Fighting the CSI Factor


June 29, 2012 by msashtonwriter

As a detective, one of the questions that I am frequently asked is: “do you watch CSI?”

This question is usually followed by an abrupt statement about how they enjoy watching the series and learning about how the police use forensics to solve some of the most heinous crimes.

It’s interesting to watch their joy evaporate when I respond with an emphatic “No, I don’t even like watching the show. It’s like watching work.” Befuddled and confused, my inquisitive guests often become disappointed due to my response—which causes our conversation to take an abrupt turn.

“I watched one episode, and I saw how one of the characters was dusting a bar counter for latent prints. He transferred the print onto a transparent piece of tape and raised the tape up to the light. I assumed that the technician was only checking the quality of the print. He squinted, and after examining the print with his naked eye, shouted out the name of the suspect without conferring any databases. I became unnerved, so I grabbed the remote and turned the channel. I haven’t watched the show since; despite its success.”

A puzzled look usually appears across their faces as they realize how simple the show is. However, what really grabs their attention is when I share how such inaccurate shows portray good police work in an unrealistic light. So much, in fact, that it has compounded the prosecution of criminals by confusing jurors.

Bewilderment becomes the next visible expression as I continue to describe the problem with some of the high-paced police shows.

“You see, what happens on TV is that these crimes are solved with a variety of forensic tasks. They get a case and solve it by after finding a slew of evidence such as latent prints, trace evidence, DNA, and all the other types of evidence that we are able to examine. On the contrary, we are often fortunate to find a few shards of evidence in real-life cases.

The problem is that we as a society have come to expect such results in every investigation. So when citizens are asked to serve as jurors they are often unable to distinguish between fictional TV cases and reality cases. As a result, there have been a handful of guilty criminals who have walked away a free man. This is what is known in criminal justice as the “CSI Factor.”

6 thoughts on “Fighting the CSI Factor

  1. This can be a real hurdle for CSIs and detectives in court Marguerite. As a former CSI and fiction writer I have seen this first hand. We spend a lot of time trying to educate jurors about how the world really works but sometimes you just can’t un-ring that bell. There is nothing more frustrating than when a juror puts more confidence in the fiction they see on television than the expert sitting before them, but it happens. Thanks a lot for sharing.

    • Thanks for commenting, Tom.

      From what I’ve been reading and hearing, this is a huge hurdle for investigators.
      Maybe there should be a show focusing on the reality of investigation and air IT during prime time.

  2. Fred Connors says:

    As a criminal courts reporter, I have covered many trials in which the judge reminded jury members not to confuse real life facts with television CSI programs. An unrealistic expectation by jurors dampens prosecutors’ ability to present reasonable proof of guilt. Well written blog.

  3. Hi, Fred
    It’s good to hear from you again.
    Do you think there is anything that could be done to fix that?

  4. ovcoldcases says:

    A wise judge once told me, “Cross examination is the engine that gets to the truth.” Savvy prosecutors and defense attorneys can quell this myth when they have the so-call expert witnesses on the stand.

  5. I had a burglary victim ask me if we were going to dust the bricks on the house like they did on that episode of CSI – Ugh! When I’m asked what TV show best portrays detective work I send them to Barney Miller

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