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CSI Effect?

Everyone has heard of the CSI effect, but I’ll define it just in case. The CSI effect is the exaggerated reliance and portrayal of forensic science in solving crimes. Forensic simply means using science and technology to investigate criminal activity. Forensics is really important as it helps the jury make their decision. It also helps many a defendant “beat the rap” because it may show that another dude did the crime. Fingerprints, shoe prints, DNA, telephone records, text messages and surveillance video are some examples of evidence that is considered forensic.

CSI, the television show, first came on in 2000, a mere 3 years after I was sworn in as District Attorney. Was that the first time that anyone had heard of forensics? No. Matlock, Perry Mason (although he usually had the real criminal bust through the door at the end of the show) and Quincy ME were television shows that glamorized prosecution or defense of criminal cases. Each showed used forensics to one degree or another. However, they tended to be halfway realistic. The TV show CSI blew realism out the window.

On CSI, which I hardly ever watched, they had a penchant for the absurd. It’s one thing to have DNA tests come back in 15 minutes (more than a month if it’s a rush job), but they would do things that were just stupidly fantastic. On CSI type shows today, they have the ability to pull up surveillance video from anywhere in the city in seconds. Sometimes they call up satellite data and track a car. Yeah, right. I did see a clip one time where they poured plaster into a knife wound and pulled out a perfect replica of the murder weapon. Try that on the next chuck roast that is sitting on your kitchen counter. Actually, don’t try that, it’ll ruin a good piece of meat. Just trust me, it doesn’t work.

But most folks don’t really believe that stuff. They understand fantasy. To a point. Every jury wants to know why the defendant’s fingerprints or DNA weren’t at the crime scene. Some prosecutors and police lamented that they had to counter the “CSI effect.” I, however, relished the chance to talk to a jury and explain those things. At least the jury was a captive audience (unlike you, since you can simply read another column) and they had to listen to me. But they didn’t “have to” listen to me. So I tried to make it interesting.

I’d put Capt. John Lanneau (WRPD) on the stand and have him explain that, from a forensic standpoint, it would be almost impossible to prove that the jury was there without video or eyewitness proof. Fingerprints and DNA aren’t readily recoverable from jury boxes. I’d put Agt. Lee Weathersby, GBI, on the stand to explain how the blood came to be spattered (not splattered) on the wall. I’d put Chief Investigator Jon Holland (HCSO) on the stand to explain that while there was no video, they made a plaster cast of a shoeprint that matched exactly the ones on the defendant, including a burned mark that made the shoe distinct. I’d put Lt. Ken Ezell (Perry PD) on the stand to explain how the crime could be proved by a forensic evaluation of financial records.

These officers, and countless others, work to make cases that prove the defendant is the right one to be charged, or not charged, with the crime. The CSI effect is real, but instead of being scared of it, effective lawyers embrace it and that is what wins cases.

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