Special Reports

The CSI Effect: How courtroom dramas impact jurors and real-life cases

CSI effect special report

EL PASO, Texas - It's been said that life imitates art. But can art influence life?

For years, researchers have studied the effect of TV courtroom dramas on potential jurors.

The phenomenon even has a name: The CSI Effect -- named for the highly watched forensics crime drama television series that was broadcast for 15 seasons, from 2000 to 2015.

ABC-7 spoke to attorneys on both sides of the courtroom about whether embellishments seen on television can affect the outcome in real-life cases. They agree that courtroom dramas are often very different from a real courtroom, and the shows may give viewers an unrealistic idea of how the criminal justice system works.

"I think television is an extremely powerful medium," El Paso District Attorney Jaime Esparza told ABC-7. "And I do think (crime dramas) affect jurors because ... they see it regularly, and so not being exposed to the courthouse on a regular basis, or crime scenes on a regular basis -- it certainly can distort reality."

In a separate interview, Yvonne Rosales told ABC-7, "I think sometimes they are caught up that a one-hour drama show can solve a murder case, and they don't understand that a murder (trial) can take up to a week and a half or two weeks, sometimes longer."

Esparza, now serving his sixth four-year term as D.A., and Rosales, a defense attorney and former assistant D.A., also believe that television shows up the ante for both sides.

"I think the expectation is that it's going to be very high drama where the attorneys are yelling at each other, or yelling at the judge," Rosales said, "There is no ... Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men, a 'You can't handle the truth' moment. It's very far and few between."

In a similar train of thought, Esparza said he thought crime dramas created high expectations. "I would tell you that it raises the level of certainty beyond what the law requires, which is beyond a reasonable doubt," he added.

When asked to define reasonable doubt, Esparza explained that many people unwittingly use reasonable doubt when entering marriages or purchasing houses. The potential for issues one may encounter after the deal is sealed aren't overwhelming enough to not commit to the decision, Esparza said.

Esparza believes television dramas may give jurors the impression that fictional or cost prohibitive techniques used to solve crimes actually exist and are available to local investigators.

"That we can search your records with a phone call. That's not true. That we're going to be able to pinpoint your house in a moment's notice. That we can do that all without a warrant," Esparza said, listing fallacies he's caught while watching crime dramas.

Rosales has seen it herself while on both sides of the courtroom that jurors want more scientific evidence.

"I think the expectation is that with so much technology around, there's no excuse why you shouldn't have something on video," she added. But even when a crime was caught on video, it may not be enough. Rosales told ABC-7 about a drug case she prosecuted as an assistant district attorney in which the jurors admitted that they needed more evidence to convict.

"We presented evidence where the individual was actually in the room (with) hundreds of pounds of marijuana. But ... the jury came back with a 'not guilty,'" Rosales said. "I'm like, 'You guys heard testimony from agents that said, 'We had this house under surveillance, we had been watching these individuals come in and out and nobody else had been out of that house. Just those co-defendants.' Yet the jury came back with, 'No, we wanted fingerprints on that actual marijuana.'"

But as a defense attorney, Rosales uses those memories to her advantage in creating reasonable doubt in jurors' minds.

"I know from my experience as an attorney why (evidence may not be presented in court), but my job as a defense attorney is to raise that reasonable doubt," she said. "Sometimes that expectation is a little bit burdensome for the state, but it's wonderful for a defense attorney," she said, laughing.

It's no laughing matter for Esparza.

"We see a very consistent line of defense is just to attack the investigation," Esparza said. "When you attack the investigation and jurors may have an unrealistic view of reality and what's possible, it does make it a challenge."

The jury is out on whether the CSI Effect is real or simply a by-product of overexposure to high-profile crime cases through media.

The handful of research papers published by Yale, Eastern Michigan and San Jose State universities, and organizations such as the New England Law Review and the Journal of Criminal Justice disagree about whether jurors in criminal cases who watch crime scene dramas are actually influenced by what they see on television while deliberating a case.

Which means that juries must do their best to separate fact from fiction while analyzing evidence.


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