Art trips up life: TV crime shows influence jurors

With a perfectly powdered yet furrowed brow, the sexy crime scene investigator arrives at a Las Vegas apartment and finds a dead man.

Minutes later, she spies a tiny shard of glass in the pant cuff of the victim's brother, matches it to shattered glass in the apartment, and quickly proves the evil brother to be the murderer. Case started and solved in an hour, minus commercials.


As shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation have become America's most-watched programs, lawyers and scientists have noticed an unintended consequence: Jurors increasingly expect to encounter in the courtroom what they've seen on television - DNA, fingerprints or other irrefutable scientific evidence of guilt.

In Baltimore, lawyers have attributed several recent surprising acquittals to what they call the CSI effect. They say evidence that is not physical or scientific often seems to have little impact on jurors - even eyewitness testimony from a priest.


"Jurors are so influenced by television to the point that it makes it nearly impossible for us," said Baltimore's Deputy State's Attorney Haven H. Kodeck.

When Kodeck conducts orientation for grand juries, the first thing he does is explain the difference between real cases and made-for-television plots.

"I tell everyone, 'If you watch CSI, please put it out of your mind,'" he said. "People expect us to produce what TV produces, and that's just not reality."

Fewer than 10 percent of the homicide cases in the Baltimore state's attorney's office involve fingerprint or DNA evidence, according to Donald Giblin, deputy chief of the division.

"I don't watch the shows because it raises the hair on the back of my neck," Giblin said.

The idea of a television program affecting court trials is an old one, going back to the 1950s, when fictitious defense lawyer Perry Mason wormed a confession out of the real criminal by the end of each episode.

But the wild popularity of forensic science shows adds a new wrinkle - especially as much of the science is, at best, an exaggeration of what's possible.

Baltimore jurors in two recent high-profile acquittals said they wanted more physical evidence than was presented at trial.


In one case, they disbelieved a priest's testimony about who robbed him at gunpoint; in another, they refused to convict despite the word of an 11-year-old girl who came to court and pointed out the man who she said shot her father.

"I would have liked some kind of evidence, like finding the gun with fingerprints," said Phil Cunneff, an alternate juror in the DeAndre Whitehead murder case, which included the small child as a witness.

After the verdict in the priest's case - in which a man was charged with holding up a parish - jury foreman Candace Blankenship said: "There should have been some other evidence from the church."

However, the priest, the Rev. Mike Orchik, thought his testimony, along with the testimony of another victim of the robbery, ought to be enough to convict the defendant. "I thought I'd identified him very strongly," Orchik said.

Thomas Mauriello, a forensic scientist and adjunct professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, said there is a disconnect because many jurors across the country believe they're actually learning something about the criminal justice system when they watch television dramas.

"What's happening is every day people are watching the TV show and they think they're being educated as well as entertained," Mauriello said. "When they are a member of a real case, they think they have knowledge of the scientific progress. They think the police didn't do their job because they didn't find a fingerprint. We're polluting jury pools."


Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, who is on the board of the National District Attorneys Association, said the CSI effect is reaching across the nation.

"Everybody is complaining about it," Jessamy said of her peers in other states. "It's become a standing joke."

She recalled when CSI, which is set in Las Vegas, first aired in 2000. She watched an episode, then called Las Vegas District Attorney Stuart Bell on the telephone, inquiring about high-tech forensic techniques she had seen on the show.

"I said, 'Do you have all that stuff out there?'" she said. "He laughed and said, 'Are you kidding? It's killing us, too.'"

Jessamy watched one episode of a crime show in which investigators were able to take the soil from the sole of a shoe and connect it to a certain part of the city, thus solve the crime. In another, they were able to identify three kinds of DNA from a piece of chewing gum, which gave investigators their three suspects.

"I'm shocked at some of the things they do," Jessamy said.


Last year, the Baltimore police crime lab found fingerprints on 0.3 percent of firearms and related evidence it processed, according to department statistics.

In cases in which police had no suspect but possible DNA evidence, about 15 percent were solved through DNA science, the statistics showed.

Sharon Talmadge, the Baltimore Police Department's supervisor of latent print examiners, said fingerprints can easily be smudged or ruined. She said the right mix of oil and perspiration must be present for someone to leave a discernible fingerprint.

"Ridge detail on prints is very fragile and easy to destroy," Talmadge said. "If you put your finger down and move it slightly, you can totally destroy the print."

Talmadge also said it is nearly impossible to get a usable print from a gun that has a grooved or slip-resistant surface, which are increasingly common.

But the downfall of a criminal investigation can be a windfall for a defense lawyer. Many use the lack of physical evidence at a trial to their tactical advantage.


"If a gun is recovered and there is not a fingerprint - and invariably there is not - you try and play up the lack of fingerprints," said prominent defense lawyer Mark VanBavel. "It shows a lack of connection to the defendant."

On television, however, such issues do not exist.

CSI and its Miami-based spinoff are rated No. 1 and No. 2 in the country, reaching 28.8 million viewers each week, according to Nielsen Media research.

Also ranked in the top 10 were crime and justice shows Cold Case, Law and Order: SVU and Law and Order.

The thrilling plots involve crime scenes and courtrooms where stylish law enforcement agents strut around in high heels with little regard for the law. Beautiful investigators wear lipstick that doesn't fade while they solve murders using forensic science that is often nothing short of futuristic.

Mauriello calls the story lines "absurd" and said about 40 percent of the science on shows such as CSI doesn't exist.


An example, he said, is that one man was proved guilty during an episode by investigators positively matching his voice with an answering machine message. In another episode, police filled a man's stab wound with liquid, waited for it to dry, and pulled out the hardened substance - which was in the form of the knife blade.

"We don't have that technology yet," Mauriello said.

On CSI, the crimes are solved by "crime scene investigators" who arrive on the scene, interview witnesses, comfort victims, carry handguns, make arrests, collect evidence, transport it to the lab, process it and solve the crime.

At a real crime scene, they would have done the jobs of about four different people - responding officer, detective, crime scene technician, scientist.

Mauriello said he has noticed that some of his students want to be trained to become the crime scene investigators they see on TV.

"A lot of students are coming to the university to major in criminal justice seeking jobs they see on TV that don't exist," Mauriello said.


He said most crime scene investigators around the country are civilians, not police officers. Their job is to come to crime scenes, take photographs, collect evidence, package it properly and transport it to the lab.

"Then their job is done," Mauriello said. "But in CSI, they do everything. They bring evidence to the crime lab and then they're the scientists. It's absurd."