Editor's note: This is the ninth story in an occasional series on understanding the criminal justice system.
Turn on any prime time police procedural show, and you're likely to see tech-savvy investigators snatching up fingerprints from walls or floors illuminated with DNA under a black light. They complete their own analyses of the evidence with results just minutes later and are throwing the bad guys in jail within the hour (all with catchy background music along the way).
Reality, however, doesn't work that way. And people who are conditioned by shows to think the criminal justice system works so swiftly and precisely have succumbed to what law enforcement professionals call the “CSI effect.”
The “CSI effect” gets its name from the hit police procedural show “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” according to Assistant Solicitor Beth Ann Young. The show follows investigators working for the Las Vegas Police Department as they use forensic evidence from crime scenes to solve grisly murders.
The show is particularly known for its graphic crime scenes and interpretations of the scientific methods used to extract evidence from those crime scenes. But just how accurate – how real? – is the show, and is it sending the wrong message to viewers about police investigations? Young thinks so.
“It's a term we use to describe expectations from potential jurors ... about what sort of evidence the state can have, should have and needs to be present,” she said. “It's a common term used among prosecutors across the United States. Basically, the advent of the show 'CSI' is when we really started seeing it. The things they do on that show are just not realistic.”
In shows such as “CSI,” forensic evidence is readily available (and easily extractable) at every crime scene; investigators can do their own testing and have results back in a matter of hours, if not minutes; and police have the most advanced technology right at their fingertips.
Capt. Eric Abdullah, a spokesman for the Aiken County Sheriff's Office, said the show exaggerates the capabilities of law enforcement, as well as the time frame in which they complete their work.
“It's entertainment,” he said. “Things are solved within that 60-minute segment. The value I put on those shows is that they're just entertainment. There are some truths on those shows, and then there are some things that are not.”
Investigators don't always have the most high-tech gadgets to get their clues.
“If there's a surveillance photo, we don't have the ability to focus in on one license plate from across the parking lot,” Young said. “It's possible SLED can work on it and improve it, but we don't have a computer to put it into and it pops up.”
The Sheriff's Office has three full-time forensic analysts who also assist other agencies as needed. Often, local agencies must send forensic evidence to the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division crime lab for analysis, Young said. However, SLED provides services to the entire state and cannot immediately analyze every piece of evidence collected from a crime scene.
“They might do some preliminary testing, but SLED is to the point they just want the officers to collect the evidence, package it per their requirements and send it,” she said. “For the cases where the state has to prove the chain of custody, it might shut down (SLED's) intake department because they have to testify in court. The conception that they have hundreds and thousands of people working on this – they have the same problems all government agencies do with resources.”
To minimize backup in the crime lab, SLED limits an agency to five items at a time for a case.
“Law enforcement has to determine what item is most likely to produce a conclusive result,” Young said. “We can't send them everything we have, and then there's a turnaround (time) for them to process it and send it back.”
Shows like “CSI” often blur the lines between reality and TV for people called to serve on a jury, Young said.
“We do spend a lot more time than we ever have before explaining why we don't have evidence,” she said. “I hate it because it feels like the jurors might be somewhat disappointed. It just doesn't always work out that we have that.”
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime and courts beat for the Aiken Standard.