CSI Effect

December 5, 2011 § 1 Comment

The dead man sits in the driver’s seat of a brown Ford saloon. The Ford saloon is sitting in a living room. It has crashed through the French windows and upended the coffee table, scattering glass, masonry, a TV remote control and a half-eaten deep-dish pizza. A few drops of blood spot the carpet and on the sofa one cushion bears a dark red stain. Family photographs stand undisturbed on the mantelpiece: two balding men with the same round balding features stare out over the carnage, their smiles as stiff as the corpse in the car.

A man in a black vest bearing the legend “CSI Investigator” is taking it all in. His name is Todd Shuttleworth. “I see blood on the pillow,” he says. “I’m wondering what relation the car has to the blood on the pillow.”

He points to a beer bottle in the wreckage on the floor, he notes a muddy footprint near the driver’s door, he wonders out loud if the fibres in the victim’s head wound match the fibres from the car seat.

Later two young female investigators arrive on the scene and begin making notes. “I just document everything,” Megan Harris-Linton, 30, tells me later. “I take in each little piece.” It is Megan who notices the cough sweet lying on the carpet near the beer bottle. Is it a red herring? Or is it a Fisherman’s Friend?

“I’m trying to keep an open mind, not coming to any conclusions,” says Whitney Harris-Linton, 27, her younger sister, as we stoop over another crime scene and she notes the blowfly larvae on a woman’s torso that will help us to pinpoint the time of death.

Neither of these are real crime scenes, of course, which is fortunate as none of us has any qualifications as crime scene investigators. Shuttleworth, 39, is the manager of a storage facility in Vancouver. I am the holder of a science GCSE. Whitney is an elementary school teacher in New York. Megan is probably the nearest thing we have to a forensic scientist: she teaches it at a city high school and once witnessed an autopsy while she was working as an intern at a hospital.

None of us is discouraged by our lack of qualifications, however. We all feel capable of following the evidence, matching DNA samples and divining the significance of an errant dog hair, as we had all watched plenty of TV crime dramas: Bones, NCIS and, of course, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

The last of these, which serves up a continual buffet of gory corpses and forensic science tips, has been credited with encouraging this delusion in millions of viewers. For nearly half of the past decade, the show has been the most watched TV drama in the world.

In that time, university forensic departments have received a surge in applicants and police and prosecutors have complained of the “CSI Effect”: an unrealistic expectation among the public — especially those on juries — that every crime scene will yield compelling forensic evidence.

Now there is CSI: The Experience, which further encourages the idea by allowing fans of the show to put those skills into practice. The entrance to this forensics theme park is on a street close to Times Square in Manhattan. The Harris-Linton sisters, Shuttleworth and I are among the visitors. We go to a dimly lit complex containing three mocked-up crime scenes and a labyrinth of mocked-up laboratories and autopsy rooms.

First, Dr Gil Grissom, original star character of the series, appears before us on a video screen and tells us that crime scenes are puzzles. “Examine everything, document everything,” he says. “Let the evidence guide you.”After 15 minutes peering at the mannequin in the Ford, the evidence, and various large signs, leads us to compare fingerprints and DNA traces on computer terminals. We were told the victim, one Vincent Lansing, had tested zero for blood alcohol and his DNA was a match to saliva on the beer bottle.

“I still don’t understand it,” says Shuttleworth. “How could the victim’s DNA be on the beer bottle, but he has zero blood alcohol?” The evidence just doesn’t add up.

Then, as happens two thirds of the way into a CSI episode, we get a breakthrough. Vincent had a twin brother, Patrick! He had a record — and was fresh out of jail after a drink-driving conviction. “Maybe he killed his brother, stuck him in the car and drove it through the living room window to make it look like an accident,” Shuttleworth says. “Maybe,” I reply suddenly wishing that I was wearing a large pair of sunglasses, so that I could take them off dramatically and stare into the middle distance. Lieutenant Horatio Caine does this weekly on CSI Miami. It seems to be standard procedure. “Or maybe Patrick got drunk, went for a drive, drove the car into the house killing his brother and then put his brother in the driving seat.”

That explains the blood on the sofa, the blood spatter on the floor, the dirty footprint by the broken French windows. The autopsy confirms that our victim had eaten a slice of pizza. Then his drunken brother had served him a slice of death, no anchovies.

It all seems so simple. It is just as Grissom told us: crime scenes are puzzles. Here is the neat, snug solution. It is this sensibility that CSI encourages and that prosecutors blame for jeopardising real cases where the forensic evidence is absent or vague.

Whether the show is so influential is debatable. Two studies in 2006 and 2008 found that jurors had become more likely to expect to see scientific evidence gleaned from crime scenes. Yet the researchers failed to find a correlation between this expectation and jurors’ viewing habits.

Last month a state Supreme Court in Massachusetts noted there was still no proper evidence for the CSI Effect, but ruled that judges should be permitted to question potential jurors about it.

“I think there is a CSI Effect,” says Professor Thaddeus Hoffmeister, of the University of Dayton School of Law. “I’m just not sure how we quantify how much of an effect it is.”

He refers to the recent trial of Casey Anthony, a young mother from Florida accused of killing her child. Her acquittal over the summer caused turmoil on TV news shows, where she had already been “pronounced guilty”. But there was no trace of her DNA on the duct tape that prosecutors said had been used to suffocate the two-year-old, nor was there any physical evidence placing her at the scene where her daughter’s body was found.

“Prosecutors complained that they were being held to a higher standard,” says Hoffmeister.

I spoke to a prosecutor in New York, who raised a similar complaint over the recent acquittal of two police officers, accused of raping a young woman whom they had escorted home. The alleged victim was drunk and almost insensible and though one officer admitted that he had climbed into bed and given her a cuddle, there was no proof that he had done anything more.

“The prosecutors tried to work around it,” says the prosecutor, who did not wish to give his name. “But it’s hard to disprove a negative.” He says that the CSI Effect “has become a real part of our internal dialogue, as to how do we counter it, and part of our outward dialogue with jurors. Basically, we’re trying to lower expectations”.

Prosecuting drug cases has become more problematic, because even when sachets of illegal drugs are found on a defendant, jurors will expect to see their fingerprints on the bags. “We don’t have the resources for that,” he says.

On CSI, jurors may have seen investigators sharpening the grainiest of CCTV footage to identify a fleeing suspect. “But say you have 500 cameras in Times Square,” says the prosecutor. “They’ll often be in private hands. Finding and examining the video footage from all that — unless it’s an exceptional case you just can’t devote those resources.”

On the other hand, defence attorneys point out that where DNA evidence does exist, there might be an automatic tendency to convict. “I know that the speculation is that \[the CSI Effect\] benefits defendants and if there is no forensic evidence the defence can exploit that,” says Michael Shapiro, a Manhattan criminal defence attorney. “But when there is that kind of evidence presented, then jurors say to themselves: ‘Aha!’”

Shapiro does not watch crime dramas. “I can’t think of any entertainment show I watch on a regular basis, with one exception,” he says. “My wife has got me hooked on Dancing with the Stars. To my knowledge that has had no effect on jurors.”

This will probably remain true unless or until a jury is asked to convict Sophie Ellis Bextor for Murder on the Dance Floor. And it remains true that there is no solid proof for the CSI Effect. Prosecutors have only circumstantial evidence to back up their belief that juries will no longer accept only circumstantial evidence.

There was more circumstantial evidence of the CSI Effect at CSI: The Experience, however. After Shuttleworth and I had nailed our case, we conferred with the Harris-Linton sisters.

“Whitney was really good,” says Megan. “I watch enough CSI,” says Whitney.

What if we walked out onto 44th Street and happened on a corpse.

Would they know what to do?

“I’d like to say yes,” says Whitney.

“I actually think yes,” says Megan. “I think I would be able to collect the right information. We might not be able to analyse it ourselves, or even know what the analysis meant, but we would definitely know what was important.”

Savanah Rivera, 17, a New York high school student and CSI addict who was attending The Experience with her mother, thinks she’d like to “have a stab” at a real-life crime scene.

But when I ask a construction site supervisor called John Sajovje, 43, from Tennessee, he says: “It hasn’t been three months ago since I came upon a 19-year-old dead in a car.” The vehicle was upside down by the side of a road. He dialled 911 as he ran towards the vehicle, but he could see she was dead. “It’s a totally different ball game,” he says, as he picks up a “CSI diploma”.

As we leave, we pass through a gift shop selling T-shirts, crime-scene tape and CSI stain remover — perfect for the homicidal maniac who cares about his clothes. There are also some trendy white bags decorated with impact blood spatter, bags that say: “I may have murdered someone with a blunt instrument recently”.

“They’re just for show but a lot of people have been asking,” says the woman in the gift shop. “We may start selling them soon.”



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