Defense, Prosecution Play to New 'CSI' Savvy

M. Lee Goff of Chaminade University's forensic science program, says
M. Lee Goff of Chaminade University's forensic science program, says "CSI" and shows like it have spurred students' interest in the field. (By Jim Mone -- Associated Press)
By Jamie Stockwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 22, 2005

A Prince George's County jury would not convict a man accused of stabbing his girlfriend to death because a half-eaten hamburger, recovered from the crime scene and assumed to have been his, was not tested for DNA.

In the District, a jury deadlocked recently in the trial of a woman accused of stabbing another woman because fingerprints on the weapon did not belong to the suspect. An Alexandria jury acquitted a man on drug-possession charges in part because a box containing 60 rocks of crack cocaine that he was accused of tossing from his car during a traffic stop was not tested for fingerprints.

Prosecutors say jurors are telling them they expect forensic evidence in criminal cases, just like on their favorite television shows, including "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation." In real life, forensic evidence is not collected at every crime scene, either because criminals clean up after themselves or because of a shortage in resources. Yet, increasingly, jurors are reluctant to convict someone without it, a phenomenon the criminal justice community is calling the "CSI effect."

"There is an increased and unrealistic expectation that every crime scene will yield plentiful forensic evidence," said Alexandria Commonwealth's Attorney S. Randolph Sengel, who talked to jurors after the drug trial. "As a result, we spend time now explaining to juries the absence of evidence." And when interviewing potential jurors, Sengel said, he and his team of prosecutors have "recently taken to reminding them that this is not 'CSI.' "

The shows have had an effect on courtrooms nationwide, according to lawyers, judges and jurors. Some prosecutors are calling experts to the witness stand simply to explain to juries why forensic evidence might be absent. Defense lawyers are exploiting the lack of scientific proof to plant doubt, even when there are eyewitness accounts, confessions or other compelling evidence.

Leon Dempsky understands the influence that crime shows can have on juries. The Arlington defense lawyer says he will tweak his closing arguments based on rudimentary knowledge of forensics that jurors might have picked up from watching television.

"If someone breaks into a house, and the police don't have the suspect's fingerprints, I'm going to argue that there are no fingerprints," Dempsky said. "If a woman is raped, but there are no bruises and no DNA, then I'm going to argue that, too."

It is not known how many cases have been affected by such crime shows in trial preparation, tactics or verdicts. But there is a growing body of anecdotal evidence, and in more than a dozen interviews, prosecutors and defense lawyers in the Washington region cited specific cases in which they believe the demand for forensic evidence influenced the outcome -- because jurors told them so after trial.

"I find myself bringing it up when picking a jury," said Jennifer Pollard, an assistant commonwealth's attorney in Alexandria. "I try to point out that it's entertainment and not real life."

Pollard's boss, Sengel, said jurors have learned through watching crime shows that "these tests can be done and should be done even in routine cases and that the results will be ready right away," he said. "If we don't meet those expectations, they're instantly skeptical."

Kate Fisher, a spokeswoman for CBS, which airs "CSI," said producers of the show would not comment on its effect on jurors and in courtrooms "because they are not lawyers or judges. They are in the entertainment industry."

Michele Nethercott, a public defender in Baltimore who serves as co-chairwoman of the forensic committee for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said she frequently hears prosecutors complain about the "CSI" effect and its apparent hindrance to obtaining convictions. But something else might also be influencing juries, she said.

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