Do courtroom dramas change people's understanding of the law?

Do people expect to see gavels flying left and right because of courtroom dramas?
Do people expect to see gavels flying left and right because of courtroom dramas?

Courtrooms seem like the perfect setting for great drama: Witnesses recount crimes under oath, lawyers display bloody gloves, and judges and juries ultimately decide fates. Countless films and TV shows have used the courtroom to capitalize on the climactic moments and sensational elements of the justice system. In fact, it's not a stretch to say that many of us who don't have much personal experience in a courtroom get a lot of our preconceived notions about law from these kinds of movies and shows.

In one sense, this isn't such a bad thing. Watching movies like "A Time to Kill" and shows like "Law & Order" has helped audiences familiarize themselves with common legal jargon that you might hear thrown around in a courtroom. We learn the procedures and rules that help structure our justice system and, hopefully, ensure fairness. One could also argue that, in general, good courtroom dramas help us appreciate the difficulty in upholding justice in an imperfect system.

But is this exposure to the fictionalized and often overstylized courtroom drama doing harm? No doubt there are common misconceptions perpetuated by courtroom dramas -- not the least of which is the idea that trials are usually exciting. Indeed, trials are often dull and frustrating. And contrary to what courtroom dramas would have you believe, most lawyers spend little if any time in a courtroom. Most cases get settled out of court.

We spoke to the authors of "True Stories of Law & Order," Kevin Dwyer and Jure Fiorillo, who told us that it's common for jurors to come into the courtroom with the wrong expectations. After their heads are filled with the tropes and cliches of sensationalized courtroom drama, some jurors expect an "Aha!" moment where the proverbial smoking gun will emerge to expose the clear truth. That some jurors expect witness-stand confessions was called the "Perry Mason Effect."

But a similar phenomenon that has gained a lot of attention is what's called the "CSI Effect," based on the TV series about criminal investigators. CSI isn't a courtroom drama, but many argue that it has influenced people's ideas and expectations in the courtroom significantly.

What exactly is the "CSI Effect"? Read more about it on the next page.

The CSI Effect

Jurors might expect to see lots of incriminating evidence, although that's not usually how things go in the courtroom.
Jurors might expect to see lots of incriminating evidence, although that's not usually how things go in the courtroom.

Ever since the forensics drama "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" became an enormous hit and spawned its own spinoffs, commentators have been concerned about what they coined the "CSI Effect." The theory behind the effect is that fans of the popular show internalize misconceptions about the law that they bring with them into the courtroom as jurors. So, the fear is that the TV show is ultimately affecting the outcomes of trials -- and not in a good way.

Most people, and especially prosecutors, use the "CSI Effect" to refer to jurors who have unrealistic expectations for clear-cut scientific evidence. According to this theory, fans of "CSI," watching their heroes uncover incriminating DNA evidence every week, later walk into a courtroom and expect the same kind of definitive evidence to be produced. If no such evidence comes up, the juror is less likely to convict. Critics say this is unreasonable because, in reality, forensic evidence is not as easy to obtain and analyze as it appears on the show. Not only that, but many techniques used in the show are purely fiction -- they don't even exist.

Less often, people will refer to the "CSI Effect" to refer to the opposite, however. Defense attorneys, for instance, sometimes argue that jurors influenced by "CSI" tend to believe that any forensic evidence collected will be incriminating. This is also dangerous, critics say, because people don't usually consider the possibility of error or even fraud [source: Cole]. Forensic scientists have been known to fudge results in order to get a conviction, if they believe that that's what the police want. Take, for example, Joyce Gilchrist, a police chemist who was later found to have given false testimony that resulted in sending innocent people to death.

Although the "CSI Effect" seems plausible, some argue that, beyond anecdotal evidence, there's no reason to believe it's had much impact on the outcome of trials. In one study, researchers found that, although frequent "CSI" viewers had higher expectations for forensic evidence, this ultimately did not have a significant impact on their likelihood to convict [source: Shelton].

Whether the "CSI Effect" has influenced jurors on a wide scale is debatable. However, it's nevertheless true that it's influenced lawyers, many of whom have adapted their style to address "CSI" expectations.

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  • Cole, Simon, and Rachel Dioso. "Law and the Lab." The Wall Street Journal. May 13, 2005. (March 23, 2011)
  • Dwyer, Kevin, Jure Fiorillo. Personal Correspondence. March 21, 2011.
  • New York Times. "Police Chemist Accused of Shoddy Work is Fired." New York Times. Sept. 26, 2001. (March 23, 2011)
  • Rapping, Elayne. "Law and Justice as Seen on TV." NYU Press, 2003. (March 23, 2011)
  • Shelton, Donald E. "The 'CSI Effect': Does It Really Exist?" National Institute of Justice. NIJ Journal No. 259, March 2008. (March 23, 2011)