The CSI Effect
On TV, it's all slam-dunk evidence and quick convictions. Now juries expect the same thing--and that's a big problem
Picture this: A middle-aged woman from out of town digs into a bowl of chili at a fast-food restaurant in California. Each bite is more delicious than the last. She chews. She savors. Then something goes terribly wrong. She spits. She screams. She vomits. All eyes focus on the table, where a well-manicured fingertip peeks out from a mound of masticated chili. Lights and sirens. Forensic experts troll for evidence. Pimple-faced fry cooks are lined up. Fingers are pointed, and fingers are counted. The nub is popped into an evidence bag to make the forensic rounds. A fingerprint is taken to run through a national database. DNA tests are done. Detectives search for clues.
If this were an episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation --and it might well become one--the well-coiffed technicians who star in the show would solve the mystery lickety-split. Fingerprints or DNA evidence would identify the victim, a leggy blond, within 45 minutes. Then, in a twist, a smudge of blood still under the nail would lead to her killer, a jealous fashion photographer, unwilling to let go of his star.
But this is real life. Anna Ayala reported her disturbing find at a Wendy's restaurant late last month. And as of last week, investigators were still stumped. Ayala hasn't confessed to any fraud. The fry cooks all had their fingers. The print wasn't a match. And the DNA test still hadn't come back from the lab. On CBS's CSI, the forensic science is sexy, fast, and remarkably certain, a combination that has propelled the three-show franchise to top ratings, attracting nearly 60 million viewers a week. The whole investigation genre is hot, from NBC's Law & Order series on down to the documentary-like re-creations of A&E's Forensic Files. America is in love with forensics, from the blood spatter and bone fragments of TV's fictional crime scenes to the latest thrust and parry at the Michael Jackson trial.
That's good, right? Jurors are smarter, and understaffed government crime labs are using the trend to seek more funding. But not so fast. Stoked by the technical wizardry they see on the tube, many Americans find themselves disappointed when they encounter the real world of law and order. Jurors increasingly expect forensic evidence in every case, and they expect it to be conclusive.
"Your CSI moment." Real life and real death are never as clean as CSI's lead investigator, Gil Grissom, would have us believe. And real forensics is seldom as fast, or as certain, as TV tells us. Too often, authorities say, the science is unproven, the analyses unsound, and the experts unreliable. At a time when the public is demanding CSI -style investigations of even common crimes, many of the nation's crime labs--underfunded, undercertified, and under attack--simply can't produce. When a case comes to court, "jurors expect it to be a lot more interesting and a lot more dynamic," says Barbara LaWall, the county prosecutor in Tucson, Ariz. "It puzzles the heck out of them when it's not."