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
Defense attorneys, predictably, are capitalizing on the popularity of shows like CSI, seizing on an absence of forensic evidence, even in cases where there's no apparent reason for its use. In another Peoria case, jurors acquitted a man accused of stabbing his estranged girlfriend because police didn't test her bloody bedsheets for DNA. The man went back to prison on a parole violation and stabbed his ex again when he got out--this time fatally.
The CSI effect was raised in the acquittal last month of actor Robert Blake in the murder of his wife. The L.A. district attorney called the jurors "incredibly stupid," but jurors noted that the former Baretta star was accused of shooting his wife with an old Nazi-era pistol that spewed gunshot residue. Blake's skin and clothes, a juror told U.S. News , had "not one particle."
"On thin ice." Still, forensic evidence and expert testimony can add a lot of weight. Confronted with a possible fingerprint or DNA match, many defendants will plead guilty instead of risking a trial and the possibility of a heavier penalty.
At trial, many juries tend to believe forensic experts and the evidence they provide--even when they shouldn't. Sandra Anderson and her specially trained forensic dog, Eagle, are a case in point. Dubbed a canine Sherlock Holmes, Eagle and his trainer were the darlings of prosecutors and police across the country. They appeared on TV's Unsolved Mysteries and headlined forensic science seminars. The dog seemed to have a bionic nose, finding hidden traces of blood evidence, which Anderson duly corroborated in court. In one case, Eagle's million-dollar nose gave police enough for a search warrant after he found damning evidence in the house of a biochemist suspected of murdering his wife. Plymouth, Mich., Police Lt. Wayne Carroll declared at the time: "Before we brought that dog down there, we were on thin ice." Anderson and Eagle, however, were frauds. After she admitted planting blood on a hacksaw blade during the investigation of the suspect, Azizul Islam, he was granted a new trial last year. It was one of several cases in which Anderson faked evidence. She is now serving a 21-month prison term after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice and making false statements. Lawyers and forensic experts say Anderson is just one of the more bizarre cases of forensic specialists lying under oath, misreading test results, or overstating evidence.
In recent years, the integrity of crime labs across the country, including the vaunted FBI crime lab, have come under attack for lax standards and generating bogus evidence. One problem is that crime labs don't have to be accredited. All DNA labs seeking federal funding will have to be accredited by next year, but roughly 30 percent of the publicly funded crime labs operating in the United States today have no certification, a recent Justice Department study found. The FBI's lab gained accreditation in 1998, after it was embarrassed by a series of foul-ups. A Houston lab sought accreditation this year, following a scandal that has so far resulted in the release of two men from prison and cast doubt on the lab's other work.