The “CSI Effect” in Maryland Criminal Cases

People in Maryland and elsewhere are often curious about how realistic television shows involving lawyers are. How television affects jurors and trials, however, is less often explored. One phenomenon in the latter category, the “CSI effect” has led to some interesting scholarship and legal rulings over the past decade.

The “CSI effect” allegedly occurs in response to the television show, leading jurors to expect they will be given forensic evidence such as DNA during a criminal trial. In earlier cases, the appellate court addressed whether or not it was appropriate to give an instruction to counter the CSI effect (an “anti-CSI effect instruction”).

In a recent case the trial judge instructed the jury that there was no legal requirement that the prosecution use a specific type of investigative or scientific technique to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. He also noted that the defense argued there was no scientific link connecting the defendant to the crime.

The defendant was charged with various crimes when he allegedly tried to break into an apartment building with another person and failing that, broke into another building and tried to break into an apartment inside. During opening arguments, the defense attorney pointed to a lack of physical evidence (no fingerprints or DNA) and stated there was no evidence of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

During trial, police officers testified that he was present at the scene and that they detained him. . The defense cross-examined the surveillance team and specialist, who admitted certain tests hadn’t been performed. During closing arguments, the defense argued that the investigators were careless and there was no evidence of the defendant actually breaking in or having the tools to break in. The jury found the defendant guilty of conspiracy to commit first-degree burglary and the judge sentenced him to 10 years incarceration with 6 years suspended and 2 years probation.

The defendant appealed. The Court of Appeals considered whether the judge’s instruction about scientific evidence was appropriate in light of the defense attorney’s opening argument about a lack of physical evidence.

The appellate court explained the “CSI effect” as it was applied in earlier cases. In the earliest case to consider the CSI effect, an appellate court ruled that it was not an abuse of discretion to give the instruction where the attorney gave a strong argument that guilt couldn’t be proven at all without scientific evidence. However, in another case, it was deemed an abuse of discretion to give the anti-CSI effect instruction because it was not neutral about the available evidence or lack thereof. The difference between the first case and the latter case was that in the latter case, the State’s failure to offer forensic testing wasn’t a crucial issue.

The appellate court explained that the CSI effect had not been conclusively established. Therefore the instruction must only be given in situations where it is necessary to correct the defense’s overreaching — as a curative.

In this case, the judge gave the instruction before closing arguments and gave it preemptively just in case the defense attorney made a strong argument about scientific evidence in his closing. Though the defense attorney had opened with some remarks about physical evidence, he had not misstated the law or the State’s burden of proof. During cross-examination of the State’s witnesses, he had not insinuated the State was obliged to conduct scientific testing. Therefore, the appellate court held that the trial judge erred in giving the anti-CSI effect instruction.

If you are arrested or charged with a crime, you should call a knowledgeable Maryland criminal defense attorney. We will develop the best strategy we can to defend your case. Contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

More Blogs

The Impact of a Defendant’s Signed Statement in Maryland, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, October 12, 2013

Reasonable Grounds for Requiring a Blood Test in Maryland, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, September 25, 2013

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