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Features - Getting a Grip on the CSI Effect: The National Clearinghouse for Science, Technology and the Law at Stetson Universit

By Diana Botluk and Brittan Mitchell, Published on May 15, 2005

Diana Botluk is the Director of Research at the National Clearinghouse for Science, Technology and the Law at Stetson University College of Law, and author of The Legal List: Research on the Internet.  

Brittan Mitchell is a Law and Science Fellow at the National Clearinghouse for Science, Technology and the Law at Stetson University College of Law, and supervises its pro bono research program at Stetson.


Can you really solve a crime in an hour while not messing up your hair or designer suit? Do forensic technicians drive Hummers to crime scenes? Can a prosecutor still try a case when forensic scientists can’t discover that rare element in the trace evidence that eliminates all suspects but one?

For an interesting account of this phenomenon, turn to the April 25, 2005, U.S. News & World Report article The CSI Effect, by Kit R. Roane and Dan Morrison

The phenomenon termed ‘The CSI Effect’ has recently been a center of the media’s focus.  The media and scholars alike have found fascination in the remarkable effect that pop culture television shows are having on American juries and their decision making. 

The legal community finds itself in constant debate as to whether ‘The CSI Effect’ positively or negatively influences juries.  Regardless, prosecutors and defense attorneys agree that an effective trial strategy can no longer ignore the influence of pop culture on jury decision making.

‘The CSI Effect’ stems from the glorification of the use of scientific principles to assist in crime solving.  The popularity of shows such as CSI, CSI New York, CSI Miami, Crossing Jordan, Cold Case, Law and Order, and Forensic Files fuels America’s fascination with forensics.  The television viewing public can turn to either network or cable television on any given night and find a variety of forensic based programs.  These programs showcase stylish technicians using state-of-the-art technology to piece together a crime scene’s unknown variables in less than 60 minutes. Viewers are repetitively exposed to episodes where DNA test results are reported in 15 minutes or less and fingerprints are matched to prints in law enforcement databases almost immediately.  In the rare instance where the suspect does not confess to the crime, the viewers are exposed to these same stylish technicians as expert witnesses.  The experts use visual aids and hands-on experiments to demonstrate the scientific techniques to the jury members.  The courtroom drama is just as entertaining as the investigation.

As television educated America about the role of forensic evidence in the law enforcement/justice system, the legal community found itself adapting as juries began finding reasonable doubt when the State did not produce “sufficient” forensic evidence.  ‘The CSI Effect’ placed the legal community under a new burden of helping jury members distinguish the fictional aspects of television from reality.  Additionally, expert witnesses must now explore new ways of presenting testimony that captivates the jury’s desire to be not only entertained, but also convinced that law enforcement properly collected evidence and that crime scene technicians properly performed all of the relevant types of forensic analyses.

“Some jurors are expecting that some of the technology used on the shows is real, and it’s not,” says Professor Carol Henderson, Director of the National Clearinghouse for Science, Technology and the Law at Stetson University College of Law. “In fact, they’re sometimes disappointed if some of the new technologies that they think exist are not used. This is causing quite a bit of concern for prosecutors trying the cases, as well as some of the jurors.  They just want this evidence that may not exist.”  The CSI effect has been blamed for acquittals in some recent cases.

“Unrealistic expectations are really harming the jury system,” Henderson says.

 

Paralleling this heightened juror expectation is the growing national trend to find expert witnesses liable for malpractice.  Although once afforded absolute immunity, many jurisdictions have opened the door to civil liability for the negligent forensic expert. However, ‘The CSI Effect’ has also occurred at a time when many labs are backlogged, under-funded, and under-staffed. 

The public is outraged when individuals are wrongly convicted based on testimony of unscrupulous forensic technicians. Instances of fraud by forensic experts have come to light over the past few years. Experts have planted evidence or falsified lab results, jeopardizing the integrity of the fraudulent scientist’s entire organization, as well as calling into question all its cases. 

Rapidly changing trends in jury expectations and expert witness liability created a significant gap in information and knowledge.  The scholarly commentary, the media highlights, the pop culture influence, the research, and the educational instruction for the most part have been in numerous formats and generally difficult to find and utilize. Professionals in the legal and scientific community need a coping mechanism to deal with this rapidly changing environment; a collection of current knowledge, gathered in one place.

Enter the National Clearinghouse for Science, Technology and the Law at Stetson University College of Law, which was created to minimize this growing gap in useable information. The Clearinghouse, brainchild of its director, Professor Carol Henderson, is sponsored by a grant from the National Institute of Justice.  NCSTL accomplishes Henderson’s vision; one-stop-shopping for judges, lawyers, scientists and law enforcement officials who seek information about the nexus between law, science, and technology. The Clearinghouse offers educational programs and a database of relevant information, focusing on fostering communication and understanding, as well as raising awareness, within the context of the promotion of justice based on sound science and technology.

One of the primary purposes of the Clearinghouse is to provide a resource that collects and tracks the majority of available sources related to forensics and technology.   The vast expanse of the targeted information gap has led the Clearinghouse to scrutinize and disseminate useful information in order to reconnect jury expectations with the realities of the justice system, as well as to assist expert witnesses in ethically testifying and avoiding liability.

“The National Clearinghouse for Science, Technology and the Law database is the most exciting new development for the law enforcement and forensic science communities in years,” said Dr. Henry C. Lee, one of the world’s foremost forensic scientists and start of Court TV’s Trace Evidence: The Case Files of Dr. Henry Lee.

The Clearinghouse database was first offered live to the public in February 2005. It is free to use, though registration is currently required.  It collects and distributes bibliographic information on thousands of court decisions, pieces of legislation, legal and scientific publications, news and media features, websites and educational opportunities.

Using the database, researchers can choose to view all types of resources in all its forensic-related topics, or restrict to those topics or resource types of specific interest.  The database also supports keyword searching across fields, and limited (for the moment) field-based searching.  Individual records provide bibliographic information, as well as active URLs that link to full text whenever available.  Researchers can also take advantage of a feature that offers the ability to save favorite searches.

NCSTL Topics

·         Arson/Fire Debris*

·         Biometrics (body scans, retinal scans,  facial recognition)

·         Bioterrorism*

·         Bloodstain pattern analysis

·         Crime laboratories

·         Cyber Crime*

·         Digital evidence

·         Digital image enhancement

·         DNA analysis

·         Entomology

·         Expert witness malpractice

·         Explosives*

·         Fingerprints

·         Firearms

·         Forensic Accounting

·         Forensic Engineering*

·         Forensic Linguistics

·         Forensic Nursing*

·         Forensic Odontology (bite marks)

·         Forensic Pathology

·         Forensic Psychology

·         Law Enforcement Technology (communications/interoperability, vehicles/personal equipment, computer software/hardware)*

·         Locating, selecting, and evaluating experts

·         Neuro-psychology

·         Questioned documents

·         Smart Cards

·         Thermal imaging

·         Toolmarks

·         Toxicology

·         Trace evidence (hair analysis, fiber evidence, glass, paint)

·         Voice Analysis

* topic being researched and soon to be added to the database.

For more information about how to get your law school involved, please contact Diana Botluk at the Clearinghouse, dbotluk@law.stetson.edu or 727-562-7316.

For further information about the National Conference on Science, Technology & Law, contact the Clearinghouse at 727-562-7316 or Watson@law.stetson.edu.

The Clearinghouse, located on the campus of Stetson College of Law, is in the midst of partnering with a number of educational institutions to help develop its growth.  This process offers a unique educational opportunity for law students interested in law, science and technology.  Students earn directed research credit toward their law degrees while teaming up with NCSTL’s expert full-time researchers to add searchable records to the database.  While this effort has thus far included only a few other schools besides Stetson, NCSTL plans to extend to other law schools around the country. Henderson plans to expand the program into a national network of researchers.

Besides the database, the Clearinghouse offers a variety of educational opportunities for the legal and scientific communities.  This September, the Clearinghouse and the National Institute of Justice will host the National Conference on Science, Technology & Law in St. Petersburg, Florida.  Additionally, NCSTL offers an ongoing lecture series at Stetson, which has included speakers such as Henry Lee, Michael Baden, Cyril Wecht, Peter Dean and Helen Ranta, all internationally known for their expertise in forensic science.  DVDs of programs and educational CD-ROMs are in production for dissemination later this year.  Additionally, Clearinghouse staff members travel the country presenting forensic science programs, such as the upcoming program at the ABA annual meeting in Chicago in August entitled CSI Meets the Courts: The Brave New World of Forensic Technology, which will feature Henderson, along with renowned scientists Baden and Wecht, and CSI producer Elizabeth Devine.

During 2004, NCSTL formed an Advisory Board with experts from each of its major target audiences.  The Clearinghouse staff has been working with the Advisory Board to improve user friendliness, quality of resources, website design, and educational resources.  The Clearinghouse has also undertaken the task of purchasing hard copies of the resources found in the online database, in addition to working with Stetson’s Law Library to make those resources available to the general public through interlibrary loan.  In satisfying these objectives, NCSTL hopes to minimize the informational gaps between the different parties in the justice system. The National Clearinghouse for Science, Technology and the Law is intended to be a never-ending work in progress, always growing and changing to adapt to new issues as they impact the needs of scientists, law enforcement personnel, lawyers, and judges. NCSTL appreciates the support of the research community, and will continue to encourage feedback to meet your needs. 

To learn more about the National Clearinghouse for Science, Technology and the Law at Stetson University College of Law, please visit its website at http://ncstl.org.  If you would like to take advantage of our educational opportunities or schedule a program by NCSTL staff members for your organization, please contact NCSTL at Watson@law.stetson.edu or 727-562-7316.