The CSI Effect in New Zealand: what is it?

By Anna Sandiford 30/09/2011

I have been asked to provide comment on the CSI effect in New Zealand. The request came from a Forensic Science student and so I started to pen (type) my reply. However, it got the better of me and so I thought I’d just add it as a blog post as well.

My opinion of the CSI Effect in NZ is not too dissimilar to that of the effect overseas. We’re not at the stage where we’re having to screen juries to see if they watch programmes like CSI, like they do in the USA.

At the end of the day, juries are just members of the public and members of the public are not as gullible as the perception seems to be. In particular, politicians regularly underestimate how savvy the public is, and juries come from that same pool of people.

I give presentations to lots of groups of people who would be considered lay audiences — this week I presented at Pakuranga Palaver Club and the week before I was at Howick Probus Club. My experience has been that many more women than men watch programmes like CSI (or are willing to admit to it anyway) and people aged 65+ tend to watch these programmes a lot less than those under 65. Many men say that their wives or their daughters love CSI but they themselves are less likely to watch them.

Children at intermediate and high school seem to be influenced by what they see on TV so the numbers of enquiries I have had relating to them wanting to get jobs as forensic scientists is more now than it was ten years ago.  To support my earlier observation of women watching the programmes more than men, I certainly have more enquiries from females about jobs in forensic science than I do from males.  Or is that a function of me being female?  I don’t know.

As Auckland Criminal Defence barrister Marie Dyhrberg once said on Media 7, she no longer has to spend twenty minutes explaining to a jury what DNA is all about; as soon as it is mentioned there are looks of recognition amongst them and the explanation time is reduced. I would imagine this is the same for fingerprints because both of these are regular ‘crime-solvers’ on programmes like CSI.

Familiarity of course breeds contempt and sometimes I wonder if juries get impatient with explanations of the intricacies of techniques like low template DNA or problems with enhancing fingerprints because they think they have a base knowledge and that there is little to be learnt from what an expert has to say in court about the specific problems with a given case. However, that is just speculation on my part. What happens in relation to jury perceptions of other areas of forensic expertise is less clear.

For me, the CSI franchise’s most worrying impact is that it takes forensic science techniques and makes them solve crime in an unrealistically quick and decisive manner with experts who each have a far wider and extremely in-depth knowledge than is actually possible for most scientists. The scientists also interview witnesses, which isn’t the case in real life, at least in NZ and the UK.

CSI sails quite close to the wind in the application of the techniques, which causes lay audiences to absorb some information from the programmes that is not quite accurate or it increases their expectations of what they think can be achieved. For example, although she knew that CSI is not real, a teacher told me last year that it’s true that by examining the pattern of a shoe sole left at a crime scene it is possible to narrow down the exact number of pairs of shoes with that pattern that were for sale in a given area at the time a crime occurred — the implication seemed to be that this was a common thing to do.

It sounds great in theory and there are databases of shoes and some sole patterns are less common than others but, for example, New Zealand does not really maintain a database of sole patterns. Also, there are an awful lot of shoes being brought into the country from different sources, some of which are not legitimate. So even if it were possible to obtain information from manufacturers about their products, there will always be an element of non-genuine shoes or shoes that have the same sole pattern but are used on a range of different styles of shoe uppers. In short, it is possible to maintain a database of such information but there is a lot to take into account and it involves constant management. There has also been a very significant ruling in England & Wales this year in the case of R v T, which has big implications for footwear mark interpretation (but that is for another post). The upshot is that the teacher’s belief is, unfortunately, somewhat misplaced. Add to this that to even come close to being able to narrow down to how many pairs of shoes of a given sole pattern there may have been in a given area at a given time, the crime scene mark has to be sufficiently detailed to be able to determine shoe size – something that can be very difficult or impossible to do unless the crime scene mark is very sharply defined and nice and clear. Establishing a specific size from an impression on a carpet for example would be very difficult.

Programmes like Bones on the other hand, to my mind, are often so far-fetched that people don’t believe the techniques as much and so the risk of them taking that information into the jury box is less likely.

The thing with CSI and similar programmes that bothers me (another thing that bothers me, I should say) is that it is very rare for the experts to be seen giving evidence in court and it is even rarer (in fact I don’t recall ever seeing it) for their work to be challenged by an independent scientist. This probably doesn’t help matters in New Zealand where it is relatively uncommon for Crown experts to be challenged when compared with other countries with adversarial systems such as England and Wales.

New Zealand has a need for the methods, approaches and interpretations (where they occur) of Crown experts to be challenged more routinely and I for one welcome the apparently impending introduction of discussion between experts instructed for each side prior to criminal trials.