April 18, 2015

The CSI Syndrome

Forensics shows continue to be popular; a new one, CSI Cyber,  recently made its debut. Most  forensics experts will tell us that what happens on these shows bears little resemblance to reality, and yet lay audiences enjoy them enormously. What is the attraction?

Many forensics experts point out that viewers eagerly watch such shows and then expect that if they become jurors, lawyers will inevitably present them with forensic evidence as part, or all, of any case, particularly a criminal case, that they are then asked to judge. After all, these jurors reason, they've seen that pattern on tv. Lawyers and expert witnesses, on the other hand, say that they cannot present jurors with forensic evidence in every case. It doesn't exist for many cases. To the dismay of prosecutors, jurors may be less likely to convict if forensic evidence is minimal or lacking. The evidence that does exist is the usual mundane sort of evidence--eyewitness testimony, timelines, and documents. Boring stuff, really, but the bread and butter of many cases. Jurors, however, raised over the past 20 or 30 years on Forensic Files, CSI, NCIS, and similar shows, dating back to Quincy, ME, and even to early legal dramas (Perry Mason made good use of forensics to free his clients) expect forensic fireworks. They may prefer such evidence to eyewitness testimony, which can be initially exciting perhaps, but which becomes the target of terrier-like attacks from lawyers on opposing sides until the jury is completely bewildered, and must spend an inordinate amount of time weighing in the jury room. They may prefer forensic evidence which looks solid and uncompromising to circumstantial evidence that they will find difficult to evaluate. Forensic evidence certainly may seem a more likely peg to hang a verdict on than the uncertainty of much of what goes on in the courtroom, and in the legal system. The legal system itself, they know from experience and from popular culture, is a fickle animal.Why do jurors seem to be demanding?

What jurors want, I would suggest, is what they think is the certainty of forensic science. Statistics sound solid and verifiable. They sound like something measurable, something that jurors can hold onto and weigh when considering a verdict. Because the rules of evidence and the opposing attorneys' ability to shape the legal narrative might very well disguise a forensic expert's ability to explain to the jury just what the actual forensic data means, the jury might well misunderstand what it should infer from that data. Thus, the forensic science testimony that a jury hears in the court can be its proxy for certainty, bolstered by the certainty of the outcomes jury members routinely see in television episodes. Jurors can run from the uncertainty of circumstantial evidence and eyewitness testimony  and the unpleasant feeling that something is going on behind the scenes that they know nothing about, and take refuge in forensic science. Science doesn't lie (although people do, and can manipulate science, but jurors may be unaware of that). Forensic science returns us to the early promise of science and technology generally, the better life that we thought we could count on before August 1945, when the world both ended and began again.

If, then, CSI "affects" jurors, it does so for some good reasons, and very understandably. Jurors are rational human beings, and they look for certainty. Science looks certain, even if those of us who understand a little bit more of it than the average person know that it isn't all that "certain." Because they take their duties seriously, jurors also want to do a good job. If accepting forensic science evidence offers them a way to come to the appropriate verdict with some semblance of certainty, as opposed to accepting eyewitness testimony, for example, which they know (having watched other shows on TV as well as read newspaper articles about exonerations  through DNA after convictions through eyewitness testimony)  could be mistaken, or timelines, which can be questionable, then jurors could understandably opt for the science. Fascination with forensic science or the CSI Complex is really not so odd, not so irrational. When it enters the real life courtroom, however, it enters through the jurors' tv prism, and as a result it has much more power than it should.

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