Participants at a symposium on Sept. 14 at the School of Law explored whether mass entertainment had an affect on the way cases play out at trial. Organized by Taunya Lovell Banks, JD, a professor at the School, the three-hour symposium, "The CSI Effect on Criminal Prosecutions: Truth or Fiction," continued the School's "Linking Law and Arts" series exploring how the law is portrayed in the arts and in popular culture. Funded in part by a grant from the France-Merrick Foundation, participants included students, law school alumni, and members of the medical and forensic science communities.
"As part of this initiative, today's discussion explores the effect that top-rated TV programs such as 'CSI,' 'Law & Order,' 'Bones,' and their many spin-offs, have on jurors, and what prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys are doing to combat jurors TV-show fueled expectations," said Banks. "Ninety-one percent of all TV viewers watched the O.J. Simpson trial. In the post-O.J. world, we've learned that TV both reflects and shapes culture."
The symposium featured two panel discussions, the first focusing on the existence of the "CSI Effect," and the second exploring the pitfalls of relying on forensic evidence in proving guilt or innocence in a trial. Moderated by Andrew Levy, JD, an adjunct professor at the School, the first panel included Paul W. O'Connor, JD, from the Office of the State's Attorney; Kenneth W. Ravenell, JD, a defense attorney and a partner at the law firm of Schulman, Treem, Kaminkow, Gilden & Ravenell, P.A.; and Diane Hoffmann, JD, a professor, associate dean for academic programs, and director of the Law and Health Care program at the School and expert on empirical evidence.
The second panel, moderated by Renee Hutchins, JD, an assistant professor at the School, featured Robert T.M. Phillips, MD, PhD, a forensic specialist and medical director of Forensic Consultation Associates, Inc., and associate professor at the School of Medicine and an adjunct at the School of Law; Mary Ripple, MD, a forensic pathologist and deputy chief medical examiner at the Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner; and The Honorable Paul W. Grimm, JD, chief magistrate for the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, and an adjunct professor at the School of Law.
O'Connor opened the first panel discussion saying that, as a prosecutor, he has noticed that jurors now have greater expectations for forensic evidence. "They know about finger prints, they know about DNA evidence, and I now tell juries up front what kind of evidence is present and what kind of evidence is not present," he said. "Sometimes jurors don't understand that fingerprints are unavailable, that they're partial, or that they've been washed away in the rain, that there isn't any forensic evidence and the case must rely on other information, such as eye witness accounts. Increasingly, jurors do not trust eye witness accounts and demonstrate mistrust for police testimony."
But Ravenell countered, "Why should one expect a jury to convict an individual on what the prosecutor admits he doesn't have, or the fact that the prosecutor's office doesn't have the funds to pay for forensic tests?"
In the second panel, Phillips discussed the disparity between the capabilities of actual forensic science and what is shown to be possible on television. "Isn't it interesting how the crime scene investigators on TV do everything, including solve the crime?" Phillips asked.In reality, it is nearly impossible to obtain fingerprints from guns. Also real life crime scene investigators simply collect the evidence requested by the police. And Judge Grimm added, judges must evaluate everything submitted for evidence according to State and Federal Rules of Evidence.
Ripple, who was inspired to become a medical examiner by the TV-character "Quincy," discussed how the unrealistic expectations for forensic evidence has affected what is expected of crime lab technicians and medical examiners, causing larger workloads, and a misunderstanding between the fantasy of television scripts and the reality of what can be done. "I can't tell you how many times forensic experts find ourselves saying in court, 'This is reality, not TV.'"
Ripple added the fact, "that more people are interested in forensic science" is both the pro and con of the "CSI effect."