Crime Shows Blur Reality - Give Juries Unrealistic Expectations, Prosecutors Say
Prosecutors have dubbed it "the CSI effect," referring to the CBS show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and its spinoffs. The ratings for the original make it the nation's No. 1 drama, with 26 million viewers a week.
Thanks to the shows, some prosecutors fear, jurors are setting some guilty defendants free with unreasonable expectations fueled by television's skewed depiction of reality.
Suzanne Cohen, deputy Maricopa County attorney, says jurors "should expect law enforcement to do their job." But, she adds, "Television has put unrealistic expectations on what we can do with technology."
Prosecutors don't have studies or numbers to back it up, but they cite examples of cases where anticipated guilty verdicts turned into surprising acquittals, or where jurors demonstrated an unrealistic expectation for forensics.
"We had one jury that acquitted the defendant because they wanted a videotape of the crime," an aggravated assault inside a Tempe restaurant, Cohen said.
Recent cases they cite to make the point:
Jurors in Maricopa County Superior Court in Mesa this summer acquitted a defendant in a Tempe commercial burglary case. A witness testified about spotting him and another man dragging out a stereo, and police arrested the defendant a few minutes later with burglary tools in his car.
But jurors told prosecutors after the trial that the police "didn't do enough" while investigating the case and needed to find the defendant's fingerprints inside the building.
Phoenix police officers approached a group of people standing in an empty lot two years ago and said they saw a man drop a plastic bag containing illegal drugs. Latent fingerprints were never submitted because two officers said they saw the man ditch the drugs and prosecutors thought that was sufficient. Jurors disagreed, acquitting the defendant. They later told prosecutors they wanted the prints.
It's not just potential jurors who are watching, said Josh Marquis, the Astoria, Ore., district attorney and a member of the National District Attorneys Association.
"I know that the defendants have been bragging in the jail because they know all about forensic science because they've been watching on TV," he said.
While forensic evidence is important, Cohen said, the absence of DNA or fingerprints doesn't mean a defendant is innocent.
"We don't always have physical evidence. More often than not, we don't," Cohen said. "More often than not, we have eyewitness and circumstantial evidence."
But defense attorney Greg Parzych, president of Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice, said there's nothing wrong with higher expectations for evidence when the stakes are whether to deprive defendants of their freedom or their lives.
"If juries are demanding more evidence, then the fault lies in the evidence the state is presenting, not a television show," Parzych said. "I think it's important to know what could have been done and what hasn't been done."
Francis Scanlon, 70, of Scottsdale, who has never served on a jury, said he would expect forensic evidence in any serious case. "I would be very reluctant to put someone on death row without DNA evidence," he said.
Forensic, or physical, evidence usually includes DNA, fingerprints, the matching of bullets to a murder weapon, imprints of a suspect's shoes or any other samples that can tie a suspect to a crime scene.
The CSI shows, set in Las Vegas and Miami, follow the exploits of crime-lab technicians as they investigate violent crimes and identify criminals with forensic evidence.
But Marquis said irrefutable physical evidence often is not available.
"In 90 percent of cases, forensic science doesn't solve the crime. At best, it might corroborate one fact," he said.
Tony Novitsky, deputy Maricopa County attorney and chief of the major felony division, said jurors who watch forensic television shows shouldn't hold prosecutors to a standard that exceeds the law.
"It's proof beyond reasonable doubt, not scientific doubt," he said.
Novitsky said local prosecutors are trying to blunt the expectation for extensive physical evidence in all cases by presenting experts to explain why fingerprints or DNA samples are unavailable.
Cohen, a veteran sex crimes prosecutor, said she asked potential jurors during jury selection in a recent trial if they would be influenced by a CSI episode a few days earlier that presented misleading information about child molestation. She was relieved when jurors said they hadn't seen the show.
"I had to question them if they were going to hold us to the reasonable doubt burden (of proof) or the CSI burden," he said.
Cohen said the unusual acquittals seem to occur most often on routine cases, such as burglaries and car thefts, not high-profile murder and sex-crime cases.
Because of constraints on resources, including a considerable backlog at crime labs, cases must be prioritized and every possible piece of evidence cannot be examined, Novitsky said.
Todd Griffith, state scientific analysis superintendent, said there's a backlog of 500 requests for DNA evidence in state Department of Public Safety crime labs and the average wait is three to four months.
Sgt. Lauri Williams, a Phoenix police spokeswoman, said there are 1,757 potential DNA samples awaiting testing in her lab.
"We do what we have to do to prove every case," Novitsky said. "It's a big issue in the law enforcement community. We have to beef up the labs. We can't be sloppy about forensics and lab work. The people expect it."