“CSI Effect” Leaves Fingerprint on Twin Cities Courtrooms


Nationwide, prosecutors have been talking about how crime dramas like CSI have been raising juries’ expectations in the courtroom. Now, according to the Star-Tribune:

Because of the “CSI” shows, some prosecutors contend, more jurors believe every crime scene yields forensic evidence that offers conclusive scientific proof of innocence or guilt, almost instantly.

When selecting jurors, Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar said, prosecutors are now trying to explain “that real life is not like a TV show . . . and that just because there is no DNA evidence does not mean that there is not substantial other evidence sufficient to prove our case.”

On the other hand, a defense attorney and jury expert said that “long before the popular crime shows, defense attorneys asked in court whether authorities had performed enough forensic tests.” But if prosecutors are right, jurors are now starting to agree with the defense attorneys.

From the point of view of prosecutors, this is a bad thing. It means devoting more resources to trying to meet jurors’ rising expectations. It also means, more significantly, the standard of proof could be changing.

“Beyond all reasonable doubt”

Judges in Minnesota, when explaining the criminal standard of proof to juries, often say that “beyond all reasonable doubt” is the level of certainty a person would use when making their most important life decisions. Marriage, buying a home, deciding to have a child, etc.

With all the information available to us these days, most people are better informed when making such decisions. When buying a used car, for example, one can download a CarFax report and find out the repair history of a vehicle before ever setting foot in a dealership. Or when buying a home, one can easily find out the property values of the surrounding area to find out whether the asking price on a home is fair.

Even with marriage, background checks are simple and inexpensive, yielding a wealth of information about a potential spouse. Even if we don’t always take these measure, we could. We could be that much more certain. We can make safer gambles and more educated guesses.

Now, it looks like the information age is finally coming to the criminal courtroom. Using technology, we can be that much more certain we are convicting the right person.

Above and beyond all reasonable doubt?

“We may say a forensic test is not relevant to us, and that we have proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” [Anoka County Attorney Robert Johnson] said, “but it may be relevant to the jurors.”

In other words, there is a discrepancy between what jurors and prosecutors think the standard of proof is. Does the availability of greater proof raise the bar? It seems so.