not do this and can make the distinction between fact and fiction.

    Disclaimers, like John Grisham’s, are great. Unfortunately, even if every book and show had them, they would not be as effective in combating things like this.

    People that read these things are usually the ones that are aware that fiction is fiction.

    With all that said, I do not think that it is fair to blame the writer’s for this problem. Audiences would not watch the boring ‘real’ procedures. They are just giving the people what they want.

    I have no idea of a solution other than letting every juror read this article or other’s like this before they serve. Perhaps, it should be standard for judges to address this issue with jurors before any cases are heard.

    • I agree with you, Susan. But I don’t know if I’m blaming authors, per se. I’m just stating the facts. This is a real issue that’s become quite a serious problem. Judges do caution juries as do attorneys on both sides, but it’s doing little good. I’m not sure of the answer. I’m just doing my part to make people aware that the condition exists.

  3. I’ve heard of this, and it’s so sad that fiction is affecting our judicial systems. What’s worse is that with our vast writing community, we have sources we can ask for information, like you and Garry. I do have Lee Lofland’s book on police procedures, and another howdunit book on forensics. There’s also the Writer’s Police Academy Lee runs, which I missed this year but might hit next year. Other police departments conduct citizen’s police academies for free, where regular people can learn about police procedures, etc.

    I like Grisham’s disclaimer; wish they would add something similar to TV shows to remind people it’s all make-believe.
    JHolmes, author recently posted…Questioning GenreMy Profile

    • You’re right, Julie. They should add that disclaimer. I wish you were going the Writers Police Academy this year. It would be cool to meet in person. August can’t come fast enough for me. 😀 Can’t wait!

  4. I share & agreed with this writing. Also, more things happens, if you go back when the internet had begun and the difference today..24/7 all sources & information in secs.

    Even, I distance myself for weeks too tiresome, many times boring & I’m extremely difficult & like to control. I’m the Queen of the “block” at the only place I allow myself visit.

    People saw CIS/NCIS, Bones, Movies, TV Series, etc. They’re TV experts. Talk about DNA tests like pros…Jurors are influence for all this: YES. Everybody is an EXPERT IN ALL.

    Not only that, now they had programs that “try” the real approach thing like: “The Real NCIS”. They try to put all in a real perspective. A crime solved in a week?. Well, they say it’s extremely impossible. BUT, yes there are always a but: the program is so BORING that at the 2nd hour I just got out, like a light. They NEVER convince people on reality based on other faster realities & the more boring the less people saw it.

    This week, at a crime scene there were people with mobiles around the police shooting photos and posting at a very known Portal. Even the Cops are doing that!!!

    Right now, the more interesting cases here in Puerto Rico. I can gave all the info you gave, but here it goes:

    1. (Local Jurisdiction) Three people are in prison & they said “they are innocent of killing”. That’s not for me to decide. With the new outside investigation “Jay’ Xray” a TV Hardcore Investigation Program, one is out & the other two’s are waiting for DNA results. But, what we call the corridors jurors, are almost sure that they’re going to won.

    2. The Casellas Case (federal & local jurisdiction) another Pandora’s Box are open & very open. The end, a change in the Sentence & the charges drop from the FBI, WHAT??? Yes, that cause many inmates ask for DNA Tests & Revision of their Sentences, because Casellas Case. Openly, you could believe they’re incongruences, that’s for a Judge to decide.

    3. The Lorenzo’s Case, (sad case, a child) (local jurisdiction) a mess of a case is another HUGE Pandora’s Box. Many people here thinks that the case was mishandled (incongruences) from the start & that the person who’s arrested as the killer don’t do it. Me, I wasn’t there.

    4. Case Dismiss: Another great case (federal jurisdiction) where dismiss because although the jurors where moved to a hotel a jury access his mobile, read & share with the others. Some time later, the truth came out. Solution: CASE DISMISS. A Criminal walks away.

    People had access to a crime in process because some brainless head decide to use, whatever, mobiles, tablets, etc & didn’t think that he/she is exposing to a danger & you know if your sweet child, with the electronic you gave to are watching?..Uhhh!!!

    YOU PARENT BUY A child of 4 y/o a mobile or a game like “Theft Auto”? WHY? People access something a brainless head took & share in the mobile, tablet, TV?

    A baby die of heatstroke in a car, a young woman; saw him. Do she: broke the window, scream, call 911 or the police…Noooooo… She just use her mobile to take a film hearing the kid die of “heatstroke”. She was more interested in her mobile & to sold what she film. AND A KID DIE IN FRONT OF HER?????

    The % of parents who control & revise their children access to what are they doing or seen at internet, Movies or TV; is extremely LOW. Crimes, blood, gore, hitmans, dead people, Kings of Illicit Drugs & Glorified in different medias?

    There’re parents who take care of, but  parents can’t control the access when their outside in: school, friends.

    Who knows which parents control what or not?

    What will be in the future?

    Wao, sorry Ms. Sue. I wrote like crazy, but this is a spine in my side.

    • You’re passionate, Eve. Nothing wrong with that. That poor baby! Some people are so ignorant…to film that helpless child rather than help is disgusting. And the juror with the phone…unbelievable! What were they thinking?

      • Well, the “comments” are $$$ & that the juror was seeing at a restaurant weeks before the date of the the court date.

        the woman of the boy’s dead of heatstroke was accused of accesory of murder in I don’t remember the degree & place at a Deviation Program with 4 years out of jail.

  5. Great article Sue ! I think every writer tries to make their story as accurate as possible. For the most part Tv people do the same thing. The difference is they have millions of people watching so they know a percentage will use that story as a blueprint to much the same thing. How many times have you read about someone going down a chimney to burglarize a building? Tv people deliberately do some things wrong so if it’s copied no one gets hurt ! Knowing more than the experts is crazy… unless you’ve ALL the episodes of Bones !

    • On TV detectives/CSI/Anthropologists can’t work the necessary steps, because a lot of investigative work is tedious. Paperwork, for instance. Detectives do a lot of paperwork. How boring would that be to watch? So they embellish for entertainment sake. Which is fine. It’s when jurors think they know more than the experts that we better worry about the consequences. Because you write sci-fi, you’ve got a lesser demand to write factual procedures. Readers know going in, that they’re entering a fictional world.

  6. I was the foreperson on a gangs & guns trial. No forensic evidence was presented at the trial and that was a discussion point in the jury room. The jurors were surprised that fingerprint evidence was not presented.
    June Lorraine Roberts recently posted…Brian Panowich: Bull MountainMy Profile

  7. You’re going to get a duplicate comment, because I thought the first one hadn’t gone through. Feel free to ignore it! 🙂
    Debbi recently posted…Comment on My Awesome Day in (Mock) Court by Debbi MackMy Profile

  8. I have to admit I’m not much of a TV viewer, so I’ve seen exactly one episode of CSI (I think it was the original that started all of the spin-offs). I have been on a criminal jury before though (thankfully not a murder trial) and some of it did rely on circumstantial evidence. Your post really had some valid points about DNA and fingerprints that we tend to think of as the be-all/end-all of evidence.

    As for fiction, I admit that my favorite character (Aloysius Pendergast), written by a pair of best-selling authors, is a Special FBI agent who has broken every rule in the book and isn’t remotely believable if measured against procedure and fact. Still, it’s great fiction and the world comes to a screeching-grinding halt for me whenever a new Pendergast novel is released. They don’t use a disclaimer like Grisham, but the character is so over the top, I guess they don’t have to 🙂
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    • Don’t you love it when your favorite author releases a new book? It’s the best. Sadly, I’ve never gotten to sit on a trial because I always worked for attorneys. Defense lawyers seem to exclude anyone in the field of law. I wonder why. 😀

  9. Did you know there’s such a thing as “the Perry Mason syndrome”?

    You can read about it on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perry_Mason_syndrome

    As a lawyer/author, this kind of thing drives me nuts! 🙂

  10. Well, I didn’t imagine it went to this lenght. That’s quite creepy and very bothersome.
    I know many readers (but especially viewers) can’t tell reality from fiction anymore, thought they don’t realise it. It happens in all genre.

    I have a friend who writes historical and reserched her time very thoroughly. She’s an expert of XV France and she really knows what she writes. But readers call her out because they expect things to have been different on the base of other novels they have read.

    I don’t know whether there is a solution. I worry there isn’t 🙁
    JazzFeathers recently posted…“Give in to the Feeling” goes live!My Profile

    • That’s a good example of readers believing so deeply that they’re not willing to even consider another author’s work as factual. I only hope the author they’re comparing your friend to had her facts right.

  11. Good post, Sue. The CSI effect is very real in today’s criminal courtrooms and it’s an issue many prosecutors talk to the jury members about in their opening and closing addresses.

    I’ve only watched a few of the CSI-type fictional shows. To me, they seem so phony and I hate to think of crime writers using the TV material without independently checking it. There are so many good sources of forensic information online. Hey – strikes me you have some of them listed on your website 🙂

  12. Another great article. There will always be those who believe our fiction, as I found out recently. That’s awesome for us, but in the larger scheme it can be harmful. Even the fact that it’s science fiction won’t clue some folks in. I have to say that top graphic brought a tear to my eye. I had bull terriers for 18 years.

    • Oh, I’m sorry. Bull terriers are so cute, and I can certainly relate to the loss of our four-legged family members.

      It should surprise me that readers even believe sci-fi, but it doesn’t.

  13. Hi Sue,
    My husband and daughter love CSI. Brainwashing? How intriguing! I will share your link with them.
    Janice

  14. As well demonstrated by the current political climate the media makes a mockery of most situations. I do absolutely LOVE John Grisham’s disclaimer. After all, it is fiction we’re writing. I try to research facts, but do have my P.I. doing some questionable things (or having his friends do them).

  15. The CSI effect and the Perry Mason effect really are problems for attorneys on both sides of cases, Sue. So I’m glad you’re discussing them. I think it’s also a real potential problem for crime writers. When a crime writer isn’t willing to do her or his ‘homework,’ it’s really easy to fall prey to the same effect. And in the end, that just makes stories less credible. And it feeds the effect for those who read such stories.

  16. Did you know there’s also a “Perry Mason effect”? Because of the show, people think trials are way more interesting than they are. And that it’s normal for lawyers to make speeches and bring in surprise witnesses, willy-nilly.

    As a lawyer-turned-writer, this makes me nuts! 🙂
    Debbi recently posted…Comment on My Awesome Day in (Mock) Court by Debbi MackMy Profile

    • I’ve heard of it, yes. It’s crazy! I can see how it would drive any lawyer-turned-writer nuts. I had to control my use of exclamation points on this post, because I’m baffled by how anyone could think what they see on TV comes anywhere close to real life. LOL

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