Search the Site

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.