Friday, March 10, 2006

Yale L.J. Watches CSI

The Yale Law Journal published an article examining the alleged "CSI Effect." Tom R. Tyler, Viewing CSI and the Threshold of Guilt: Managing Truth and Justice in Reality and Fiction, 115 Yale L.J. 1050 (2006).

The CSI Effect is based on reports by prosecutors that it is sometimes harder to get convictions because some jurors expect the whiz-bang high-tech forensic evidence they see on TV. On the other hand, some observers say that jurors might be more prone to convict because CSI (and othe TV shows) make them have more faith in the skills and resources of investigators. See earlier post.

Prof. Tyler, observing that there are no empirical studies of the CSI Effect, examines the hypothesis in light of empirical studies on juror psychology that do exist (e.g., those looking at the effect of pre-trial publicity). (His review of the studies in interesting in itself.) He concludes that the hypothesis is consistent with existing studies. But he cautions that other hypotheses could well account for the prosecutors' perceptions of harder convictions. (1) Prosecutors might believe their cases are stronger than they are. (2) Jurors might have more distrust of the state (police, prosecutors, courts). (3) Jurors might be more sympathetic toward defendants.

The Pocket Part, Yale Law Journal's online companion, adds more:

  • An article by the chief prosecutor for Maricopa County (Phoenix and the surroundings) reports on a survey his office did of its own prosecutors. There are ways the prosecutors are working to counteract the effect, so convictions are not necessarily down, but they believe the effect is real.
    In about 40% of these prosecutors’ cases, jurors have about evidence like “mitochondrial DNA,” “latent prints,” “trace evidence,” or “ballistics”—even when these terms were not used at trial.
    * * *
    Even statements by defendants themselves have failed to persuade some juries. In State v. James Calloway, Arizona Department of Corrections officers found a syringe in a cell with a note signed by “Jimbo” attached to it. Inmate “Jimbo” was found with a fresh mark on his arm consistent with syringe use, and admitted the syringe was his when he retrieved it from prison officials and signed the receipt. The jury criticized the prosecution because there was no DNA or fingerprint analysis on the syringe, and the jurors wanted a handwriting comparison on the note and the receipt.
  • A writer and technical consultant for CSI responds to Tyler's article. He suggests that there are benefits to any CSI Effect, in that it has helped educate the public about forensics and create an interest in science.
    Most importantly, CSI returns the focus to exonerating the innocent. In every episode the evidence convicts the bad guy, and at the same time it frees an innocent person. If it’s such a crime to reinvigorate the cliché that defendants are innocent until proven guilty, as a CSI writer, I’ll happily take the charge.
  • Tyler also has a short piece in the Pocket Part. (If you don't have the time for the full article, this is a good overview.)

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