CSI Effect: Does TV show influence juries?

CSI Effect: Does TV show influence juries?

CLACKAMAS, Ore. - The Oregon State Police crime lab is not straight out of "CSI."

You won't find holograms re-creating crime scenes or databases with the molecular components of various brands of coffee.

But prosecuting attorneys say jurors walk into courtrooms with expectations based on TV crime dramas - and this can hurt their cases.

"We always collect all the evidence that we're aware of, and we process it to the extent that resources allow," said Lane County District Attorney Alex Gardner.

"Sometimes, no matter how thorough the investigation, there just simply isn't any DNA evidence," he said. "Those who watch CSI on TV have a very distorted impression of how the criminal justice system works. We don't have multiple teams descending on the crime scene in Humvees and spending the entire week working on one homicide case, it just doesn't work like that."

But defense attorneys say the "CSI Effect" is a prosecutor's excuse for not having enough evidence.

"I think that if what's called the 'CSI Effect' causes juries to say to the prosecutor, 'Where is your evidence?' and, 'I'm not going to convict this man or woman of this crime until I see that evidence,' then I think that effect has helped teach constitutional values to americans," said Greg Hazarabedian, Executive Director of Public Defender Services of Lane County, Inc.

"I sympathize with law enforcement dealing with their budget cuts, but it doesn't cause me to think it's OK to convict people without sufficient evidence," said Hazarabedian.

Processing evidence from a crime scene

In reality, a team collects all the evidence it can from a crime scene. The evidence is then categorized and taken back to the law enforcement agency that worked the crime scene.

Once that happens, the evidence goes through "screeners" at the OSP crime lab. Screeners look at all the evidence and decide what should be sent into the lab, based on whether or not it's pertinent to the case.

By the time DNA evidence gets to the crime lab, it's just a cotton swab. After an analyst's initial conclusions, another analyst will study the case as a peer-review system and interpret the case.

"I would say that 80 percent of the time, it's not cut and dry," said Michael Koch, Interim Case Work DNA Supervisor at the OSP Forensic Crime Lab.

From beginning to end, DNA analysis takes about four to six weeks. Depending on the complexity, however, DNA processing can take up to 12 weeks.

"I certainly think that there are times when everything at the scene - the lay person would expect everything to be tested. The reality is, not everything needs to be tested," said Koch.

Heavy case load for criminal prosecutors

Prosecutors say jurors also don't understand the caseload for the District Attorneys office: about 150 new cases each week.

"That's a lot of material to move through the pipeline and jurors just don't understand that," said Gardner. "They have an expectation which is very different just in terms of the amount of time and personnel that are going to be devoted to a rape case or a burglary case. And if we don't meet that expectation, they assume that we're slacking."

And not all DNA evidence is conclusive.

"I've seen the most surprise in jurors when we get a mixture off a piece of evidence and we can't make a conclusion, we can't make a conclusion whether thesuspect is or is not on that piece of evidence," said Koch.

"Basically what we're saying is that the number of people who have contributed DNA to a piece of evidence is more than four, is more than five, is more than six. We can't definitively say the suspect did contribute to that item and we cannot confidently say that the suspect isn't on there," said Koch.

Prosecutors say defense attorneys exploit juror expectations based on TV drama.

"Good defense lawyers capitalize on misperception," said Gardner. "So what it means for us is we have to spend a lot of time and resources trying to anticipate how jurors might be misled, how a defense attorney might capitalize on the misperception of how things really work."

That misperception can make prosecutors sweat. Gardner says the defense arguments of faulty or incomplete evidence is so absurd to prosecutors, they may not spend enough time explaining to the jury why the argument is absurd.

"With enough passion behind them, and righteous indignation, those arguments really can carry the day," he said. "I mean, you can see it in the jurors' body language and you can see that they're starting to believe this. And it's anxiety-provoking for us. I's complete hooey. But it can be compelling hooey."

 >>> Watch episodes of 'CSI' on demand