CSI Effect and Changes in Public Perception Essay

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  • Subject: Criminal Justice
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CSI Effect and Public Perception

Forensic Science

Forensic science is an umbrella term that includes a number of techniques designed to answer scientific questions within a legal environment. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries this may include the collection of trace elements from a crime scene, analysis and reconstruction of bones and/or faces, use of teeth to identify remains, crime scene analysis and one of the most popular for the media -- DNA typing. Essentially, forensics is a discipline which uses standardized techniques to pull apart an event, analyze what happened, and find a more accurate conclusion to the data analysis than just witness testimony. For centuries, lacking even rudimentary techniques like fingerprinting or blood type analysis, the legal system relied on confessions and witness testimony. We may turn to Ancient Greece for one of the first recorded examples of a type of forensic inquiry. In the anecdote of Archimedes the scholar was asked by the King to determine if a crown made for him was pure gold or contained silver. It seems the King had supplied pure gold, but suspected the goldsmith of being dishonest. Archimedes had noticed that while bathing the level of the water in the tub rose. He surmised that different objects displace different levels of water. Using a mathematical calculation he determined during his famous "Eureka" moment that silver had actually been mixed in and the goldsmith punished James, 2005; Archimedes' Principle, 2004).

Over the next several centuries the manner in which science used logic and deduction bled into the legal profession and, sometimes reluctantly, became part of forensic science. Often, literature leads science -- what becomes possible in literature than becomes practical in reality. For example, who can forget Washington Irving's memorable Ichabod Crane from the 1820 story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow? In a way, Ichabod is a symbol for the new science of deduction and its use to overcome superstition and intrigue. Similarly, the famous detective Sherlock Holmes, who first appeared in 1887, was the quintessential detective who used scientific deduction to solve crime. Author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based his character on reality, though. Two scientists of the time, Dr. Joseph Bell at the Edinburg Royal Infirmary and Sir Henry Little-John, from the Royal College of Surgeons, are cited as sources for Holmes and his techniques, particularly those involving the new sciences of chemical analysis and fingerprinting (Lycett, 2007, 53-4).

With the advances in chemistry, computer science, microscopy, and our understanding of organic chemistry forensic techniques continued to improve. It appears that when there is a need, science will attempt ti find answers and, over time, techniques evolve that while controversial at the outset, become commonplace once they stand the test of peer reviewed journals and the Courts. For instance, at one time fingerprinting was considered unreliable, but then became a staple of crime scene investigation and even an international database. A similar situation occurred with DNA analysis which required a higher level of biohemical sophistication before it could be reliably used in the legal system. Now, we have a DNA Forensic Database, called CODIS, that blends computer and DNA technologies into a tool for fighting violent crime. The current version of CODIS uses two indexes to generate investigative leads in crimes where biological evidence is recovered from the crime scene. The Convicted Offender Index contains DNA profiles of individuals convicted of felony sex offenses (and other violent crimes). The Forensic Index contains DNA profiles developed from crime scene evidence. All DNA profiles stored in CODIS are generated using STR (short tandem repeat) analysis (Houck and Siegel, 2010; James).

The CSI Effect

In modern popular culture, there seems to be a new fascination with forensics. The novels of Kathy Reichs and Patricia Cromwell all center around forensics, and there are at least a half dozen current television shows dealing with the topic. There is no standard on the accuracy of authors who represent forensics, courtroom drama, or any other profession in novels or the popular media. Some authors (the above mentioned), have both degrees in forensics and are real-world practitioners of actual usable techniques. Their materials tend to be grounded more in science and cutting edge techniques, but techniques that are part of the modern laboratory. Other authors, particularly screen writers and television series creators, use dramatic license in a way that is both fantastic -- and yes, entertaining

The same is true for medical dramas, and there are sometimes unreasonable expectations of doctors and hospitals based on that genre as well. The real issue in both examples, medical and forensic, is one of timing. By the demands of the medium, each CSI or Criminal Minds episode must last about 44 minutes. Even a full length motion picture (e.g. Thomas Harris' works) must wrap up months long investigations in just a few hours. To do this, often super computers and tests are involved; DNA testing or spectrographic analysis that yields full-color, very attractive graphs or answers at the flip of a switch. And, of course, what the computers do not tell the crew, usually Mac Taylor (CSI: NY) or Gil Grissom (CSI: Las Vegas) or a staff member knows, typically from an obscure journal or case file (Shelton).

In most ways this affects the public's opinion on justice with rising expectations for quick, complete, and air-tight cases that are solved within days, sometimes hours of the crime. The public neither sees nor expects long investigations, lengthy interviews, and the time it takes to pour over even the simplest of accounts. Conversely, other scholars believe that forensic dramas are quite positive. Jurors are no longer in the dark about what tests can and cannot be done; the public has a greater understanding of the legal system, and a hope in the American criminal justice system. Indeed, "prosecutors and defense attorneys alike can only cringe at the thought that while justice may be blind…. It also manages to tune in to CSI" (Mann, 2006). In fact, as technology continues to improve, and more and more viewers tune into the CSI series and its spin-offs, there is an evolving higher expectation for the robustness and accuracy of forensic technology. Other research shows that prosecutors can usually overcome most of the questions from the jury who may know a bit about certain forensic terminology, but do understand the difference between television and reality (Lillard, 2006).

CSI -- The Cultural Paradigm

The CSI media franchise was created by Anthony Zuiker and includes CSI: Las Vegas, CSI Miami, CSI: New York, a number of video games, exhibitions, toys and ancillary items, novels, graphic novels, and an upcoming feature film. There have been a number of spin offs, and most media scholars agree that the franchise has brought new interest into both factual and fictional material on forensic science. The popularity of the material resulted in a 33% increase in undergraduates wanting to study forensics (Byers, 2009).

To understand the popularity of this series, CSI has been nominated dozens of times for industry awards and has one nine. It has an art exhibit at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry and has been awareded the International Television Audience Award three times. It has a global audience of an unbelievable 74 million viewers and, in 2012, was named the most watched show globally for the fifth time (Bible, 2012).

On the surface this would seem quite noble and positive for society -- after all, the more people who are interested in law enforcement and solving crime the safer society may become -- right? It turns out that there is something known as the "CSI Effect" or "CSI Syndrome" that has the dual effect of raising victims' and jury members' expectations of forensic science and DNA testing as well as providing clues to criminals on ways to cover up their crimes. Much of these issues result from the understandable dramatic liscence that a 1 hour show must take to make the series interesting. Tests are glamorized and certainly sped up; there is typically an answer or solution to every problem, and the accuracy and technological know how of current forensic science tends to be exaggerated for effect (Shelton, 2008).

Public Perceptions and the CSI Effect

Criminal science and forensic entertainment seems to have several major effects on the modern criminal justice system:

The Public -- The public has high expectations of both a solve rate and the ability to detect criminal activity of all types. On one hand, this raises the bar and makes the public have greater forensics. On the other hand, in overstating the accuracy of forensic techniques, when a real world situation arises, most cannot understand why law enforcement simply doesn't use the techniques they have seen on television to get the answer (Barak, 2007; Cole, 2009).

Law Enforcement -- Due to the above, as well as the behavior of criminal just system actors (the Gil Grissom character from Las Vegas -- iconic), many prosecutors feel pressured to deliver more and more forensic evidence to…

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