Here's what happens when a TV columnist walks into an office building: he expects to ride the elevator with Michael Scott and spy Jim Halpert in the corner, planning an elaborate prank on his co-worker Dwight Schrute. When he steps into a hospital to visit an ailing friend, he peers about, looking for Meredith Grey and Derek Shepherd, or Edie Falco's pill-popping "Nurse Jackie."
As a TV columnist, I spend so much time with these characters in their hyper-realistic settings that, especially in unfamiliar environments, that my mind wanders to my familiar TV friends.
It's an occupational hazard, or so I thought until I was summoned to jury duty for the first time a few weeks ago. It turns out this odd condition affects average television viewers, too.
I walked into the jury selection process half expecting to see Sam Waterston as Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy, yes, but I also thought I'd find a room full of people trying to get out of their civic duty. Instead, I discovered that a number of them acted as if they could not wait to get on a jury and begin hearing evidence.
Doing one's civic duty is one thing, and I was prepared in the event I was selected (I wasn't). But it was beyond me why anyone would actually be eager to hear evidence about the felony sexual assault of a minor. Then it hit me: The folks who were tossing around legal and technical jargon and crime scene scenarios — doing show-offy, triple-flip dives into the jury pool — must be fans of law shows and procedurals.
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"You are completely correct — the ‘ "CSI" effect' has been a big deal with juries all over the country," says Diane Beckham of the Texas District & County Attorneys Association, a nonprofit group that offers training and resources for prosecutors.
The "CSI" effect? As in the CBS drama "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation?" Wow. You know your hunch is good when there's actually a name for it.
Beckham put me in touch with Erik Nielsen, a former Travis County assistant district attorney who currently serves as the TDCAA's training director, lining up guest speakers on topics including jury selection.
"It is a phenomenon," Nielsen says. "We've actually done a couple of trainings. Not whole seminars, but hourlong, little topical trainings on the CSI effect."
It turns out that the fictional exploits of William Petersen, Marg Helgenberger et. al. have affected the real-life business of choosing juries.
"I think what we don't know — from the prosecution side or the defense side — is if it's been a positive or a negative effect," Nielsen says.
The verdict seems to be that it's a mix of both.
On the down side, attorneys are forced to use precious selection time educating jury pools about fact and fiction.
Nielsen recalls a PowerPoint presentation at one of his training sessions. The speaker showed a slide that depicted a "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" poster, an equals sign and a photo from "Star Trek," which caused the group to laugh. "I don't mean this to be a joke," Nielsen remembers the speaker saying, "It's very serious. They're really both very well-written shows; they both have a basis in science. But they are both fiction."
Mindy Montford, a former Travis County District Attorney's Office prosecutor who currently has a private criminal defense practice, agrees.
"I would just confront it: ‘How many of you watch "Law & Order?" How many of you watch "CSI?" And I'd get them all to answer, Montford says. "And then I'd go to each of those people and say, ‘OK, you understand that that's TV and that a lot of the technology you see on there we don't do.' "
The television programs, both attorneys agree, lead many potential jurors to expect dramatic and compelling evidence beyond the scope of what most real-life testimony provides.
Nielsen suggests a hypothetical case in which drugs are found in a baggy on a suspect's person: "You might have a jury (that says) ‘Well, on "CSI" they ran a gas spectrometer against it and were able to find his fingerprints. Did you guys fingerprint the bag?' What they don't (know) is that most baggies don't hold fingerprints at all because they're too malleable," he says. "So that's kind of the effect that we see — that people expect too much of the evidence."
"They see on these shows that, oh my gosh, you can take a fingerprint and run it through a computer and 30 seconds later it spits out the perpetrator," Montford laments. "I mean, as far as science has come, it's still not completely there. And I think when they see those shows, they expect that we'll have that, and we just don't."
That kind of bombshell evidence, combined with the quick and decisive outcomes on law dramas and procedurals, has changed some potential jurors' expectations of the State's burden of proof for conviction from "beyond a reasonable doubt" to "beyond all doubt" or "beyond a shadow of a doubt," Nielsen says, calling those heightened standards "practically an impossible burden."
Christie Williams, a former Dallas County prosecutor who works as a defense attorney in Austin, Georgetown and Dallas, disagrees that TV shows have raised the bar for burden of proof, although she's not surprised to hear that some prosecutors believe that. "I know they do; I'm married to one," she says. Defense attorneys are already working from behind, Williams explains, because most people believe that if somebody has been charged and brought to trial, that person is probably guilty. She adds that TV shows can reinforce the thought that defendants who are exonerated got away with something.
But Montford insists that she has found jurors increasingly less willing to convict on the one-witness rule, in which a conviction can rest on one person's testimony alone if the jury believes that person beyond a reasonable doubt. "Now people have said ‘that's not enough,' " she says. "It's getting harder and harder to get an impartial jury who can actually follow the law without having DNA and forensic science involved."
Nielsen admits that it's easier for jurors to hand down a verdict of guilty if proven scientific evidence tells them that the defendant likely committed the crime. "The ‘CSI' junkie ... basically, they want the science to take them having to decide the case out of their hands," he says. "They want a piece of scientific proof so reliable that they feel they cannot make a mistake."
Defense attorney Williams agrees that the technology depicted in televised crime dramas has made things more difficult — for prosecutors. She and her husband joke about the massive databases to which the "CSI" personnel have access, such as "sunglasses databases. They don't exist in reality."
The "armchair detective" aspect of law and crime drama fandom also has made it more difficult for lawyers to select jury members.
"The defense attorney doesn't want (the jurors) back there trying to solve the crime," Montford explains. "They want them to listen to the evidence and decide not guilty or guilty. But if they have that knowledge and they kind of have that, ‘Oh, I can solve this' mentality; it can really hurt your case. If you're one of those people who talks like that, with the ‘DNA,' you're probably going to get cut by both sides ... ‘exculpatory evidence,' ‘Brady' and ‘Miranda' — they throw those terms out now and I know they get them from those shows."
So do I. There were several potential jurors in my selection experience using such jargon and, in response to lawyer's questions, spinning hypothetical plot lines straight out of a Hollywood writers' room.
Nielsen thinks that particular aspect of the "CSI" effect might have made the jury selection process a little easier.
"As you noticed, they understand the vernacular that we have to use," he says. "In that way, I think we've short-circuited some of the training during the trial that we have to do."
Williams would agree — if she believed that jury pool members, who she says arrive with the best of intentions and take their duties very seriously, really understood the jargon they were using. "They feel like they have a very good education" from the TV shows, she says, emphasizing "feel."
Even if jury pools don't have the degree of sophistication that a television law education can make them feel they have, Nielsen finds the familiarity helpful in another way.
"I think people fear what they don't understand," he says. "And I think through ‘Law & Order' and through ‘CSI' ... I think people understand the criminal justice system better than they did before. So I don't think they're as afraid of it as they once were."
But there's a difference between being less fearful and, having watched fictionalized trials week after week, being way too eager to join in.
"I think it's good any time we can get more people wanting to be on a jury," Nielsen says. "(But) if someone is really eager to be on a particular jury, I oftentimes would strike them as a prosecutor. You want someone who is going to be serious about the subject; you don't want someone who is amped up to be on the jury."
If you want to prep yourself for your own jury experience by watching a realistic televised depiction of the workings of the legal system, Nielsen recommends the original "Law & Order."
"They got a lot of it right," he claims. "The pretrial hearings, a lot of shows blow by. The objections — a lot of the times stuff would have been objected to, especially in Texas, on some of the stuff they were doing, but it got it right more than it got it wrong. It laid out procedurally what would happen better than other shows do."
See you in court.