Sunday, July 10, 2011

Your TV Is Not A Legal Advisor

I promise this is the only time we'll talk about Casey Anthony. Promise with sugar on top.

Now, full disclosure, I have barely followed a word of the trial. I quite honestly could not care less. I think it has something to do with someone dead, but that's it. However, my interest was piqued when I caught Erik Uliasz of chalking Anthony's not-guilty verdict for whatever it is that he did- perhaps insider trading- to the CSI Effect.

That little phenomenon is something we can work with. The CSI Effect's been written about before, by a lot of people, but apparently, we need to go over it some more.

If you're ever on a jury, be advised that most evidence is circumstantial. That's evidence which you need to infer something in order to tie it to the case at hand. By itself, it's not too strong. But as circumstantial evidence builds, it becomes corroborating evidence: each piece of evidence helps the others build a case. It is very possible to make an ironclad case out of nothing but circumstantial evidence. Direct evidence, meanwhile, is something from which you have to infer nothing.

If a witness says "I saw Al shoot Bob", that's direct evidence. You saw Al shoot Bob. If a witness says "I saw Al grab a gun, go into Bob's house, then there was a bang and screaming", that's circumstantial. All signs point to Al shooting Bob, but you didn't actually see it. You have to infer it from all the signs.

Juries, though, tend to not be up on these things. A lot of them don't even want to be there. They just want to call a verdict and go home. All they know is what they see on TV. They're not in the legal world for a living. And what they know is that circumstantial evidence is a Bad Thing. They want direct evidence. In fact, if it's not direct evidence, sometimes they just plain won't convict.

The CSI Effect is an extension of this. Again, all the jurors often know is what they see on TV. And what they see on TV is CSI, where every case is solved with DNA evidence obtained in ways that, a good 40% of the time, are impossible. (The CSI effect has also been linked to other procedural of the era, such as NCIA, Bones and Cold Case.) What happens to the jury is that they demand DNA evidence, or else they won't convict. No matter how strong the rest of the case, if it's not DNA, they might as well replace the whole trial with episodes of the Muppet Show.

Not only that, but they demand absolute 100% slam-dunk conclusiveness. When a forensics expert mentions the 1-in-umpty-gazillion chance (and one does exist) that the DNA could give a false positive, that measurably harms the credibility of that DNA evidence in the minds of the jury, who has taken 'guilty beyond a reasonable doubt' to mean 'they better have found the killer standing over the victim cackling maniacally'.

This is not the first time a TV show has caused juries to be overly critical of the prosecution. TV's black-and-white era brought us a similar phenomenon called Perry Mason Syndrome. This, arguably, was even worse, because in every episode of Perry Mason, they would arrest the wrong guy, but at the end of the episode, the real culprit- who was always in attendance, whether they were called as a witness or not- would just leap up out of their chair and confess.

Perry Mason ran from 1957-1966. No prizes for guessing what the juries of that era were looking for.

Perry Mason Syndrome hit the actual defendants as well. Perry Mason made such an oversimplified mess of the technicalities of the legal system that it caused some defendants to forgo lawyers, thinking that law was so easy they could do it themselves. This tended not to end well. (WARNING: It'll run you $12.50 to the LexisNexis people to read the full text of that linked piece.)

Let's just recap here: Perry Mason, CSI, and every other procedural and legal show out there are TV shows. They're not there to teach you about the legal system. They're there to entertain you. And if entertaining you means whooshy graphics and dramatic confessions and darkened crime labs that in no way resemble how the actual criminal justice system works, that's what you get.

If you would like to see actual TV coverage of how the legal system works, TruTV has it on from 9-3 Eastern on weekdays, called 'In Session'. It's a remnant of their earlier, less reality-intensive life as Court TV. How often do you watch it?

Yeah. Me neither.

Now let us never speak of Casey Anthony again or his acquittal of, I believe, public nudity.

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