Is CSI Changing The Criminal Justice System?

Last week’s New Yorker “Annals of Law” column dealt with the increased public interest in forensic crime investigations in the wake of TV shows like CSI. Written by the excellent Jeffrey Toobin, the article looks at how the show’s popularity has mainstreamed and glamorized forensic analysis to the point of altering criminal trials. (Here’s a summary, though the full piece is not available online). Lawyers on both sides are starting to cater their exhibits and witnesses to hair-and-fiber-savvy jurors; judges, too, acknowledge that the show influences juries.

Why so much fuss over a TV show? Because, as Carol Henderson, Stetson University’s director of the National Clearinghouse for Science, Technology and Law, told Toobin, “People are riveted by the idea that science can solve crimes.” This notion makes sense, given the fact that people tend to lie more often than inanimate objects.

Still, as Toobin notes, while science has provided valuable tools for determining guilt or innocence, issues like the error rates in DNA testing, the possibility of faulty tests, and the simple fact that 90% of hairs found at crime scenes lack the nuclear DNA needed for an accurate analysis leaves the science of crime-solving far short of exact. Though you do have to hand it to CBS for making it seem appealing to scrutinize a corpse.


editorguy

I remember seeing something a long time ago when Quincy M.E. was on the air (early 80s?). Jack Klugman didn't have the sex appeal of the CSI peeps, for sure, but he did create a spike in interest in scrutinizing corpses for a living.

I'd be interested to know if HBO's extraordinary Six Feet Under caused an uptick in people undertaking a career in the funeral home business.

furiousball

Patricia Cornwell books probably factor into that as well. I for one want to buy sunglasses and take them off dramatically and make declarations of variouseries.

egretman

If we lived in a world where innocent people were going to jail and the guilty were getting off because our only tools were unreliable eyewitness reports and circumstantial evidence, then wouldn't we all be crying for more CSI?

Oh wait, that is the world we live in.

frankenduf

but science can't explain why the glove didn't fit

drewbob

ever heard of the CSI Effect?
its not all that grand

here is an excerpt:
despite more than one witness testifying Blake
had asked them to kill his wife, the jurors
wanted more than that.

http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/03/21/earlyshow/main681949.shtml

http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2004-08-05-csi-effect_x.htm
and of course Wikopedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CSI_Effect

egretman

I say if Blake didn't leave any carpet fibers with soil residues from the swamp where he hid the gun after it picked up DNA in the toilet where he washed it off, then he goes free.

security6600

I think TV shows definitely have an impact on real life expectations. Just as there's a CSI effect, I wonder if there isn't also a "24" effect for featuring the black Palmer brothers as good Presidents. Doesn't this help warm people to the idea of someone like Barak Obama as President?

donaldrobertson

My law review is currently publishing an entire symposium on the alleged "CSI Effect." After editing several articles about it, I'm inclined to believe that there is some real academic skepticism in regards to its existence. People often try to blame their own shortcomings on the media and this just seems to be another iteration of that. It doesn't help that the media is actually quite quick to quote anyone who can attest to the existence of the "CSI Effect."

If anyone is interested in reading the full symposium, it will be published in the next few weeks in the New England Law Review, Volume 41.

maxmhouck

I was mentioned in Toobin's article which, despite my providing him with several articles on the subject, was biased, slanted, and just plain wrong in places. He obviously was entranced with Ms. Faber from NYPD (she lives in Greenwich Village, is a vegetarian, all the requisite non-forensic-related information a stalker might need was in the article) but decided to slag me and my presentation. Based on this penultimate experience with the media, I do not deal with them anymore but will be writing my own articles to make sure my discipline is presented accurately and fairly.

I wrote a letter to the editor of The New Yorker regarding Toobin's article:

Dear New Yorker:

DNA is touted as the Holy Grail of forensic science and articles like Jeffrey Toobin's piece, "The CSI Effect" (May 7, 2007), promote that perception; the article might as well have been titled, "The DNA Effect." DNA has revolutionized forensic science and possibly skewed our perceptions far more than any television program could have.

Toobin's shading of events and selection of quotes distort my presentation to the National Academy. The better analogy I offered to the Committee was ABO typing: A crime scene stain and a suspect both type out to be A+. The report states the testing failed to exclude the suspect as the source. DNA later excludes the suspect. Was the ABO test wrong? That depends--wrong about what? Both the scene and suspect blood are, in fact, type A+, so no error there. Was the scene blood the suspect's? No, but the ABO test didn't purport it to be; the test could not exclude him. One test has a greater ability to resolve answers than another; both tests are accurate given what conclusions can be drawn from them. To expect more of a test than what it can deliver is not only unfair, it is faulty science.

A similar situation occurs with microscopical hair comparisons--if the questioned hair exhibits the same microscopical traits as the known hair sample from a suspect or victim, then it is valid to conclude that the hair could have come from that individual. It is not a positive identification. Contra Michael Saks' comments, only a handful of forensic disciplines state that they can individualize evidence; trace evidence (hairs, fibers, paint, glass, soils, and the like) do not. And while Margaret Berger states that "a lot of DNA exonerations come from bad hair evidence," that number is 16%, less than half as many exonerations from police misconduct (50%), prosecutorial misconduct (45%), or ineffective/bad lawyers (32%).

Mr. Toobin's comments and those of some Committee members, such as Ms. Berger, might leave the reader with the impression that I do not actively support the use of mitochondrial DNA analysis of hairs. In fact, I do. In the study I published with Dr. Budowle in 2002, we advocated that both methods need to be used together: microscopy evaluates the physical component of the hair and mitochondrial DNA evaluates the genetic component. Mitochondrial DNA is blind to maternally-related individuals; microscopy could sort them out. When used together, no false positives or false negatives collectively were reported. When Professor Robertson asked me if I thought justice would be served if microscopy alone had convicted my child, Mr. Toobin noted that I answered "after an awkward pause." I paused not because I was unsure of the answer, but because I wasn't sure if I was morally qualified to answer that question--I do not have children. Awkward, indeed, Mr. Toobin.

We ignore evidence at our judicial peril. If DNA is our only tool, then blood will be our only source of evidence. And, as was pointed out in Mr. Toobin's article, if DNA leads to the wrongful arrest or conviction of an identical twin, will the lawyers demand we throw the Holy Grail out as well?

Max M. Houck
Director, Forensic Science Initiative, Research Office
Manager, Forensic Research and Business Development, College of Business and Economics
West Virginia University

Read more...

editorguy

I remember seeing something a long time ago when Quincy M.E. was on the air (early 80s?). Jack Klugman didn't have the sex appeal of the CSI peeps, for sure, but he did create a spike in interest in scrutinizing corpses for a living.

I'd be interested to know if HBO's extraordinary Six Feet Under caused an uptick in people undertaking a career in the funeral home business.

furiousball

Patricia Cornwell books probably factor into that as well. I for one want to buy sunglasses and take them off dramatically and make declarations of variouseries.

egretman

If we lived in a world where innocent people were going to jail and the guilty were getting off because our only tools were unreliable eyewitness reports and circumstantial evidence, then wouldn't we all be crying for more CSI?

Oh wait, that is the world we live in.

frankenduf

but science can't explain why the glove didn't fit

drewbob

ever heard of the CSI Effect?
its not all that grand

here is an excerpt:
despite more than one witness testifying Blake
had asked them to kill his wife, the jurors
wanted more than that.

http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/03/21/earlyshow/main681949.shtml

http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2004-08-05-csi-effect_x.htm
and of course Wikopedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CSI_Effect

egretman

I say if Blake didn't leave any carpet fibers with soil residues from the swamp where he hid the gun after it picked up DNA in the toilet where he washed it off, then he goes free.

security6600

I think TV shows definitely have an impact on real life expectations. Just as there's a CSI effect, I wonder if there isn't also a "24" effect for featuring the black Palmer brothers as good Presidents. Doesn't this help warm people to the idea of someone like Barak Obama as President?

donaldrobertson

My law review is currently publishing an entire symposium on the alleged "CSI Effect." After editing several articles about it, I'm inclined to believe that there is some real academic skepticism in regards to its existence. People often try to blame their own shortcomings on the media and this just seems to be another iteration of that. It doesn't help that the media is actually quite quick to quote anyone who can attest to the existence of the "CSI Effect."

If anyone is interested in reading the full symposium, it will be published in the next few weeks in the New England Law Review, Volume 41.

maxmhouck

I was mentioned in Toobin's article which, despite my providing him with several articles on the subject, was biased, slanted, and just plain wrong in places. He obviously was entranced with Ms. Faber from NYPD (she lives in Greenwich Village, is a vegetarian, all the requisite non-forensic-related information a stalker might need was in the article) but decided to slag me and my presentation. Based on this penultimate experience with the media, I do not deal with them anymore but will be writing my own articles to make sure my discipline is presented accurately and fairly.

I wrote a letter to the editor of The New Yorker regarding Toobin's article:

Dear New Yorker:

DNA is touted as the Holy Grail of forensic science and articles like Jeffrey Toobin's piece, "The CSI Effect" (May 7, 2007), promote that perception; the article might as well have been titled, "The DNA Effect." DNA has revolutionized forensic science and possibly skewed our perceptions far more than any television program could have.

Toobin's shading of events and selection of quotes distort my presentation to the National Academy. The better analogy I offered to the Committee was ABO typing: A crime scene stain and a suspect both type out to be A+. The report states the testing failed to exclude the suspect as the source. DNA later excludes the suspect. Was the ABO test wrong? That depends--wrong about what? Both the scene and suspect blood are, in fact, type A+, so no error there. Was the scene blood the suspect's? No, but the ABO test didn't purport it to be; the test could not exclude him. One test has a greater ability to resolve answers than another; both tests are accurate given what conclusions can be drawn from them. To expect more of a test than what it can deliver is not only unfair, it is faulty science.

A similar situation occurs with microscopical hair comparisons--if the questioned hair exhibits the same microscopical traits as the known hair sample from a suspect or victim, then it is valid to conclude that the hair could have come from that individual. It is not a positive identification. Contra Michael Saks' comments, only a handful of forensic disciplines state that they can individualize evidence; trace evidence (hairs, fibers, paint, glass, soils, and the like) do not. And while Margaret Berger states that "a lot of DNA exonerations come from bad hair evidence," that number is 16%, less than half as many exonerations from police misconduct (50%), prosecutorial misconduct (45%), or ineffective/bad lawyers (32%).

Mr. Toobin's comments and those of some Committee members, such as Ms. Berger, might leave the reader with the impression that I do not actively support the use of mitochondrial DNA analysis of hairs. In fact, I do. In the study I published with Dr. Budowle in 2002, we advocated that both methods need to be used together: microscopy evaluates the physical component of the hair and mitochondrial DNA evaluates the genetic component. Mitochondrial DNA is blind to maternally-related individuals; microscopy could sort them out. When used together, no false positives or false negatives collectively were reported. When Professor Robertson asked me if I thought justice would be served if microscopy alone had convicted my child, Mr. Toobin noted that I answered "after an awkward pause." I paused not because I was unsure of the answer, but because I wasn't sure if I was morally qualified to answer that question--I do not have children. Awkward, indeed, Mr. Toobin.

We ignore evidence at our judicial peril. If DNA is our only tool, then blood will be our only source of evidence. And, as was pointed out in Mr. Toobin's article, if DNA leads to the wrongful arrest or conviction of an identical twin, will the lawyers demand we throw the Holy Grail out as well?

Max M. Houck
Director, Forensic Science Initiative, Research Office
Manager, Forensic Research and Business Development, College of Business and Economics
West Virginia University

Read more...