Art trips up life: TV crime shows influence jurors

CSI: The expectation of futuristic hard-science evidence leads to acquittals in cases prosecutors thought were airtight.

July 25, 2004|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

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.

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