The CSI Effect: Managing the Expectations of a Jury (or a Client)

Hand holding remote in front of a television screen displaying man in suit.

We are all likely familiar with the popular TV series "CSI." Following its debut in October of 2000, television shows about court cases have continued to grow in number, attracting many viewers. Soon after, a term began to grow in popularity within the legal industry, referring to the impact that CSI and shows like it have on juror's beliefs about evidence. Specifically, the heavy emphasis that a juror who watches such shows places on Forensic Evidence in a case: The CSI Effect. 

The larger concern within the legal framework is the potential for a juror under the influence of "The CSI Effect" to refuse to convict someone if there is a lack of forensic evidence, despite ample other evidence indicating guilt.  Although studies have not directly linked CSI to this specific impact on juror verdicts, it does appear that these shows can influence the expectations of jurors and others involved in legal cases when it pertains to Forensic Evidence. From the context of forensic examiners at ESI, we will focus on Digital Evidence.

How can you battle fantasy with facts?

There are several facets of a Digital Investigation that are impacted by the unrealistic entertainment fodder that these shows provide: Time, Capability/Ability, and Reality. For almost a quarter century, the public has been conditioned to expect a complex investigation to be solved in 50 minutes or less. This is made possible through the use of tiny portable computers that can analyze handwriting, extract DNA, and hack into cameras around the world. All of this is achieved while our investigator wears a striking suit and sunglasses and drinks a cup of coffee. Reality is quite far from this fantasy portrayal.


The amount of time involved in digital investigations is enormous. A home computer can easily exceed 1 Terabyte (TB) of storage, and the typical cellphone has 256 Gigabytes (GB) of internal storage and can support over a Terabyte in external storage. To put these sizes into perspective, consider that the 6th edition Federal Judges Benchbook (pdf) contains 300 pages and is 2.5 megabytes. A cellphone could store over 100,000 copies of this document, equating to a staggering 30,000,000 pages. Consequently, capturing and reviewing digital information is not a fast process, due to the sheer volume of data involved.  

Capability / Ability

Investigations have many more moving parts than portrayed on TV, and our technical tools are not always as advanced as those on screen. Companies don't keep in-house paper records anymore; information may need to be collected from computers, cell phones, electronic logging platforms, and third-party data management services. Even the data modules of a car engine may contain useful information. Each of these pieces of data requires tools and a specialized skillset to capture, process, and interpret the information.


Sometimes, the hardest thing to overcome is the perception of reality. An article by the National Institute for Justice (NIJ) cited a survey of 1,027 jurors conducted by Gregg Barak, Ph.D., and Young Kim, Ph.D., and Honorable Donald E. Shelton. The study demonstrated that in every criminal case, 46 percent expected to see some form of scientific evidence; 22 percent expected to see DNA evidence; 36 percent expected to see fingerprint evidence, and 32 percent expected to see ballistic or other firearms laboratory evidence.

The unfortunate truth is that sometimes, the evidence you expect to exist cannot be found. This can be a consequence of many different unfortunate events. Computer data, for example, does not last forever and as time passes between an incident and examination, the more likely the data can be made permanently unrecoverable. Some data sources like cellular provider data are only retained for a short period of time. Complicating matters further, there are thousands of available cellphone applications, each capturing data in a unique location and format, preventing some forensic tools from capturing that data. 

Despite the imperfections, the field of digital evidence is always growing, adapting, and improving, and having a Digital Forensics Expert who can recognize relevant data and identifying new sources of information is crucial. Just as important is having an expert who recognizes the limitations of the data, and can advise accordingly. 

Are you dealing with a case involving Digital Evidence? Contact the Experts at Evidence Solutions. While solving it in 50 minutes or less may not be feasible, our team can offer thorough guidance on navigating your case effectively.

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