The ‘CSI’ effect: How TV influences criminal justice

Mar 21, 2013

Credit Null Value / Flickr

If you’re a crime show junkie, you’re probably well-acquainted with Elliot Stabler’s temper (NSFW language), Jimmy McNulty’s attitude and Horatio Caine’s shades . But do you know how violent crimes really get solved?

On this week’s episode of Intersection, Mike Himmel, retired detective and Columbia College criminal justice instructor, and Bill Marbaker, Missouri State Highway Patrol crime lab director, said the public’s obsession with crime TV has changed the way the justice system works — for better and for worse. They call it “the ‘CSI’ effect.”

Working a crime scene is a far cry from what is seen on TV, Himmel said. In real investigations, the tasks of collecting evidence, working in the lab and interviewing suspects are carried out by different people.

“In 35 years of working forensics... I interviewed one murder suspect,” Himmel said. “I hardly ever carried a gun. It’s nothing like that on TV. My wife was watching one of the ‘CSI’ shows... with the people working the crime scene in stiletto heels and fancy, $3,000 suits, and she asked, ‘Did you ever have a partner who looked like that?’ and I said, ‘Darling, I love you dearly, but if I did I wouldn’t have retired.’”

The emphasis on DNA evidence on TV shows has changed the way some trials are carried out, Marbaker said. In real-life investigations, there are other types of evidence that can be just as useful.

“In some courts, the prosecutors are almost afraid to present a trial without DNA evidence,” Marbaker said. “People see that on TV and that’s what jurors expect. The ‘CSI’ effect has led to some courtroom challenges to try to educate the jury that there are technologies out there besides what they see on TV.”

The group most affected by the “CSI” effect could be victims of crimes, Marbaker said.

“They expect a crime to be solved in 43 minutes,” he said.

The “CSI” effect has also benefited law enforcement in some ways. Criminal justice and forensic science program enrollment is way up, Himmel said. To keep up with student interest, Columbia College is building a new science facility , set to open this fall, complete with an interactive forensics lab where students will analyze blood and bullet evidence, he said.

Consequently, the applicant pool for forensics lab jobs has grown enormously, Marbaker said.

“We’re seeing people once again engage in the sciences,” he said.

Himmel and Marbaker spoke with KBIA on Intersection earlier this week. View the program and follow us on Twitter .

Catch Intersection on KBIA every Monday at 2 p.m. to hear experts discuss Mid-Missouri issues. Next week’s topic: The Big Muddy Folk Festival.