W hen I first began high school in 1995, I expected my life would be just like that of the kids on “Beverly Hills, 90210.” I would be as popular as Kelly, and I would have the greatest, most handsome boyfriend in the world (Luke Perry), just like Brenda. It didn’t take me long, however, to figure out that even though there was a lot of drama for me in high school, it was nothing like what the teens on “90210” experienced.
While it may seem obvious to some that life is not as cheery and funny as on an episode of “Friends,” or as dramatic and exciting as “90210,” it is much more difficult for people to separate TV from reality when it comes to such things as science and forensics.
A lot of U.S. criminal courts and universities are now experiencing what experts are calling the “CSI effect.” This occurs when people watch television shows, such as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and “Law ‘ Order,” and see that every case has some type of evidence that goes to the forensic laboratory. On these shows, the scientific findings come back quickly, as most shows are only on for an hour, and the findings are never wrong, which inevitably leads police to the person who committed the crime.
Because of this, universities are experiencing a high volume of students who are choosing to concentrate on forensics. But also, actual juries are now expecting to get into a courtroom and see the same evidence they see on TV. Jurors are having a harder time finding a defendant guilty if the evidence has not been sent to a forensic laboratory. Evidence that may have convinced jurors a few years ago is now not enough.
In one recent example, a Texas jury acquitted Robert Durst, who was on trial for murdering his neighbor. Defense lawyers brought in Robert Hirschhorn, a jury selection consultant, to find jurors who were familiar with shows like “CSI:” About 70% of the jury pool said they had seen that or similar shows on TV.
Defense lawyers then used the missing head of the victim as a tool to make their case. Durst claimed he had murdered his neighbor out of self-defense. His lawyers stated that had the decapitated and missing head been found, there might have been wounds on it that could have supported such claims using forensic science.
While I can understand that jurors must have proof beyond a reasonable doubt when convicting someone, I also know that it is impossible to know every detail without having been there. A missing head is just that: missing. There is no possible way to say one way or another what the head would have proved.
Another factor jurors may not realize, since it is never shown on TV is that even when science is involved, there is still the possibility for human and technical errors. Of course, everything is perfect in a one-hour TV show, but in real life, it’s quite understandable that forensics cannot instantaneously solve a case by finding a small smudge of a fingerprint.
The evidence that forensics is able to produce in this day and age is amazing, and I admit I would feel more comfortable sitting on a trial jury that was presented with some type of scientific proof than one that had none. Yet I also realize how expensive and time consuming it would be to use forensic laboratories for every single detail.
According to an article published in USA Today, jurors all over the country are asking judges why some evidence wasn’t tested. One such case occurred in Phoenix, when jurors didn’t understand why a bloody coat wasn’t tested for DNA. This piece of evidence, which would have previously been enough, was now being questioned, even though the defendant had admitted to being at the scene.
Arizona, Illinois and California also now use witnesses who are primarily on the stand to assure jurors that in reality, it is not abnormal for “investigators to fail to find DNA, fingerprints and other evidence at crime scenes.”
I was quite surprised the first time I sat in a courtroom and listened to a rape case. It was nothing like what I had seen on my favorite TV show, “Law ‘ Order: SVU.” The girl who had accused her stepfather of molesting her was nothing like the girls who appeared on the show. She wasn’t afraid and upset on the stand. She was angry and difficult.
I didn’t listen to the whole case, so I have no right to say whether I believed her story. But that day I learned that no matter what happens on TV, or how accurate it may seem, you cannot use a fictionalized story to assess what occurs in real-life.