CSI, Cold Case, Law & Order and Nancy Grace: Guilty Unless You Can Prove Your Innocence

Turn on the television any night of the week and it seems there are only two different types of shows available. Unreality game shows and crime dramas. As for the latter, even the nightly 24 hour news channels have become little more than round the clock coverage of murders and murderous disappearances. One show in particular, Law & Order, seems omnipresent; it seems to pop up in reruns on every network from A&E to CourtTV. I’m sure the Food Network execs are desperately figuring out some way to work it into their schedule.

Between the CSI and Law & Order franchises, and Nancy Grace and Rita Cosby following in minute detail the disappearance of every slightly attractive blond woman between the ages of 18 and 21, and Dateline NBC’s mission to capture every pedophile in America on tape it seems as if American audiences are obsessed with crime. What is the psychological effect of all this crime-centered television?

Have you ever actually listened to Nancy Grace on CNN? In America, you may have forgotten, the judicial system is based upon the idea of innocent until proven guilty. As a former prosecutor, it’s obvious that Ms. Grace never met a suspect who wasn’t guilty. Has anyone who has ever watched her show ever heard her refer to a suspect in terms that suggested he might possibly not be guilty? Grace’s immediate dismissal of the founding principle of innocence until guilt is proven is indicative of the problem that shows like CSI and Law & Order inculcate.

I’ll admit I haven’t watched too many episodes of CSI, or Without a Trace or Cold Case or any of the other shows that glorify how the law enforcement officials in America go about their jobs. I used to watch Law & Order a lot, but lost interest when Benjamin Bratt joined the cast. But I have seen enough of those shows to recognize an inherent psychological problem. It has already been suggested that contemporary juries arrive expecting the kind of unquestioned evidence that is presented in these shows on a nightly basis. Worse than that, they come to the jury room considering themselves highly knowledgeable on subjects such as DNA evidence. It has become a subject of debate among judicial scholars that these types of shows are causing serious problems in courtrooms across the country.

But I would argue it goes even deeper. Having watched enough of these shows to sense a pattern, the pattern I’ve noticed is that the sophisticated methods of evidentiary analysis they present bears very little resemblance to the reality of crime scene investigations. These guys routine extrapolate information from evidence as inconclusive as a few drops of blood. A person watching these shows would rightly come to the conclusion that all it takes is for a person to get caught is to leave one partial shoeprint at a crime scene. From such innocuous beginnings these guys track down the guilty.

Further complicating the situation is that appears that the crime scene analysts on CSI and Without a Trace and Cold Case never get it wrong. As I said, I don’t watch these shows on a regular basis so I have no way of knowing how often they guilty go free as used to occur on Law & Order. (And probably still does happen, as far I know.) I do know this, however. Not even on Law & Order does an innocent man go to jail. To throw in a little reality, these shows may occasionally let a guilty man walk free and surely that does happen in real life (I’m not mentioning any names, but do the letters OJ ring a bell?) But have the geniuses at CSI ever sent an innocent man to prison by getting the science wrong? Seriously, I’m asking, because I don’t know.

What I do know is that there is a psychological danger of millions of people confusing the science of CSI with the real science of crime scene investigation. Nancy Grace is not along in her assumption that the latest person arrested in the Natalee Holloway case is automatically guilty. We have become a nation that honestly believes that merely being arrested proves guilt. After all, with all the sophisticated equipment at their disposal, surely police are rarely arresting the wrong guy, right? How could they be? We all know that it only takes half a thumbprint to track down a killer. We all know that police can track down the exact used car lot where some guy bought a used VW sixteen years ago. Just like we all know that eye in the sky cameras can tell the difference between a trailer and a uranium processing plant, right?

The danger is real. Yes, science is great for tracking down criminals; it’s also great for proving that mistakes were made the first time around. But the science used in real life isn’t quite-no, it’s nowhere near as good as shows like CSI and Without a Trace and Cold Case would have us believe.

How many suspects have been brought in for questioning in the Natalee Holloway case to date? Is it fifty different suspects, or do they just keep bringing in the same guy fifty different times. This case and Nancy’s steadfast belief that every one of them must be the killer is the perfect example of what I fear. Think about it. This case, for some bizarre reason I’ll never understand, has been at the forefront of coverage on all the 24 hour news channels for what, a year now? Two years? I’ve lost count. Let’s just say it’s been only a year. Why is that those guys on CSI only need at most two weeks to figure out a crime with all their highly specialized equipment, and all the real life officials who’ve been assigned to this case-seemingly more than were assigned to the JFK assassination-can’t come up with anything sticks?

Why? Because CSI is a TV show. It’s not real life. Real life cops don’t always get the right guy. That is just as important to remember as the fact that sometimes the right guys gets off.

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