From the CSI Effect to Making a Murderer: Will True-Crime Docuseries Change How Jurors Think?

Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson and Photos by CBS, Netflix, Serial and Getty Images

Anyone who tuned in to Netflix’s Making a Murderer, HBO’s The Jinx, or NPR’s Serial podcast probably indulged a fantasy that, had they sat on any of those juries, fair verdicts would have been meted out. The maddening reality, however — and part of what’s made all the above mini-series so addictive — is that our indignation’s been collectively stoked by an overwhelming presentation of evidence and testimony that could have only been accrued in the years following each case’s respective trials.

To be sure, all three works are exemplary of investigative storytelling at its finest, rousing us from social-media self-involvement with the kind of probing journalism that was once the province of newspapers and network-TV exposés. And as transmitted via streaming television and iTunes downloads, the new wave of true-crime narrative feels tantalizingly two-way, as if it were a virtual invitation from filmmakers and producers to help demystify the criminal-justice system. But does that suggest that, post–Steven Avery, Brendan Dassey, Robert Durst, and Adnan Masud Syed — the aforementioned broadcasts’ polarizing subjects — attorneys will suddenly be selecting from a more cynical jury pool? Or are such questions just a requisite rehashing of the mid-2000s’ CSI effect” debate (or even its forebear, the so-called Perry Mason syndrome”), a study that considered whether CBS’s hit procedural was directly linked to an uptick in jurors insisting on examining substantial forensic evidence before delivering a conviction? (As one researcher writes of the supposed CSI effect, “I once heard a juror complain that the prosecution had not done a thorough job because ‘they didn't even dust the lawn for fingerprints.’")

“These [docu-]series are, at least on the face of them, less an indictment of forensic science and more of the legal system,” points out Melissa Littlefield, associate professor of English at the University of Illinois and author of journal article “Historicizing the CSI Effect(s),” as a means to distinguish The Jinx and contemporaries from their scripted predecessors. “We wouldn’t be talking about the CSI effect. We’d be talking about some other kind of effect that’s producing a desire to do a kind of armchair retrial in the public eye.”

And while it’s a bit premature to gauge the appreciable implications of Serial and its kin on trial juries, the legal community has certainly taken notice and anticipates subtle, tactical changes in the courtroom. “It’s certainly something the defense will try to dance around,” affirms criminal-defense lawyer Joel Isaacson, whose clients have included convicted sibling murderers Lyle and Erik Menendez. “I don’t know if it would be proper to talk to a jury and say, ‘Now, you know how many people have been released off of death row because they were innocent,’ but you certainly would like to keep it in the forefront of the jurors’ minds and try to get them to require clear, confident, convincing evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Though if you ask professional jury consultants, someone plucked fresh from devouring Making a Murderer might not even make it past their first day of civic duty. “You would want to have the attorney ask: ‘How long did you watch it? With whom might you have had conversations about what you saw? Have you done anything in furtherance of your feelings about the show? For instance, some sort of social-media post,’” advises trial consultant Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, who’s helped select juries for clients representing both plaintiffs and defendants, notably including O.J. Simpson’s 1994 defense team. “By gaining that information, you’re going to get a good mind-set of [whether] they were biased in favor of Mr. Avery and against the prosecution or police.” Moreover, she projects that potential jurors’ familiarity with Making a Murderer in particular “will be a significant question on criminal cases from here on out. We used to ask those questions about CSI because it was pretty predictive of someone who was a defense-prone juror.”

But as previous empirical and anecdotal research into the CSI effect would suggest, a culturally savvy jury won’t necessarily be compelled further toward or against incrimination. In 2008, Donald E. Shelton, a former Michigan Circuit Judge and current University of Michigan-Dearborn director of criminal-justice studies, published a study titled “The ‘CSI Effect’: Does It Really Exist?” He and two colleagues surveyed 1,000 selected pretrial jurors on “their expectations and demands for scientific evidence and their television-watching habits.” Per the study, its results bore out that, “Although CSI viewers had higher expectations for scientific evidence than non-CSI viewers, these expectations had little, if any, bearing on the respondents' propensity to convict.”

A data-driven 2005 study on the subject published by University of North Carolina Greensboro associate professor of media studies Kimberlianne Podlas, titled “The CSI Effect: Exposing the Media Myth,” takes that skepticism a step further. Podlas’s research, which coupled surveys similar to Shelton’s with application of theories on media and the law, not only “strongly denies the existence of any negative effect of CSI on ‘not guilty’ verdicts,” but contests that it could just as readily complicate the defense's claims of innocence as tax the plaintiff's burden of proof. In short, its impact is arguably negligible. 

In the decade since Podlas’s report, Making a Murderer and like-minded docuseries haven’t necessarily altered her point of view. Though she does concede that the placebo of constantly reinforcing CSI-effect-derived thinking can lead to genuine judiciary paranoia. 

“I think there’s an effect of believing in the effect,” Podlas explains. “If judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement think there is some kind of effect going on — whether they’re correct or not — then that will necessarily influence their behaviors in the courtroom, in choosing cases, in deciding when they're going to have splashy conferences, what kind of experts they might choose. With regards to the public and jurors, if you’re used to the story of, ‘This is how we go about catching the bad guy,’ or, ‘This is what you should expect will be revealed in a trial,’ then when someone is presenting facts or a theory of a case, if what they’re saying matches the dominant cultural story, people are more prone to believe it.”

When it comes to SerialThe Jinx, or Making a Murderer, it’s more likely they merely confirmed viewers’ skeptical tendencies rather than awakened them. After all, jurors — like all people — are encoded with a lifetime of stimuli that have shaped their worldview, minimizing the likelihood that recently ingested media would directly radicalize their biases. So by the time a trial’s commenced, even the most cynical juries will likely allow a measure of deference to the ensuing process.

As Simon A. Cole, a noted CSI effect skeptic and professor of Criminology, Law, and Society at University of California, Irvine, puts it, “Everything we know about juries seems to suggest that, while being on a jury is often unpleasant, they take it very seriously and are making serious decisions about whether to find someone guilty or not guilty in a criminal case. It’s a hard argument to make that they’re going to make a different decision based on what’s gotten in their head from television.”

When it comes down to it, the most obvious and immediate impression these docuseries are making is on the specific cases they’ve given cause to revisit. And to those whose lives have been altered by the verdicts handed down to Steven Avery, Brendan Dassey, Robert Durst, and Adnan Masud Syed, that impact is unimaginably significant. As for whether it will influence a generation of sophisticated future jurors who can preempt the need for a Serial or Jinx to even manifest, that’s perhaps idealistic. But as UNC Greensboro’s Podlas acknowledges of the very correlations she’s sought to disprove, “If these kinds of theories can get people thinking about how the legal system works, then so much the better.”