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Did 'CSI' effect sway Anthony jury?

By Thaddeus Hoffmeister, Special to CNN
  • Thaddeus Hoffmeister: Forensics shown on TV crime shows raise juries' expectations
  • Juries now expect to see sophisticated scientific evidence before they'll convict, he says
  • Lawyers and judges try to instruct juries in realities of evidence to lower expectations
  • Hoffmeister: Lack of hard forensic evidence in case may have failed to convince jury

Editor's note: Thaddeus Hoffmeister teaches law at the University of Dayton School of Law and is the editor of the Juries blog.

(CNN) -- Did the "CSI" effect have an influence on the verdict in the Casey Anthony trial?

Programs such as "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," in which forensics play a key role in solving crimes in 60 minutes or less, are thought by many prosecutors and legal analysts to create unreasonable expectations for jurors deciding fates in the real world. Jurors, for the most part, have no legal training or real-life experience with the criminal justice system. They are without any frame of reference for how trials operate beyond what they see on television

Prosecutors have long argued that the "CSI" effect is real and creates unreasonable expectations in the minds of jurors. They maintain that the standards for obtaining a conviction these days have been raised because jurors now expect and want scientific evidence linking the defendant to the crime, especially in a circumstantial case.

To combat this problem, many prosecutors try to lower the bar during jury selection by telling potential jurors not to expect what they see on television to be played out in the courtroom.

In addition, some prosecutors present forensic evidence that neither proves nor refutes the defendant's guilt but is intended to demonstrate to the jury the thoroughness of the prosecutor's investigation. Other prosecutors use so-called "negative evidence" such as the testimony of experts to assure jurors that it is not abnormal for crime scene investigators to fail to find certain types of evidence. Finally, a few prosecutors seek help from the court by way of jury instructions.

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Here is a sample of the instructions given by a judge to jurors in Ohio:

The effort to exclude misleading-outside-influence- information also puts a limit on getting legal information from television entertainment. This would apply to popular TV shows such as "Law & Order," "Boston Legal," "Judge Judy," older shows like "L.A. Law," "Perry Mason," or "Matlock," and any other fictional show dealing with the legal system. In addition, this would apply to shows such as "CSI" and "NCIS," which present the use of scientific procedures to resolve criminal investigations. These and other similar shows may leave you with an improper preconceived idea about the legal system. As far as this case is concerned, you are not prohibited from watching such shows. However, there are many reasons why you cannot rely on TV legal programs ...

Without talking to the Casey Anthony jurors directly, we can't know for sure what led them to their decision to acquit. But in a trial held in the crime-TV saturated culture of 2011, there is a strong possibility that the "CSI" effect was a factor.

There were arguably several instances during the trial where the lack of forensic evidence could have led the jury to have reasonable doubt about the prosecution's case.

First, the prosecution was unable to determine how 2-year-old Caylee Anthony died. Jurors understand when a body is missing but have difficulty accepting that science is unable to determine the cause of death.

Second, Casey Anthony's DNA was not on the duct tape that prosecutors said was used to suffocate Caylee Anthony. Many jurors consider DNA to be the gold standard of evidence, and when it is not present, questions arise.

Third, no evidence placed Casey Anthony where her daughter's body was ultimately discovered. Jurors wanted to know why the defendant, with today's scientific advancements, could not be placed at the scene of the crime.

In sum, this case was built on circumstantial evidence in which there was no forensic evidence directly linking Casey Anthony to her daughter's death.

These illustrations are by no means an indictment of the prosecutorial team. Quite the contrary, most believe that they performed well.

This was a "dry bones" case, and prosecutors can only present the evidence they possess. These examples are merely an attempt to deconstruct a verdict that many of the Americans following the case seemed to disagree with and to show how the "CSI" effect might have influenced the Casey Anthony trial.

Cases like this one join a long list of others that leave citizens puzzled as to how a guilty verdict wasn't reached.

It leaves scholars theorizing about possible changes to reach fairer verdicts and legislators looking for changes to ensure "common sense" results. But the reality is that while the system isn't perfect, it is more often than not fair, based on standards that don't change depending on whether we dislike a defendant and feel that she or he should be adjudged as guilty.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Thaddeus Hoffmeister.

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