Investigating the 'CSI Effect' Effect: Media and Litigation Crisis in Criminal Law

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

I.   TYPOLOGY OF CSI EFFECTS

II.  EVIDENCE OF THE CSI EFFECT
     A. Anecdotes
     B. Surveys of Legal Actors
     C. Juror Surveys
     D. Psychological Experiments
     E. Acquittal Rate Data

III. MEDIA COVERAGE OF THE CSI EFFECT

IV.  A SELF-FULFILLING OR SELF-DENYING PROPHECY?

CONCLUSION

INDEX OF FIGURES AND TABLES

Table 1. Annual Rank of CSI Franchise Programs Among U.S. Television
    Programs
Table 2. Media Mentions of CSI Effect
Table 3. The Many Effects of CSI: Typology of CSI Effects Found in Media
    Accounts
Table 4. Percentage of Respondents Responding "Very Great Prestige" to
    Questions About the Prestige of Selected Professions
Table 5. Acquittal Rates for Nine Jurisdictions in All Years Available,
    Starting 1986
Table 6. Linear Regression Summary of the Relationship Between
    Acquittal Ra Before and After the Airing of CSI in 2001, 2002,
    and 2003 (n = 132)
Table 7. Aggregate Number of Trials and Acquittals from 1997-2006
Table 8. Comparisons Between Aggregate Acquittal Rates Before and
    After the Airing of CSI in 2001, 2002, and 2003
Table 9. Frequency of Various Versions of CSI Effect and Frequency of
    Mention Doubt

INTRODUCTION

Since 2002, popular media has been disseminating serious concerns that the integrity of the criminal trial is being compromised by the effects of television drama. This concern has been dubbed the "CSI effect" after the popular franchise Crime Scene Investigation (CSI). Specifically, it was widely alleged that CSI, one of the most watched programs on television, was affecting jury deliberations and outcomes. It was claimed that jurors confused the idealized portrayal of the capabilities of forensic science on television with the actual capabilities of forensic science in the contemporary criminal justice system. Accordingly, jurors held inflated expectations concerning the occurrence and probative value of forensic evidence. When forensic evidence failed to reach these expectations, it was suggested, juries acquitted. In short, it was argued that, in cases lacking forensic evidence in which juries would have convicted before the advent of the CSI franchise, juries were now acquitting.

The jury is central to American law. The right to a jury trial is "no mere procedural formality, but a fundamental reservation of power in our constitutional structure." (1) Although the jury has been much maligned, the law continues to treat the jury as almost sacred, and many legal scholars and social scientists continue to defend the jury system. (2)

Among the longstanding criticisms of juries has been the claim that juries are subject to media bias. Psychologists have argued that juries can be influenced by pretrial publicity in specific cases, lending support for the need for changes of venue in high profile cases. (3) But, they have also argued that there are more general forms of pretrial publicity, in which media influence may shape jurors' general views about law and crime in ways that affect jury deliberations and verdicts. (4)

The CSI effect is supposedly just such a general pretrial publicity effect. It is alleged that media influence causes potential jurors to have distorted views of the capacity--in the broadest sense of that term--of forensic science to generate evidence in criminal prosecutions. These distorted views, it is alleged, actually affect jury verdicts: cases in which jurors would have convicted absent the media influence of CSI and similar television programming now result in acquittals or hung juries. As we have argued elsewhere, such charges, if true, would constitute a serious challenge to law's continued faith in the jury and thus raise serious questions about the integrity of the criminal justice system itself. (5)

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is a primetime American television crime drama. It first appeared on the CBS television network on October 6, 2000. …