CSI, and its offshoots, CSI: Miami, and CSI: New York are popular American television dramas. The premier of the show was in 2000, and since then, interest in forensics, forensic science, and criminal justice in general has increased noticeably. The effects are evident not only in the United States, but also in other countries. In one university in the United Kingdom, forensic science is now the number one major on campus with 400 students enrolled -- up from just four in 1999, which is the year prior to the airing of the first CSI episode. Clearly, the media is having a major impact on the ways the general public perceives crime, crime investigations, and the procedures of criminal justice. Moreover, the show does not explain some of the detailed aspects of how investigators carry out their work.
In the television show, there are a lot of different characters who play different roles in the Las Vegas Police Department. None of the main characters are police officers or lawyers, or any other member of the criminal justice team. Rather, the show focuses exclusively on its titular topic: crime scene investigation. Crime scene investigation is what it sounds like, entailing only the gathering and analyzing of data from the scene of a crime. Although it goes by different names in different departments and in different countries, crime scene investigation is a critical component of solving crimes and achieving justice. Criminal justice attorneys do not typically interact directly with crime scene investigators, but do receive the results of their work and use those results to build their cases.
The television show depicts everything from a forensic entomologist (who specializes in the use of insects to determine cause and time of death) to blood spatter experts, whose knowledge of trajectories and the nature of blood can determine how an attack took place. Each person tends to have an area of specialization, although there are some characters that serve in broader roles in the department. The supervisory roles, like those of lead characters played by Ted Danson and Elisabeth Shue are the most notably managerial in nature. With the possible exception that most "CSIs don't wear high heels to crime scenes," the people themselves are fairly accurate portraits of the type of work performed by forensic scientists working on specific crimes (Stanton, 2009).
A crime scene typically involves gathering evidence in systematic way, and as soon as possible to ensure lack of tampering with the evidence or scene, and lack of deterioration of the evidence. This is why warrants are needed as rapidly as possible, and can be fast-tracked. The crime scene investigators usually show up ready to record what they see and collect evidence in ways that help to preserve its integrity. For example, any item that can be taken into the lab will not be touched directly by the investigator, but carefully handled using tweezers or other tools, and brought to the evidence lab. Many investigators dutifully take photographs and write notes of their impressions or thoughts when at the scene of the crime. Sometimes, a video is needed. Investigators often work in zones, or in grids, to make sure that every inch was covered (Layton, n.d.). All these methods of gathering evidence from the scene of a crime are depicted relatively well on the show.
There are some inaccuracies, naturally, in the depiction of crime scene investigation and criminal justice in general. The television show is designed to be wrapped up neatly, which rarely happens in the real world. Sometimes, cases are backlogged for an inordinate period of time as investigators wait for evidence to come back from laboratories. The show does not accurately depict the backlogs and other grim realities of the difficulties solving crimes. A lack of resources is a major issue in American criminal investigations. As many as "200,000-300,000 backlogged DNA samples in U.S. labs" alone have been cited (Rincon, 2005). One English commentator points out, "There's more money spent in this country on holistic medicine than there is on forensic science research," (Rincon, 2005). Therefore, the show could do a better job in delving into some of the problems that criminal investigators, ...
Reagan (2009) points out an even darker side of why the CSI portrait of crime scene investigation is inaccurate, by noting that forensics is not as infallible as some people might think. The show makes it seem that when the test results are in, the suspect can either be acquitted or convicted on the basis of that evidence alone. Essentially, the show suggests that forensic data is all that is needed to illuminate the truth. Reagan (2009) offers several examples of when forensic science fails, and why people should not take shows like CSI as seriously as they do. With the exception of DNA evidence, " there is not a single forensic discipline that has been proven 'with a high degree of certainty' to be able to match a piece of evidence to a suspect" (Reagan, 2009). Ballistics, blood spatter, hair analysis, and even fingerprint analysis have all proven to be mistaken at times, and have led to wrongful convictions and the real perpetrator going free. The television show CSI does not discuss some of the down sides of forensics or of criminal justice. By focusing only on the hard work and successes of the characters, the show portrays the process of criminal justice as being more neat and pat than it actually is. As Reagan (2009) points out, forensic science is in its infancy. Many of the methods used by forensic scientists were developed by police and their methodologies are not as rigorous as they might have been were they developed by scientists in controlled environments. Adding to the problem is the fact that "no advanced degree is required for a career in forensics. And even the most experienced and respected professionals can come to inaccurate conclusions, because the body of research behind the majority of the forensic sciences is incomplete," (Reagan).
In short, forensics is not as reliable as CSI wants its viewers to believe. The problem has led to what is known as the "CSI Effect." The CSI effect refers to the phenomena in which jurors in actual criminal cases make decisions to acquit the suspect based on their expectations of forensic evidence. Therefore, defense attorneys have been using the CSI effect in their favor, by suggesting to the jury that there were not enough fingerprints at the scene of the crime, or that the blood spatter evidence was inconclusive, in order to sway the jury. Research shows that "some televised depictions of law enforcement can influence people's beliefs about the legal system," and the CSI effect may indeed be leading to "an epidemic of unjustified acquittals," (Podlas, 2007). The flip side to this issue may be the fact that prosecuting attorneys may need to do a better job in informing the jury about the limitations of forensic evidence, pointing out the CSI effect as well as the facts and merits of the case. Likewise, there are cases in which forensic science and evidence should be demanded by a discerning jury. Hearsay, unreliable witnesses, and biases can too often lead to wrongful convictions. Juror demand for forensic evidence should be viewed as a good and not a bad thing.
There are some aspects of criminal justice procedures that are inaccurate, but which an educated or intelligent viewer should figure out with no difficulty. For instance, on CSI, the characters work within an unrealistic time frames and they get their results instantly. Of course, anyone who has gone to a doctor knows that test results do not come back instantly. It takes a long time for laboratories to analyze data, especially in large urban areas like those depicted on CSI. The television show uses mainly technologies that are used in real life, but there are some computer software applications that are designed for their appearance on television rather than on their accuracy. In other words, the producers are "taking computer graphics and making science do something it can't," (Stanton, 2009). On the television show, some of the investigators have more control over the case or over the scene than they would in real life. The show does not typically depict people demanding warrants, although as Gildea (n.d.) points out, the judge "almost always grants the warrant," giving the benefit of the doubt to the police. Unlike Law and Order, which often does show the warrant process, CSI does not. This omission is insignificant given that Law and Order is about all stages of the criminal justice process, whereas CSI is only about the forensic science. Some of the characters on CSI are shown to be interviewing suspects, which might be done if the investigator is also a detective who happened to know a lot about their area of specialization. It is more likely that a forensic science specialist would focus only on…
Moreover, the show does not explain some of the detailed aspects of how investigators carry out their work.
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