CSI undermining jury process


Richard Moore


Jurors warned to avoid lure of 'CSI effect'

Legal community concerned phenomenon is influencing juries in Canada, police say

March 10, 2008

A Toronto jury took only four hours last week to acquit Ivan Mendez-Romero of 
killing his gay lover, Janko Naglic, and some on the losing side blame the "CSI 

In Brampton, a prosecutor last fall often warned jurors not to have exaggerated 
expectations of forensic evidence based on what they have seen on TV.

"Please watch CSI all you like, just realize that CSI is entertainment and this 
is reality," Peel Crown Steve Sherriff told a jury at the murder trial of three 
men in the shooting death of Youhan Oraha, 22, of Woodbridge.

"In the real world there are no forensic clues when a gun is fired and then 
taken away from the murder scene to be cleaned of fingerprints or destroyed. The
shooter's DNA does not float through the air with the bullet. A shooter's DNA is
not left behind when he takes a gun away from the murder scene.

"No guns were found at this murder scene," Sherriff said, "and there was no 
video of this parking lot. Guns can be bought and sold, even rented. The police 
were left with no forensic clues, in other words, no scientific clues as to the 
identity of the killers."

Last month, the jury in the Oraha trial convicted Jahmar Welsh, 24, his 
stepbrother Evol Robinson, 22, and their friend Reuben Pinnock, 24, of 
first-degree murder.

The so-called phenomenon, CSI effect, named after the top-rated crime scene 
investigation series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, is alarming U.S. law 
enforcers. And there's growing concern that it's affecting juries north of the 

In the United States, a juror cited the lack of gunshot residue as a main reason
for acquitting actor Robert Blake of murdering his wife.

Toronto homicide investigators admit privately that they are frustrated because 
juries come into trials expecting a forensic "smoking gun," such as DNA evidence
or video footage proving guilt.

"How could it be any other way?" says one police source. "Most jurors never see 
the real side of police work, yet they are exposed to thousands of hours of the 
fake side. Do you think that has an impact? Of course it does."

Toronto Crown Attorney Paul Culver says there's no way of knowing the extent to 
which the effect exists in Canada because jurors aren't allowed to discuss their
deliberations. But crime shows have even affected his own expectations, he says.
He remembers wanting a sharper image from a digital video of an offence being 
committed and asked a technician to enlarge a person's face.

" It was as blurry in the close-up as it was in the distance shot," he said. "I 
expected more based on what I'd seen on TV and the movies and it's not always 
the case."

In a Canadian research paper exploring the CSI effect, Saint Mary's University 
psychology professors found the phenomenon exists here.

Already, legal professionals are changing the way they conduct trials. But that 
may be unwise given that the "exact nature and consequences of this effect" are 
as yet unknown, the Halifax-based researchers wrote in their 2007 paper 
published in the Canadian Journal of Police and Security Services.

But, they conclude, there is a consensus that it's undesirable if "jurors expect
to see more scientific evidence than they have in the past.

"When the scientific evidence presented at trial fails to meet jurors' 
expectations, they are then more likely to acquit the defendant."

Ontario's Attorney General ministry doesn't keep track of the number of jury 
trials held each year, or their outcome.

Jonathan Freedman, a University of Toronto psychology professor with expertise 
in juries, is skeptical about the CSI effect.

"If you haven't sat through the trial and heard all of the evidence, it's really
hard to appreciate what the jury was faced with."

He suggests any CSI effect would be bad because in many of today's criminal 
proceedings there often isn't forensic evidence, and even if there is, it's 
often "not so trustworthy."

James Stribopoulos, a York University law professor, has heard complaints from 
Crown attorneys about the CSI effect. But he retains his faith in the jury 

"If there are 12 people in that room and someone is sitting there saying, `but 
they don't have any DNA,' and yet there is still in every respect an 
overwhelming and compelling case, the power of reason employed by the other 11 
will convince the person watching too much TV to get a grip on reality."

Defence lawyer David Midanik also represented a client charged with first-degree
murder where the Crown's opening statement included a warning not to expect 
CSI-type evidence. He says the effect, if it exists, is a double-edged sword.

"The reason the Crown opened that way was to explain the fact they had no case, 
but the jury didn't buy it. There was no forensic evidence linking him to the 
crime scene, but they convicted him anyway."

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