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The CSI Effect — Myths on Forensic Investigation

What is the CSI effect? Criminal proceedings and crime investigation have been featured in scripted film and television shows for some time, a dramatization of a process that caters to the public eye, yet distorts the true nature of forensic investigation. What does this mean for the criminal justice system?

First, jurors selected from the general public have a wrongful and distorted view on what criminal investigation should look like. This includes, but is not limited to, DNA and advanced technology. The reality is, scientific evidence is not available for every criminal case. This means that for jury-inclusive cases, evidence in the courtroom may be weighed differently than they would have otherwise — with the exception of sexual assault cases, jurors were more likely to find a defendant guilty based on witness testimony, without scientific evidence.

Then there is the issue of the misconceptions regarding the extent of forensic knowledge. Forensic entomology experts, for instance, cannot state the time of death of a decedent based on the insects at the scene — this process requires insect collection and calculations with reference to local databases for growth rates for certain species. This then must also take into consideration the time of day, location, climate, and particular circumstances of the crime scene, and yield results providing a minimum time of death, rather than an exact time. And this is only a small piece of the investigation process. The investigation team is not comprised of Sherlock-like characters, but rather of investigators that have been trained in evidence collection — evidence that will then be examined, compared, and presented in the courtroom. Much testing and experimentation is required to present a fact in the proceeding, meaning documentation of the scene is of utmost importance in order to reconstruct the circumstances of the scene as closely as possible — standing at this distance, can the bullet trajectory truly go through those two targets?

The consequences of the CSI effect can cause irreparable damages, particularly when we look at cases of wrongful convictions by judge and jury. To remedy this, we should make an effort in educating others on the realities of criminal investigation, with the aim to reduce the inaccuracies presented in popular media and diminish the distortion of perceptions surrounding criminal investigations.

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