Feature Articles

June 2005

CSI (T.V. Crime Dramas) Affects the American Criminal Justice System

By Clarence Walker, Criminal Justice Reporter (Houston Texas)

     Unlike real-life Mafia stories this feature article does not involve the brutal and fascinating work of the mob or organize crime. It is an engaging piece of investigative work to show Americanmafia fans how television seduce millions of viewers into a make believe world. Like the popular Sopranos series, the CSI T.V. show not only mesmerized the American public the titillating episodes has impacted our criminal justice system in unimaginable ways.

     Example: In many cases across the nation real-life jurors who are fans of CSI has either caused hung juries or acquitted obviously guility criminals, claiming the investigators failed to test evidence the way CSI does on television. As for Americanmafia fans I sincerely apologize for not producing another slew of intriguing Mafia stories. Don't worry. Before summer ends you will read the most sensational organize crime stories published on the world wide web. Now check out the CSI story.

     Its' fiction-versus-reality. As we finagle through the 21st century our American criminal justice system must confront a dreadful task when it comes to forensic science on television. Why? Police dramas and ' blood-and-guts' crime scene shows that air daily is making a chilling impact in the real world of criminal justice. These days, potential jurors are being asked 'point-blank' by prosecutors and defense attorneys: "Do you watch the T.V. show CSI?

     Many,in fact, will confess they are addicted to CSI's portrayal of sensational-type investigations that nail criminals. Prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges calls it "the CSI effect". Television crime shows, according to legal experts, contributes to mistaken idea that criminal science works rapidly, when, in fact, the show is scripted to nab criminals instantly without forensic dilemmas that often jeopardize the power of science in true-life investigations.

     Such fiction affects the criminal justice system that makes it difficult for lawyers to prepare their cases. Real crime-scene investigators says that because of T.V. shows like,CSI, Crossing Jordan and other crime fiction dramas, people often have unrealistic ideas of what criminal science can deliver.

     What particularly disturb prosecutors across the nation is the idea the public thinks every crime can be solved quickly just like on television. A Houston, Texas Prosecutor rejects such thinking. "That is farthest from the truth; if people really believe what they see on T.V. and believes it is real--- then justice is in jeopardy because thats not real life", Harris County assistant district attorney, Mark Vinson told this reporter.

     "All we hear about is CSI, says Christine Mascal, a deputy D.A. for Multnomah county in Oregon. Mascal' discussed the show with potential jurors in a murder case she was scheduled to try. The case lacked physical evidence. "People are fascinated with the CSI. So if you have physical evidence(the show) may work to your advantage". If not, it could mean trouble because some CSI fans thinks everything possible".

A Blockbuster Show

     CSI, a fifth-year episode was the second best popular T.V. show during the American Idol episodes.American Idol took first place. CSI and a spinoff, CSI Miami(in its third season) attracts more than 40 million viewers weekly. Law & Order also portrays a mix of law and forsensic evidence. This higly rated series has been the (13th) most watched show during the 2003-04 season, averaging 15 million viewers. Cable channels which consists of , the Discovery channel, A&E, including Court T.V. air programs focused on DNA testing, analysis of fingerprints, hair and blood-spatter patterns. CSI, based in New York city has already began airing this fall.

     A testament of CSI's phenomenal effect upon the American justice system is evident: During jury selection in a Northern state, a juror, unable to grasp the DNA concept told lawyers, "such problems never came up on CSI".

     CSI presents a glitzy world of high-tech equipment combined with magical science; in-your-face interrogations to solve complex crimes. What also creates a dilemma for viewers who watch CSI ----viewers that cannot differentiate between reality and fiction is that on CSI, DNA always match the suspect and results are delivered within minutes. Crime scene investigations, in real life, particularly DNA, takes up to several weeks to provide results.

     Watching CSI, viewers are also drawn into oddball cases that really doesn't happen in real life. Example: In one episode the investigators were able to nail the killer because of the smell of cologne lingering in the air at the crime scene. Using a cyranose tool, which digitizes odor matched the killer's scent with the sent at the scene. Isn't that incredible? Can experts match odor smell with a suspect ?

     Such device, experts say, "is never used by real-life crime investigators". Actor David Carusco who plays investigator Horatico Caine on CSI delivers titillating dialogue:

     "He(the bad guy) doesn't know how evidence works, but you know what? He will". In another episode that outraged forensic scientists around the country, CSI technicians squeezed caulk (that seals bathtubs) into the stab wound of a corpse to duplicate the shape of the murder weapon.

     Again, in the real world, no such technique exists. Don't tell Hetty Orringer that some CSI scenes are fake. "Oh I never think they're making it up", she told a Boston magazine writer. "When they show a scene with the bullet going in and severing this and that---I like that. It seems very possible". Elyse Dickensan, an office worker from Connecticut, is so obsessed with CSI she started a fan site ( Barbara Morrision, a veteran Oakland county prosecutor, tried a murder case earlier this year and the evidence, certainly, was a slam dunk against the defendant.

     Still Morrison was worried. Police failed to lift a readable fingerprint at the scene and some of the DNA were inconclusive. She told the jury, "this is not CSI folks. It's never as easy as it seems on T.V."

     The jury convicted the killer. If crime fiction on television is more believeable than reality in a real courtroom then lawyers, specifically prosecutors should worry. Here's more:

(1) In Phoenix , Arizona, jurors in a murder trial noticed that a bloody coat introduced as evidence had not been tested for DNA. They complained about the lack of forensic testing. What they didn't know DNA testing wan't needed because the defendant confessed being at the murder scene. The judge concluded, "although T.V. had educated the jury about DNA tests, but not enough for them to know when its really needed".

(2) In 2001, jurors in a murder trial asked the judge whether a cigarette butt found during the investigation could be tested for links to the defendant. Surprisingly, defense attorneys had not introduced the findings into evidence. The jury's hunch was correct---the DNA test exonerated the accused and acquitted him.

(3) In Arizona, Illnois and California, prosecutors now use "negative evidence witnesses" to convince jurors its not unusual for real-life crime scene investigators to not find DNA, prints and other trace evidence at crime scenes.

(4) In Massachusetts, prosecutors have requested judges' permission to question prospective jurors about their T.V. watching habits. Some states already permit such questioning.

(5) In 2002, Agapita Lao, was tried in Boston for the murder of his wife, Alicia. In this case, the prosecutor had two witnessess; one who saw him at the scene before the body was found. Exploiting the "no forensics tactics" the defense argued that Lao couldn't have committed the crime because, "there's no forensic evidence". Although prosecutors convicted Lao but they hastily call in a chemist to explain to jurors why they didn't rely on forensics: Lao had frequented his wife's apartment shortly before the murder. He was a visitor. So if his fingerprints were there already. What would it prove?

(6) In a Maricopa, Arizona courtroom, a jury foreman and devoted CSI fan convinced fellow jurors to acquit a defendant in a criminal case because the prosecutor offered no fingerprints. The stunning acquittal forced Maricopa Assistant County Attorney, Barnett Lotstein, to write "Fact and Fiction" collide in the Jury Box", in the May 2004 edition of the Prosecutor Magazine. Carol Mendelsohn, Executive Producer of CSI and CSI:Miami, savors the prosecutor's dilemma.

(7) A Prince George county jury in Maryland failed to convict a man accused of stabbing his girlfreind to death because his half-eaten hamburger recovered from the scene was not tested for evidence.

(8) Earlier this year in Washington a jury deadlocked in the trial of a woman accused of stabbing another woman. Jurors said they were unable to reach a verdict because the woman fingerprints was not found on the weapon, although evidence showed the defendant confessed to the crime and the victim and other witnesses identified the defendant as the attacker.

(9) A jury in Alexandria, Virginia, acquitted a man on drug-possession charges because a box holding 60 rocks of crack cocaine that police saw the defendant tossed from the vehicle was not tested for fingerprints.

     In response to questions about the show's effect upon the Justice system, she said, "I understand that we skew people's perceptions. We try to be as realistic as we can as a T.V. show". Elizabeth Devine, another CSI co-producer, defends the show. "We're making forensics and forensic investigators into heroes". Devine believes that in recent high-profile cases where police obtained a confession from a suspect which won a conviction but years later the confession proved to be false due to retesting of the evidence is the kind of stuff that CSI viewers take into a real courtroom to decide a case. Consider the CSI forensics the jury relied upon in these cases:

(1) In 2002, DNA cleared one man who'd died of cancer after 14 years on Florida deathrow and freed another inmate who served 22 years in prison.

(2) DNA testing disproved the convictions of five teenagers in the sensational 1989 rape and beating of a Central Park Jogger in New York.

(3) In "don't mess with Texas state" a death row inmate pled guility to a murder in exchange for time served of 20 years. Before he pled guility physical evidence had been sent for retesting due to advance technology. When the results came back none of the evidence connected him with the crime. Except for the Texas case prosecutors won convictions based on the defendants confessions. Yet it took a simple forensic test to have the defendants released from prison.

"We're helping to bring forensic evidence into the light", Devine stated. "It's easier for prosecutors to get a confession, put on a few eyewitnesses and get a conviction". "I'm sure the show makes their jobs harder but a good prosecutor would embrace the show".

A Real Scientist View

     True-life scientists says that CSI's main fault lies within one skewd method: The science is always above reproach. "You never see a case where the sample degrades or the lab work is faulty or the test results don't solve the crime", concedes Dan Krane, President and DNA specialist in Fairborn, Ohio.

     "These things happen all the time in the real world". Like the Cyranose tool used on CSI that analyzed the cologne scent of the killer. Devine responds, "that's a cyranose; a real instrument. "No way, Pete Deforest shot back. Deforest is the director of Forensic programs at John Jay college of criminal justice in New, York city. "There's no supporting research for that".

     A representative from Cyranose science, the company that makes the device, stated, "its never been used the way CSI portrayed it". A cyranose tool is commonly used in quality control and medicine. Defense lawyers also say the misconception that testing of crime scene evidence is always accurate helps prosecutors.

     "Jurors expect the criminal justice system to work better than it does", explains Betty Layne Deportes, a defense lawyer in Richmond, Virginia.

     She noted that during the past 15 years, human errors and corruption have skewed test results in crime labs in West Virginia, Pennsylania, California, Texas and Washington state. Nonetheless prosecutors insists the show helps defense lawyers. Jurors who are regular viewers, they say, expect testable evidence to be present at all crime scenes. In fact, another primary complaint from district attorneys is this: evidence such as DNA and fingerprints---the staple of CSI plots is available in only a small amount of cases and even those can produce inconclusive results.

CSI Education

     The CSI effect is also being felt beyond the courtroom. Thousands of students, fans of CSI has enrolled in college to become forensic investigators. Colleges across the nation has started graduate-level forensic programs to meet the demand inspired by CSI and other forensic shows, says James P. Hurley, spokesman for the American Academy of Forensic Science. High school science teachers are revamping chemistry programs to run like semester-long murder cases. At West Virginia University, forensic science is the most popular undergraduate major for the second year in a row.

     "It's great to get people interested in forensic science careers", said Barbara Llewellyn, a DNA analysis for Ilnois state police.

A Real crime lab

     Unlike CSI portrayal of the perfect crime lab the real world crime labs are sometimes underfunded and even have shortage of employees to handle massive workloads. Robert Martin, a senior forensic criminalist at State police crime lab in Sudbury, Massachusetts candidly admits he is a critic of CSI--yet Martin admits the show is very entertaining. In a interview with a Boston magazine writer, Martin speaks of actor Gil Grissom, the stocky-built, chief investigator on the show.

     Referring to an episode that showed Grissom asking a suspect to remove his shirt to have a gun powder residue test done, Martin quipped, "this is a detective's job". We would never do that, absolutely not, because the defense attorney would rip you a new one".

     "We have 6.3 million people in Massachusetts, the equivalent of New York city, Martin estimated. "New York city has 80 DNA analysts for 8 million people; we have four. We're getting four more, so then we'll have eight for 6.3 million people, not including Boston, which has three analysts of its own". Bottom line: It can take months to get the reports actor Grissom expects on his desk by the end of the day. For dedicated CSI fans, such fast response is needed to catch a killer. Yet what if a real-life murder scene produce forensic clues that for months or years fail to identify a prime suspect?

     So whats the explanation to the family of Christa Worthington to justify the lengthy period of time to identify a suspect in her brutal murder? A fashion writer, Worthington was murdered two years ago; found stabbed to death in her Boston area, cottage. It took tech officers several days to collect the scene evidence, says Truro's police chief, John Thomas. This real-life crime scene was handled this way: 10 detectives from State police was on the scene expending hours to record the scene with video and still photos, and the M.E. conducted their examination. Prior to removal of body, a half-dozen state police criminalists processed the body for clues. Once this work concluded tech officers combed the entire scene looking for physical evidence.

     Despite voluminous of forensic evidence, including semen, no suspect has been identified. Concerned citizens living in the area where Worthington was murdered wants to know why. In this case if the lack of money to buy adequate equipment is the culprit then perhaps a suspect may never be identified. Chief Thomas admits having a small financial budget and evidence testing is very expensive.

     Thomas explains: "To submit evidence samples to a crime lab, you must petitioned the D.A.'s office". Another dilemma: Due to heavy workload in the state, the D.A.'s office is limited to submitting (few cases) monthly. Thomas adds this scenario, "so, its like, when you watch T.V. and you see somebody on a computer and things just 'pop up', that can't be done in real life and it seems that crime show fans believes it can".

     Budget restraints is another crime lab problem. Criminalist Martin needs a crime scope, which is an alternative light source used to make fluids like saliva, semen and urine fluoresce. Whats the cost? $20.000.00 . The lab has two, but they are very old, and the wand keeps breaking on one, that takes months to repair. Martin also needs a Grim 3, a machine that determines the source of different glass types like windshield glass, or the specific prescription of eyeglasses found at a crime scene. Whats the cost? $65.000.00. On CSI there's no lack of equipment and everything works like magic.

     There's more equipment Martin needs but due to budget restrictions his request to buy a scanning electron microscope was denied. A new one costs $300.000.00 He also need a chromatography device to identify different kinds of fibers; like a paint chip, it vaporizes it, and reveals which pigments are there, such as the shade of (red) that Ford used on pickups trucks between 1970 and 1975.

     Whats the cost? $110.000.00. Despite limited financial budgets which prevents most criminal scientists to utilize valuable tools to test forensic evidence more sufficiently to identify evidence left behind by criminals that sometimes force the reliance upon larger forensic agencies, crimefighters like Martin will keep pushing forward to utilize all disposable tools necessary to see justice done in a way that only the real world can respect and be proud of.


Clarence Walker, is a true-crime journalist, civil law investigator and news reporter. A native of Arkansas-Mississippi he currently lives in Houston Texas. A veteran writer of 15 years he has written for Texas newspapers and National magazines as well serving as associate story producer and researcher for Court TV, American Justice(A&E). He currently write and produce stories for America's Most Wanted T.V. show and crime magazine. Journalist Walker also write extensively about organize crime for He is collarborating with a producer and publisher to write a book series of cold-case murders.

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