Criminal Justice department guest blog - The CSI Effect

By Bay State College on October 22, 2015

Below, Dr. William Morrissette discusses the “CSI effect” and the addition of a new criminal justice course at Bay State which considers the degree to which television depictions of criminal justice process influence the acquisition of justice in the real world system.  

Do you recognize the names Perry Mason, Theo Kojak, Jim Rockford, and Barney Miller?  You probably don’t if you were born in the late eighties or early nineties.  More familiar might be the names Lennie Briscoe, Jack McCoy, Aaron Hotchner, Penelope Garcia, and Gil Grissom.  Very recently, however, Perry Mason and company made a comeback in our new course titled Examining the CSI Effect.  Piloted last spring, this course considers the degree to which television depictions of criminal justice process influence the acquisition of justice in the real world system.  One example often pointed to is jurors who might look negatively on the actions of police investigators because they have an unrealistic expectation of what is possible due to the fictional absurdity that is programmed into modern crime dramas but which is often not recognized by the lay person as absurd.  The question we find intriguing, and which was the impetus for this new course, is whether what we are witnessing is something new or simply a more recent manifestation of a phenomenon that can be traced back to the nineteenth century.

To entertain this question, students in the course travelled back to the Whitechapel district of London in 1888 where they considered the sensationalism that surrounded the crimes of Jack the Ripper.  From there they jumped to the 1930’s and the radio show Gangbusters which employed the “pulled from the files” approach that is now central to shows like Law and Order.  Back in their time machine it was off to the 1950’s with a stop at the show Dragnet and a visit with Sergeant Joe Friday who was one of the first to educate audiences on the reality of police work.  Staying in Los Angeles and travelling ahead ten years, students visited the courtroom of Perry Mason who always elicited a confession to prove his client innocent creating what is now known as the Perry Mason Syndrome.  With no rest, as the semester is only 14 weeks, students jumped across the country to 1970’s New York City and the “bend the rules for justice” approach of Detective Lieutenant Theo Kojak and his trademark “who loves ya, baby?”  Trading their time machine for a Ferrari it was off to 1980’s Miami and a visit with Crokett and Tubbs who were two of the first to make crime fighting glamorous with fast cars and fancy suits. Winding up the journey, it was back to Los Angeles and the 1995 trial of O.J. Simpson which propelled the court television craze.

Finally arriving home, our students found themselves in a whirlwind of new crime dramas and the question of what this all means.  We titled the course “examining” because we believe we are in the midst of a phenomenon that is unfolding before us and impacting the process of criminal justice. It is important that we gain greater understanding of this phenomenon as the manifestations seem to be getting more intense, the impact greater.  The students fired up their time machine one last time and headed to the future where the jury of 12 who decided cases is now replaced with 30 million television viewers who vote for a verdict “American Idol” style.  Is this truly our future?  Hopefully not, but the CSI Effect is powerful and deserving of our attention.  This class is a step in that direction and I look forward to the contribution our students will make in this important area of study.