ByMark Newton, writer at
Movie Pilot Associate Editor. Email: [email protected]
Mark Newton

Back in 1999, most people probably couldn't tell you what the acronym CSI stands for. One year later, the title of a massively popular new police procedural program had solved that problem.

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation was a behemoth when it debuted in 2000. Gone were the Columbos and Kojaks of the world, now we had cool, young technologically hip scientists who solved crimes while listening to The Who. The series became an overnight success, spawning 15 seasons (and counting), as well as spin-offs, video games and imitators - I'm looking at you NCIS and Bones.

Of course, anyone who watches the later seasons of these shows will know the series has long since abandoned its dedication to strict scientific accuracy. Most CSI labs do not have futuristic touch scenes, 3D imagery or the ability to merely say "Magnify and enhance" to improve grainy CCTV footage.

For the most part, these changes are made simply to keep the show fresh and exciting from week to week, but one Redditor has a theory which suggests there might be more to it. well_pause_shit explained that he/she thinks crime shows are being used to subconsciously reduce crime:

It's pretty well established that shows like CSI tend to inflate the abilities of forensic science.proof. What if there is a reason for this? By sometimes crazily exaggerating the abilities of forensic scientists, they are making the general public think, at least subconsciously, that if they commit a crime, they will get caught. The shows make it seem so easy, guy commits murder, leaves behind small droplet of blood, boom: caught. Guy commits robbery, car is quickly found due to grainy security cam footage, boom: caught. The general public now believes that they are much less likely to get away with crime, because they think that it is this easy and that forensic science is that good. Because people now believe that they probably won't get away with a crime, they are less likely to commit a crime. Crime shows are a great deterrent to crime.

But is this accurate?

The CSI Effect

The actual mainstream belief amongst criminologists and experts is something of the opposite. Shows like CSI could in fact be making it harder to catch and convict criminals since it creates unrealistic expectations of forensic science.

In CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, you very rarely, if ever, see the following court case. Often, the accused conveniently breakdown after its been explained to them how they committed the crime. This way the audience can go home safe in the knowledge the CSI team caught the right guy. However, legally ill-advised confessions like this rarely happen in real-life.

If the accused does not give a guilty verdict, in all likelihood you're going to need a trial by jury - which is where the CSI Effect comes in. Some redditors suggested that shows like CSI could in fact make jurors more prone to convict - since television shows have taught them that the guy the police arrest is usually (eventually) the one who did it. The opposite is in fact true.

Some studies suggest that police procedural shows have increased the level of forensic evidence needed to convict criminals. Gill Grissom and his team almost always find that one piece of indisputable evidence which pins the murderer to his victim. However, such evidence is a godsend for forensic criminologists and it isn't at all guaranteed. This has resulted in some legal professionals claiming clearly guilty defendants have been acquitted due to an absence of this relatively rare 'smoking gun' evidence.

Indeed, some prosecutors will now question potential jurors about their viewing habits to ween out those who do watch a lot of police procedural shows.

However, if it's not entirely clear if shows like CSI are to blame for this. Although 80% of legal professionals do believe some kind of CSI Effect does exist, the phenomenon doesn't seem limited to those who watch forensic crime dramas. In fact, it might simply be a response to the perceived technological advances in forensic science.

Does CSI Actually Help Criminals?

However, the CSI Effect doesn't end there. In fact some experts have suggested it has actually helped criminals to get away with crimes.

For example, in 2000, when CSI: Crime Scene Investigation debuted, 46.9 percent of all rape cases in the US were solved by the police. But by 2005, that number had dropped to 41.3 percent. Some investigators suggested this could be due to the CSI Effect, especially how the show could have informed criminals about destroying evidence. Apparently, several victims reported being forced to shower and clean themselves with bleach after their assaults.

For example, in December 2005, Jermaine McKinney, an avid fan of CSI, broke into an Ohio home and murdered two women. He then went to extraordinary lengths to cover up the crime, including burning the bodies and clothing, cleaning his hands with bleach and disposing of the murder weapon.

However, other experts have suggested any effect would be limited to a small number of cases. Larry Pozner, former President of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers claims most violent crimes - which often generate forensic evidence - are perpetrated by people who take small, if any, precautions. In this sense, television forensic programs are not likely to affect their behaviour.

Furthermore, Tammy Klein, the lead investigator on the above-mentioned McKinney case, claimed that most the time the killings she investigates are committed by people "who for the most part are pretty stupid." In this sense, the McLinney case might be the exception rather than the rule.

Source: NPR, reddit


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