A CSI Writer Defends His Show
A Response To
As a former crime scene investigator, I was once called to testify on the stand in a criminal trial. Before giving my testimony, I had to explain to the jury the responsibilites and qualifications of forensic scientists in the criminal justice system. Now, five years later, prosecutors are complaining that jurors may know too much about forensics for their own good. Prosecutors blame this trend on the television show CSI, for which I serve as a writer and technical adviser.
As one person who may be responsible for creating the CSI effect, I see both the upsides and downsides of this newsworthy phenomenon. On one hand, I have heard and read accounts of how CSI may have influenced juries to let potentially guilty defendants go free. I look at those cases as tragedies that should be troubling to us. On the other hand, better informed juries can’t be a bad thing. Interest in the sciences is a matter of national importance, and, thanks in part to television shows like CSI, young people are applying to forensic science programs in increasing numbers. And consider the consequences: If jurors had this level of knowledge and interest prior to the O.J. Simpson trial, we might have seen a different outcome. So when people ask me about the CSI effect, I tell them that it actually serves our government’s interest in education, and in justice.
First, a little background on the show: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation first aired in September of 2000. Since its premiere many other forensics-based shows have sprung up, like NCIS and Bones, to name a couple, in addition to two CSI spinoffs, in Miami and
In addition to being entertaining, these shows do educate audiences in forensics, which is science applied to the law. The forensics genie has been out of the bottle for a long time now. CSI, admittedly, tends to focus on the most interesting and novel forensic techniques, and not on more realistic, tedious, labor-intensive searches, when no one finds the needle in the haystack. We are a television show after all, and resolving crimes is the business of the show.
Even though all of our cases are solved, CSI does not use “sleights of evidentiary magic,” as Professor Tyler claims in his essay. We use fundamental forensic techniques such as fingerprinting, DNA analysis, and bullet and cartridge case comparison. These techniques produce virtually conclusive results that help solve crime mysteries. In addition to the fundamentals, we use as many legitimate modern analytical techniques as possible to keep our audiences interested. We make sure these techniques are accepted by forensic experts in the real world before using them in the show.
Prosecutors have faulted CSI for creating unrealistic expectations of the criminal justice system. Juries, they say, now believe that investigators will find every tidbit of evidence at a crime scene, then have it examined in time to produce definitive forensic results in every trial, no matter how minor. Prosecutors have begun to blame CSI for not guilty verdicts.
But there are benefits to be gained from this so-called CSI effect, and prosecutors have yet to point these out. Juries have a better understanding now of forensic science. As a result they are better at assessing expert witnesses and evaluating evidence in light of the tests that could have been done. The burden is now on prosecutors to explain why certain tests were not performed, or why the results are inconclusive. Our system is constrained by limited resources of money and time. But taking a person’s life or liberty requires complete explanations in light of those circumstances. If juries demand them because of CSI, prosecutors should not necessarily be angry.
Moreover, developing a direct relationship between CSI and jury verdicts is more difficult than it seems. The Robert Blake and Michael Jackson cases were resolved with unpopular not-guilty verdicts. On the other hand, the Laci Petersen case ended in a guilty verdict with little physical evidence. The fact that these decisions are so divorced from the evidence has to make us wonder how much a CSI Effect really exists--or if it does exist, how far it reaches.
In the end, if there is a CSI effect, the benefits outweigh any costs to prosecutors. Just like all the legal and police shows before it, CSI has helped educate the public. I am proud of the fact that CSI is actually helping our society by creating an interest in science, especially among women and children, something that has not been accomplished by any other means.
Most importantly, CSI returns the focus to exonerating the innocent. In every episode the evidence convicts the bad guy, and at the same time it frees an innocent person. If it’s such a crime to reinvigorate the cliché that defendants are innocent until proven guilty, as a CSI writer, I’ll happily take the charge.
Richard Catalani is a writer and technical adviser for CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.
Preferred Citation: Richard Catalani, A CSI Writer Defends the CSI Effect, Yale L.J. (Feb. 2006), http://yalelawjournal.org/forum/a-csi-writer-defends-his-show.