Casey Anthony and the “CSI Effect”

by David French

While I have little doubt that the Casey Anthony jurors will break their silence soon enough, I do wonder how much the not guilty verdicts were due to the well-known (to lawyers anyway) “CSI effect.” Put simply, the CSI effect is short-hand for the enhanced expectations jurors have for forensic evidence — and corresponding disregard for circumstantial evidence — as a result of watching crime and punishment shows on television. And the Anthony trial was notable for its strong circumstantial evidence and serious lack of conclusive forensics.

The very existence of the CSI effect is controversial, with prosecutors eager to recount examples of jurors with utterly absurd forensic expectations but with little empirical evidence to back up the anecdotes. It strikes me, however, that a high-profile case like the Anthony trial is exactly the kind of case where jurors’ forensic expectations would be sky-high.  

But the prosecution couldn’t deliver. Its forensic evidence was weak (the cause of death couldn’t even be established), the crime scene itself was arguably tampered with, and the forensic evidence that did exist (like the decomposition smell in the trunk) hardly qualified as scientific. Instead of forensics, the prosecution appealed to common sense and circumstances. But it wasn’t enough.

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