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The CSI Effect

CSI It was said by Campbell Law Observer in “The Thirteenth Juror: The CSI Effect” that TV shows such as CSI have put unreasonable doubt in the minds of jurors which results in wrongful acquittals everywhere. The CSI effect put simply is the belief that television crime shows are effecting decisions made in the court rooms from jurors. Prosecutors and Judges believe that shows such as CSI are causing jurors to be out of touch with reality when it comes to making a decision about a case in the court room.

The Jurors demand for conclusive scientific evidence. Campbell mentions a rape case from 2004 that shows where the verdict came back not guilty even though DNA evidence in the form of saliva was found on the victim’s body and items of the accused were found at the crime scene. Based on the commentary of a juror after the trial it is believed that they wanted more forensic evidence. Specifically they wanted the dirt found on the woman to match the dirt at the crime scene. The judge on the case confirmed this by stating: “They said they knew from CSI that police could test for that sort of thing . . . . We had his DNA . . . It’s ridiculous.” This is the CSI effect at work.

Although there are cases like the rape case described by Campbell that show evidence that the CSI effect exists there are still opinions out there that say that it doesn’t. In the article “‘CSI Effect’ Does It Really Exist?” the author Donald E. Shelton who has been a felony judge for 17 years takes us on a step by step analysis of the CSI effect. Through data and research Shelton concluded that although in the jurors who watched CSI there were higher expectations there was no evidence to show that the CSI effect exists, his results are as follows:

• In the “every crime” scenario, CSI viewers were more likely to convict without scientific evidence if eyewitness testimony was available.
• In rape cases, CSI viewers were less likely to convict if DNA evidence was not presented.
• In both the breaking-and-entering and theft scenarios, CSI viewers were more likely to convict if there was victim or other testimony, but no fingerprint evidence.

Shelton says that the criminal justice system must adapt to these changes in expectations and can do this one of two ways. One way that this can happen is by meeting the expectations of the jurors and giving them the evidence that they want. This requires commitment, increasing law enforcement resources and equipping the police and other investigative forces with the latest forensic equipment. The other option is to equip the lawyers, prosecutors and judges with the information they need in order to address this expectation. Shelton also says that when necessary it should be explained to jurors why there is a lack of evidence.

One of the toughest things a forensic professional has to face in their career is testifying as an expert witness in court. It is not uncommon to be challenged in court on many topics, including one’s own background, education, and employment history. This is why they thoroughly prepare for their time in court in various ways. Many of them pass rigorous training programs before they are allowed to work a case on their own. They spend hours catching up on the latest forensic journals and research, as well as getting advanced criminal justice and science degrees. The nature of forensic science breeds people that are always challenging themselves by constantly learning and contributing to the field.

That being said, many people have experienced the “CSI Effect,” which has resulted in people calling themselves experts in the field. Many forensic professionals have faced the occasional person at a crime scene telling them how to do their jobs, saying they “saw it done on CSI.” However, there are a select few that take their opinions too far, affecting both the field of forensic science and the lives of people on trial. There are greater implications of the CSI effect.

Such is the case of Leigh Stubbs, a Mississippi woman who was sentenced to 44 years in prison on questionable forensic testimony. Ms. Stubbs was convicted of physically assaulting her friend Kim Williams, despite no physical evidence. Here is where Michael West enters the scene, carrying with him a reputation of shady forensic practices and an inflated resume. Mr. West’s resume stated that he was a self proclaimed expert in the following fields: wound patterns, trace metals, gunshot residue, gunshot reconstruction, crime scene investigation, blood spatters, tool marks, fingernail scratches, coroner investigations, video enhancement, and something called “liquid splash patterns.” Recognized by the American Bar Association and American Board of Forensic Odontologists as an unscrupulous witness, Mr. West was not modest in the least, quick to point out that he had an error rate on par with Jesus Christ. He attempted to compare Ms. Stubbs’ dental impressions with only photographs of Ms. Williams’s injuries. Mr. West also somehow managed to enhance surveillance footage of the women, producing results that even the FBI said was insufficient for details.

At one point in the trial, Mr. West told the courtroom that he believed Ms. Stubbs to be a lesbian, and even used his “expert knowledge” to claim that it was common to see this kind of violence in homosexual relationships. Despite the odd and flagrantly false testimony, Ms. Stubbs was sentenced to 44 years in prison, having no prior criminal record. With the help of the Innocence Project, she is trying to clear her name. Several innocent people Mr. West has sent to prison on his false testimony have either been exonerated, or are currently appealing their cases.

In a recent sting operation, it was found that Michael West was knowingly giving false forensic information, and yet his cases are still defended by the prosecution to this day. The presence of Michael West in forensic science makes the true professional’s job much harder, and unfortunately he is not the only one out there. There are people who testify as fingerprint experts, crime scene investigators, and even coroners, who have falsified their credentials and placated to the defense. While this has an effect on forensic science, it has a much greater impact on the lives of those who are truly innocent.

For more on the Stubbs case, go here.

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