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A Forensic Science Internet portal run by Ben Joseph, a Canadian forensic scientist. Links to related news clippings and forums to discuss related issues.

Forensics: The CSI effect

Debra Komar has worked as a forensic anthropologist in the US, UK, and Canada for over 20 years. Her books include The Ballad of Jacob Peck and The Lynching of Peter Wheeler, which has just been published by Goose Lane Editions.

See the PBS NOVA feature: Forensics on trial

Hollywood owes me an apology. For more than twenty years, I was a practicing forensic scientist, and I have always recognized the limitations of my craft. When I first started out, juries also accepted those constraints; in any given case, there were questions that could be answered, and those that could not. Sometime in the 1990s, all that began to change. Pulp fiction thrillers, Hollywood blockbusters, and TV shows like CSI, Bones, or Law and Order flooded the zeitgeist, convincing the general public that forensic science could solve anything.

Recent studies have identified a very real (and very dangerous) phenomenon, known as the CSI Effect: the widely-held, media-driven expectation that every crime has a high-tech solution. It was not long before the CSI Effect leached from the small screen into the courthouse, and by the dawn of the new millennium prosecutors were begging me to run DNA on anything and everything, terrified that jurors would not convict without some hard-core science.

The CSI Effect rippled well beyond the courtroom. The sudden ubiquity of all things forensic led to an unprecedented wave of students wanting to major in the criminal sciences. The first forensic science course I took at the University of Toronto had eight students enrolled. Flash forward fifteen years, to when I was teaching forensics at the University of New Mexico. The introductory undergraduate course had 250 students in a class that started at eight A.M. (normally an enrollment killer); there would have been a lot more, but class size was dictated by the number of seats in the largest available lecture hall. Thanks to the glut of forensic procedurals on television, every student showed up expecting to be handed a gun and a bucket of Luminal on their first day, and most thought they would be starring in their own reality show within a month. It took the better part of a semester to disavow them of such notions, and another semester to give them a more realistic sense of what forensic science could (and could not) do.

At the end of each term, I gave a lecture called "Spot the Bullshit", in which I played clips from CSI and similar shows. Without fail, the students would laugh at the wildly exaggerated science these shows presented, finally recognizing just how ridiculous it was. The laughter died quickly, however, when I segued into clips from news programs or read passages from respected newspapers containing misrepresentations of forensic science that were equally ludicrous.

When I retired from academia and active service, I decided to fight fire with fire, and use the popular media to chip away at the common misconceptions surrounding forensic science. Fingers crossed that if I and my like-minded colleagues bang the drum long enough, we may actually convince the mainstream media to depict forensic science in a far more accurate light. When that day comes, I can only hope the folks in Hollywood remember that if you start the fire, you don't get credit for putting it out.

The reliance on science as a cure for injustice

It is becoming known as the "CSI effect" -- a syndrome that renders judges, juries and the public incapable of accepting a defendant's innocence unless he has DNA on his side.

Coined in honour of a hugely popular television series, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, the CSI effect may have claimed Steven Truscott as its latest victim earlier this month when he failed to win a new trial.

If so, lawyers say, he was not the first to discover the downside of a revolutionary science. However, they say his case highlights a steadily increasing belief that science, particularly DNA, can correct any miscarriage of justice, and that in its absence, it is unsafe to acquit or exonerate.

"DNA has become a false panacea," veteran defence counsel Steven Skurka said.

those TV shows ... they're so full of crap
-- Sgt. McComb

"It has become a legal crutch that we rely on to cure injustice. As a result, anything less than the incontrovertible proof that DNA offers becomes highly questionable, because the bar has been raised so very high."

In recognition of that reality, lawyers for Mr. Truscott searched desperately for physical specimens they could analyze in a bid to overturn his 1959 conviction for the murder of Lynne Harper.

"Because DNA is now the best-known and surest means of exoneration, it has come to be seen as a sort of benchmark for testing wrongful convictions," said Phil Campbell, a lawyer representing Mr. Truscott on behalf of the Association in Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted.

"I have had prosecutors say to me, 'After all, this isn't a case where innocence can be shown by DNA,' " Mr. Campbell said.

Federal Justice Minister Irwin Cotler said in an interview that while many legal subtleties lay behind his decision to refer Mr. Truscott's case to the Ontario Court of Appeal, the absence of DNA was significant. "Yes, I think it's arguable and plausible to say that had there been DNA, it would have been different," Mr. Cotler said.

According to criminal lawyer Frank Addario, the escalating importance of DNA has also made it easy for governments and police forces to ignore areas that are often at the root of wrongful convictions and cry out for reform, such as faulty police photo lineup procedures and the videotaping of police statements.

"Almost everyone in the justice system is most comfortable with hard science," Mr. Addario said. "Yet in almost every wrongful conviction proven by science, there are all these other problems lurking."

In a new book, The Genetic Imaginary: DNA in the Canadian Criminal Justice System, Carleton University sociology professor Neil Gerlach maintains that public faith in non-scientific evidence was originally rocked by the wrongful convictions of Donald Marshall, Guy Paul Morin and David Milgaard.

"Science was perceived as having an objectivity and precision that promised to increase the accuracy of judicial and jury decision-making," he said. "Science, in other words, could increase public confidence in the judicial system."

Prof. Gerlach said that press coverage of wrongful convictions has played a large role in convincing the public that eyewitness testimony is faulty, jailhouse informants are individuals who will say anything to win favours, and overzealous police and prosecutors are potentially untrustworthy.

At the same time, the author wrote, the "charisma of genetic science" has helped blind people to the fact that science can be fallible.

"In the press coverage, individual subjective interests were seen as intruding on the search for truth -- and DNA testing was represented as immune from this."

The unparalleled influence of DNA is also reflected in the record of the New York-based Innocence Project, which has used it to overturn more than 100 serious criminal convictions.

"What those exonerations should tell us is that the justice system sometimes fails," Mr. Campbell said. "It should make us more open to claims of innocence, and determined to investigate them by whatever means [are] available: DNA when we have it, hard work when we don't."

One of the few Canadian exonerations that lacked DNA was that of Clayton Johnson, a Nova Scotia man convicted of murdering his wife by throwing her down their basement stairs.

Yet, even there, science played a pivotal role. Mr. Johnson's exoneration was rooted in expert witnesses who concluded from the victim's injuries, the position of her corpse, and the physical layout of the stairway that she fell by accident.

"Cases without DNA require the system to examine itself more closely, and to look harder at the quality of the evidence relied on by the jury," Mr. Campbell said.

"What may be creeping in -- and should be resisted -- is the notion that because the optimal means of establishing innocence may, in a particular case, be unavailable, evidence which logically casts grave doubt on a conviction can be ignored."

Mr. Skurka said the justice system has to take a deep breath and keep DNA in perspective. "The harsh reality is that in the vast majority of cases, it is the credibility of witnesses that dictates the result," he said.

The case of the bloody shoe print

DNA may be the king of forensic science, but television and the news media have built an aura of near invincibility around lesser forensic techniques as well.

A classic struggle over the limits of scientific expertise was thrashed out last week at the Ontario Court of Appeal in a murder conviction that hinged on a bloody shoe print.

The key question was whether an RCMP shoe-print expert should have been permitted to testify at David Scott Hall's 2000 trial for the murder of a Sault Ste. Marie woman, Peggy Jo Barkley-Dube.

Ms. Barkley-Dube, 27, was hacked to death in the early hours of May 3, 1999. At the time, her husband, a distant relative of Mr. Hall, was away in Florida. Ms. Barkley-Dube was not sexually assaulted, and police ultimately concluded that the murder scene had been staged to look like a break-in.

With no obvious motive, no murder weapon and no eyewitnesses, it was a genuine whodunit.

A partial imprint of a running shoe left when the killer stepped in his victim's blood took on even more importance once police discovered that only a couple of thousand pairs had been sold in Canada. Armed with charts that compared microscopic nicks and indentations in the sole of Mr. Hall's sneakers to the bloody print, an OPP forensic specialist pointed out a number of common factors.

In a submission to the Court of Appeal, prosecutor Eric Siebenmorgen argued that the evidence was too important to omit.

"While it is undoubtedly true . . . that lay people could independently appreciate certain very obvious similarities between footwear impressions and shoe treads, it cannot reasonably be maintained that lay people could, without expert guidance, appreciate wear or accidental characteristics unique to a particular shoe," he argued.

However, defence counsel John Norris insisted that shoe-print analysis is insufficiently reliable to risk having a jury overwhelmed by an expert's aura of special knowledge.

A skeptical Mr. Justice David Doherty of the Court of Appeal jousted frequently with Mr. Norris, suggesting that while shoe-print analysis may be less sophisticated than fingerprints or DNA, jurors are perfectly capable of deciding whether they think an expert is talking through his hat.

"With shoes, there are all sorts of features that could correspond, and all sorts of other features that don't correspond," Mr. Norris said. "The difference is that shoes can change."

An "accidental characteristic" such as a scuff or scratch in a sole can disappear within days, Mr. Norris said. "If it is true that there are good reasons to doubt the probative evidence, it should be stopped at the gate by the gatekeeper: the trial judge," he said.

"The judge didn't caution them about not giving it undue weight. The way this opinion was left to the jury, it was almost impossible for them to come to an independent opinion. It would have simply overwhelmed them."

Judge Doherty didn't budge. "You were certainly free to argue [at the trial] that you can't tell accidental characteristics from the man in the moon," he said.

After a short adjournment, Judge Doherty, Madam Justice Eleanore Cronk and Mr. Justice Russell Juriansz affirmed the conviction.

Once again, science had triumphed.

Real-life CSI

He doesn't chase down the bad guys and he's never first on the scene of a crime.

He works in well-lit conditions. There are no strains of The Who music when he walks down the street and he doesn't solve cases in 42 minutes.

Tom Meyers is a criminalist -- the DNA and serology supervisor of the Allegheny County Coroner's forensic laboratory. But that's about the end of the similarities between him and his television counterparts on "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."

"People think it's so glamorous, but 50 percent of the time, I'm looking at dirty underwear," said Meyers, a 29-year veteran at the lab. "How glamorous is that?"

Television shows like CBS's CSI and its spinoffs "CSI: Miami" and "CSI: New York" have sparked the imagination of thousands of students who are enrolling in forensic courses as colleges scramble to develop programs to meet the demand.

The shows' fictional portrayal of crime scene investigations have prompted real demands for DNA and other scientific evidence from prosecutors and defense attorneys in the courtroom.

It's what attorneys and judges call the "CSI effect."

"The jurors' expectations of criminal prosecutions have been altered by these shows," said Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge John Zottola.

"They expect fingerprints. They expect all the DNA evidence. The prosecution has to bring the jury home in that what they see on 'CSI' does not typically happen in a real case."

Since the O.J. Simpson trial in 1994, the public has come to expect more scientific evidence in a case -- but Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. said that raising of the bar has been a good thing.

"We recognize what the expectations are," Zappala said. "We've really got to try to use a lot of the tools that have become commonplace on television."

Those extra demands can strain the crime lab's resources, Meyers said, where the reality is that not every piece of evidence collected at a scene is processed.

"You go until you have probative results," he said. "We just don't have the manpower -- the resources aren't there for us to look at every piece of evidence."

That doesn't stop investigators or prosecutors for asking for more, Meyers said.

"They might already have their case, but it's just so the jury knows they did something," Meyers said. "The jury expects to see something nowadays."

When that something is there, however, Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey Manning said it can be difficult for the defense to overcome.

Manning presided over the case of Jonathan Paul Jones, who was convicted in 2000 of raping two elderly women after his semen was found at both scenes. Jones' defense was that police had the wrong man.

"The chances of it being someone else was 1 in 2 quadrillion -- that's a two with 15 zeros after it. I opined that eliminates everyone on the planet and everyone who's ever lived on the planet," Manning said. "Forensic science is an incredible tool because you can't fool mother nature. It either is or it isn't."

As a result, very few of the cases that have strong forensic evidence ever make it to a trial -- leaving cases that are based on eyewitness testimony or circumstantial evidence for juries.

"Yes we have cases with fingerprints -- not very many. Yes, we have cases with DNA. Yes we have cases with bank surveillance photos, but the vast majority of those end up in a plea of guilty," Manning said.

"There's no reason for a defendant to assert his right to a trial by jury when he can't win."

Defense attorney Patrick Thomassey said the CSI effect can be used to a defense attorney's advantage, but one must be careful not to cross ethical boundaries, such as implying that the prosecution did not test or find fingerprints or DNA when those types of evidence might be impossible to obtain from a scene.

"You can't infer to the jury that (the prosecution) didn't do something scientifically when you know in your heart of hearts they couldn't," he said. "It goes back to the kind of lawyer you want to be."

Former light-weight boxing champion Paul Spadafora pled guilty in December to charges of aggravated assault and carrying a gun without a license after police say he shot his girlfriend Nadine Russo.

His entered his plea even though his fingerprints were not found on the gun, no gunshot residue was on his hands and Russo, now Spadafora's fiancee, said she would not testify against him.

Had the boxer not pleaded guilty, attorney William Difenderfer said it the trial may have been difficult for prosecutors.

"The DA, in that situation, is between a rock and a hard place," said Difenderfer, Spadafora's attorney in that case. "The DA has to put on to the jury that 'we did check for all this stuff and we didn't find it.'"

Washington County District Attorney John Pettit said that's why it's important to be upfront with the jury about what the case will and will not include.

"I tell the jury right at the beginning what the case is about, this is what we're going to have, that we don't really have any forensic evidence but this is not a case where would expect that kind of thing. There is no smoking gun," he said.

"You just make sure they know what to look for as you're presenting the case and they don't expect anything more."

And juries, for the most part, decide based on the evidence, not on their initial expectations.

"Jurors are often asking why wasn't that dusted for fingerprints, why didn't they do this why didn't they do that," Zottola said. "For the most part where there were acquittals, they wanted more or needed more information. 'It wasn't explained to our satisfaction.'"

Manning gives juries credit for pushing their perceptions aside.

"They decide the case based on the evidence presented to them," he said. "Often they have to acquit on the basis that there is not sufficient evidence even though they believe the defendant committed the crime. That's our process."

those shows ... they're so full of crap
-- Sgt. McComb

Sgt. Paul McComb and his crew of 11 detectives with Pittsburgh's mobile crime unit handle more than 3,000 calls a year ranging from home invasions to homicides.

Unlike television, McComb said his team rarely has time to finish processing one scene's evidence before they're being called out to another scene.

On television, "they just go back to the lab, they process the evidence and the next (case) never comes in. Unfortunately, that's not real life," he said.

"We laugh about it a lot. We'd like that to be the only thing we're doing for whatever time span."

From the criminalists who collect and process evidence to the defense attorneys in the courtroom, each has their own gripe about how television portrays their real life jobs.

"I find it very difficult, personally to watch those shows because they're so full of crap," said defense attorney William Difenderfer, who admitted his wife is a fan of the long-running NBC series "Law & Order."

"The meeting with the lawyer and the client in the DA's office? Unless the defense attorney wants to get disbarred, that just doesn't happen," he said.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge John Zottola said television sometimes portrays fingerprint recovery as a common occurrence, when in fact, he rarely sees that kind of evidence in a trial.

"I think I might get 10 fingerprint cases a year where they have been able to match and identify," he said. "Jurors sometimes feel that if someone has been at a crime scene you can pull that print. That's typically not the case."