Convincing evidence

Attorneys consider impact of 'CSI Effect' on jury decisions

Attorneys consider impact of 'CSI Effect' on jury decisions

May 23, 2006|by PEPPER BALLARD


A quick flip through television channels many nights offers a grim but glamorous glance at Hollywood crime scene investigations, where murders are solved in an hour thanks to solid forensic evidence that links a suspect to a crime.

The popularity of forensic television shows as "CSI" worries some prosecutors, who fear jurors will expect that DNA and fingerprint evidence will be collected with the same precision as it is on TV, said Washington County Assistant State's Attorney Robert Veil.

"The fear is that some of them (jurors) will not be able to distinguish between television and reality," Veil said.

Called the "CSI Effect," the concern is being discussed at state's attorney conferences across the country.

In response, Veil said, prosecutors here have asked judges to ask potential jurors: "Does any member of the panel believe that it is necessary for the state to present fingerprint, DNA or other scientific evidence in order to convince you beyond a reasonable doubt of the defendant's guilt?"


Part of the concern in Maryland, Veil said, is that the jury selection process has changed in recent years, pulling from not just registered voters, which had been the standard practice, but also from those who hold Maryland licenses and identification cards.

"It used to be that you had to have some involvement in the community" to be called for jury duty, he said.

District Public Defender Michael Morrissette said he doesn't think the change in jury duty selection matters.

"I think that the jury system works very well and juries in the United States are overwhelmingly correct in their decisions - and that's coming from a defense attorney," Morrissette said.

From an historical standpoint, Morrissette said, mystery novels have been in existence for a long time. He called the "CSI Effect" a recurring theme of debate among prosecutors and defense attorneys.

"To say that the current existence of a certain type of show is influencing them (jurors) is underestimating the quality of our citizenry," he said.

Had Morrissette been a defense attorney in the 1950s, he said, he might argue that the popularity of the police show "Dragnet" was influencing jurors to believe "police are always right, they always get their man."

Veil, however, said that "the scientific emphasis of these newer shows is far greater than television shows of the past and is more professionally presented as though it is possible" to get the same results in a real investigation.

Morrissette said he'd be interested to see a study that concludes "CSI" and similar shows affect jury decisions.

"I think it's all conjecture," he said.

But, Veil said, "Evidence of what influences jurors is by definition anecdotal because jury deliberations are closed and private."

And yet, he said, "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that people are influenced by television shows."

Morrissette proposed a question to be asked of jurors in a rebuttal to the jury question that is already being asked here: "Do you think that the fact that the state has failed to obtain DNA or fingerprint evidence should be considered when determining the defendant's guilt?"

Jeffrey Kercheval, the Western Maryland Regional Crime Lab's supervisory forensic scientist, said that whether certain forensic evidence is collected does not hinge on effort but on availability.

"On TV, it seems they find the right type of evidence right away," said Kercheval, who, along with forensic scientist Susan Blankenship, processes many Washington County crime scenes.

The two-person team collects fingerprint evidence "between 20 and 30 percent of the time," Kercheval said.

Humidity, surfaces, perspiration and pressure, among other factors, have a lot to do with whether a solid print can be lifted, he said.

If DNA evidence is collected, Kercheval might send the samples to a Maryland State Police crime lab, but those results don't usually come back for about six months. In a pinch, he said the local lab can pay to send samples to a private lab, but even then, the return - at its fastest - takes about two weeks.

Despite how TV shows depict Kercheval's job, they have drawn interest to the field from students, lawmakers and even jurors, he said.

During the last homicide trial in which Kercheval testified about forensic evidence, he said, "When I was looking at the jurors, I could see they were just mesmerized, they were into it. To me, that's satisfying."

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