Science Fiction?: Judge weighs in on the real effect of TV crime shows

Americas television-watching public seemingly cant get enough of a weekly fix. How else to explain the preponderance of forensic crime shows that dot the Nielsen ratings of the top 20, most-watched programs each week.

There is CSI, the Vegas-based drama where the odds of solving grisly murders are about as chancy as watching Charlie Sheen self-destruct.

Then there is CSI: Miami, a spin-off that typically features a healthy mix of bikini-clad culprits pitted against a crack team of forensic investigators employing cutting-edge scientific methods and good old-fashioned police work to solve yet another weekly whodunit.

For those with a taste for the Big Apple, there is CSI: New York, a spin-off of a spin-off that gives the Five Boroughs more crime-induced airtime in case anyone feels that the City That Never Sleeps is being short-changed in the brutally murdered department.

If that isnt enough of a good crime thing, tune into NCIS, where even when a few letters are transposed there is still plenty of murder material to keep anyone with a couch and a trusty remote transfixed.

Donald Shelton, chief judge of the Washtenaw County Trial Court, admits to a curious fascination with the CSI television family, as dysfunctional as it may be to serious onlookers like the University of Michigan Law School grad and adjunct professor at Eastern Michigan University.

He has written extensively on the topic, the so-called CSI Effect. It is a term coined by someone in the vast expanse of the Fourth Estate, the place where members of the print and broadcast media congregate to do good for mankind.

The media and the public have long had a fascination with the criminal-justice system, and that fascination has been reflected in film and television, both as news and fiction, Shelton says in a law review article subtitled, Perceptions and Reality About the CSI Effect Myth.

The most popular fictional courtroom portrayals have been based on the use of modern science and technology to solve crimes, says Shelton, a felony trial
judge in Ann Arbor since 1990. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is so popular that it has spawned other versions of the same show and similar shows by other networks.

And as these shows proliferated, in the never-ending mad scramble for higher TV ratings, so did complaints from a certain segment of the legal community, says Shelton, author of the book Forensic Science in Court: Challenges in the Twenty-First Century.

Prosecutors complained that all of the television fiction about forensic-science evidence made jurors expect too much of the government and that juries were wrongfully acquitting defendants when the prosecution did not present the kind of evidence that they saw on CSI, Shelton writes. The news media picked up on these complaints, accepted them as factual, and quickly labeled it the CSI Effect. The mass-media-created CSI Effect was repeated again and again, almost always in the context of blaming the television program for what prosecutors claimed was a crisis of misguided juror demands for scientific evidence.

Shelton, who earned a reputation as one of the most skillful trial attorneys in Michigan before he was elected to the circuit court bench 21 years ago, was so intrigued by the CSI possibilities that over a three-year period he tested the idea empirically, teaming with two other professors from Eastern Michigan University, Dr. Greg Barak and Dr. Young Kim, to conduct surveys of persons summoned to jury duty in Washtenaw and Wayne counties.

The studies focused on trying to answer three questions, according to Shelton.

First, do jurors expect prosecutors to present scientific evidence? Secondly, do jurors demand scientific evidence as a condition for a guilty verdict? And finally, are juror expectations and demands for scientific evidence related to watching law-related television shows?

The data, gleaned from some 2,246 jurors in both counties, debunked the CSI Effect, says Shelton. Instead, he says, talking about CSI and other television shows is just too simplistic and that a broader tech effect of changes in our culture may more likely account for increased expectations and demands of jurors for scientific evidence.

It is clear, he says, that jurors do significantly expect that prosecutors will use the advantages of modern technology to help meet their burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The origins of those expectations lie in the broader permeation of the changes in our popular culture brought about by the confluence of rapid advances in science and information technology and the increased use of crime stories as a vehicle to dramatize those advances.

The Tech effect is one of many subjects explored by Shelton in his entertaining, concise, and enlightening account of the history of the use of forensic science evidence in criminal trials. The comment was echoed by Nick Rine, professor at the U-M Law School and a Fulbright Scholar, who noted that the book offers a searching examination of some of the most sacred of sacred cows in the scientific evidence field, including fingerprints, firearms comparisons, psychiatric evaluation, and so on.

The book is spiced with various case studies, including the first in which DNA analysis was used to exonerate a wrongfully convicted defendant, Kirk Bloodsworth, a Maryland man who served nearly nine years in prison for a 1984 murder that he didnt commit. Shelton also steps back in time to shed light on the infamous Lindbergh baby kidnapping in 1932, while delving into a cold case that hit closer to home.

That case study involved the 2004 trial of Gary Leiterman, a 62-year-old man linked to the 1969 slaying of Jane Mixer, a first year student at U-M Law School. For years, many believed that the murder was the work of John Norman Collins, the serial killer who terrorized the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti areas in the late 60s with a series of coed slayings. State Police detectives, working in a cold case unit, uncovered DNA evidence that tied Leiterman, a former nurse, to the crime.

The trial of Leiterman attracted the attention of the national media, and the trial was covered daily by the print media and by Court TV, which carried the entire trial live on its website, says Shelton. CBS covered the case nationally and later aired a one-hour episode of 48 Hours Mystery based on the case.

The case, coincidentally, landed in the Washtenaw County courtroom of Shelton, who presided over a two-week trial in which 30 witnesses were called. Leiterman eventually was found guilty of first-degree murder and currently is serving a mandatory life sentence without parole.

Shelton, a former four-term mayor in Saline, is a case study himself, but in a positive way. His career as a public servant has been distinguished and
far-reaching, beginning as a trial attorney with the Judge Advocate Generals Corps with the U.S. Army in Germany from 1970-73 followed by a year of litigation work at the Pentagon. He has served as a regent at Eastern Michigan University and was chair of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) from 1983-85, later serving on the board of the National Association of Regional Councils. For his efforts in promoting economic development in his hometown of Saline, the city council named an industrial park in Sheltons honor.

His time in the Army followed law school at U-M and was a result of his ROTC involvement at Western Michigan University, from which he graduated in 1966. He entered private practice in 1974 with an Ann Arbor firm, later forming his own trial practice with a colleague. Over a 12-year period, Shelton gained statewide acclaim for his trial talents, winning a number of high-profile cases including a lawsuit against the maker of the swine flu vaccine.

A native of Jackson, Shelton was honored by the State Bar of Michigan in 2007 with the Frank J. Kelley Distinguished Public Servant Award and in 1992 earned the Justice Blair Moody Judge of the Year Award.

But he hasnt been one to rest on his legal laurels. In 2006, he decided it was time to go back to school, undertaking a masters program in criminology at EMU. A year later, with masters degree in hand, Shelton began doctoral studies at the University of Nevada, receiving his Ph.D. in 2010.

It was a scheduling challenge, but Ive always believed that time is an asset and we each have the power to decide how to spend it, says Shelton of his Ph.D. pursuit. Ive always had a thirst for learning and Ive never wanted to be complacent in my job. Like a lot of judges, I almost had a blind acceptance of forensic science in court until I began the research work. It put matters into a different light for me. Its important that we work to get the criminal justice system to take a fresh look at evidentiary issues. Im committed to that.

By Tom Kirvan

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