'CSI effect' fails to leave fingerprints for experts
Since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first penned the exploits of Sherlock Holmes in 1887, the justice profession has despaired that revealing the art of the detective could only help criminals evade capture.
Similarly, when 'CSI: Crime Scene Investigation' launched in 2000, detailing the forensic techniques of the Las Vegas Police Department, social commentators warned it gave miscreants the means of, literally, getting away with murder.
Even Lord Leveson warned of the 'CSI effect', claiming it created unrealistic expectations of forensic services which helped criminals escape a guilty verdict if crime scene evidence was inconclusive.
But now a research project has proved that the phenomenon does not exist.
A team of psychologists at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, trawled police databases, interviewed criminals and carried out crime-scene experiments and concluded the 'CSI effect' is simply a myth. "We can now dispel certain of the myths that have been coursing through the media and other publications for the past 20 years because we are able to state with relative certainty that people who watch CSI are no better at covering their tracks than other people," said Dr. Andreas Baranowski.
In the first instance, the team looked at statistics from the databases of the FBI and its German equivalent, the Bundeskriminalamt, and compared the crime detection rates during the years preceding the launch of the CSI series with the subsequent rates. They found no difference.
Then they asked 24 convicted criminals in prisons for their opinions on series such as CSI and whether they thought such shows could help when it came to escaping prosecution. Again those interviewed said the programmes were unhelpful when it came to steering clear of the law.
In a third test, the researchers put together a complex experimental design to find out whether viewers of TV shows like CSI would, as trial subjects, actually be better equipped to erase the traces of a mock murder scene. They found no difference between those who watched the series and those who didn't.
Dr Baranowski said that similar fears about the 'CSI effect' dated back to Sherlock Holmes and had continued over the years with the broadcasting of other police procedural dramas, such as 'Quincy', 'Law & Order' or 'Silent Witness'.
"Over many years, it was presumed that certain links in this regard exist, although there were no appropriate studies to prove this," he said.
However, the study did show that men performed better than women at covering up their crimes, and younger people better than their elders.
More highly-educated subjects did better than those who were less well-educated.
The research was published in the 'International Journal of Law, Crime and Justice'.