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What the “CSI Effect” Means for Criminal Trials in Maryland

Television crime dramas often present a misleading picture of how the system actually works. One example of this is the so-called CSI effect. If you recall, the CSI franchise is a series of fictional dramas that focus on the work of crime scene investigators–in particular, how they gather and use forensic evidence to identify potential criminal suspects. The popularity of CSI and similar shows has led many people to believe that forensic evidence is a necessary component of any successful criminal prosecution.

In fact, Maryland law does not require the use of any specific investigative technique, such as fingerprints or DNA, to meet its burden of proving a defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. To the contrary, many criminal convictions are based solely on circumstantial evidence. If a defendant tries to argue against the prosecution’s case on such a basis, the judge is allowed to give what is known as an “anti-CSI effect” instruction to the jury.

Court of Appeals Reverses Burglary Conviction After Judge Issues Improper Jury Instruction

At the same time, the Maryland Court of Appeals recently held that judges should not jump the proverbial gun–i.e., they should not “preemptively” give an anti-CSI effect instruction when the defense is not over-emphasizing the lack of forensic evidence in its case. The case before the Court, Taylor v. State, involved a home invasion in Salisbury. Police arrested and charged the defendant as the invader based solely on the victim’s identification from a photo array.

At trial, the only witnesses were the accuser and the police officers who investigated the case. The defense did not present any witnesses or exhibits. The judge decided to issue an anti-CSI effect instruction, which said, “There is no legal requirement that the State offer scientific evidence as part of its case, such as DNA, fingerprinting, blood typing, fiber analysis, hair follicle analysis, or anything of that nature.” Although the jury initially told the judge it was “evenly split,” it ultimately returned a guilty verdict.

The Court of Appeals said the judge abused his discretion in giving the anti-CSI effect instruction. The Court noted the instruction should only be given in response to a defendant engaged in “over-reaching” on the issue of a lack of forensic evidence. Here, the Court said that the instruction was purely preemptive–that is, it was “in anticipation of a potential defense argument, not in response to an argument already made.” In fact, the defense “neither misstated the law” on this subject “nor overemphasized the lack of forensic evidence.”

The Court of Appeals went on to say the judge’s error was not harmless, especially given the lack of any other evidence beyond the victim’s identification, as well as the jury’s initial report that it was “evenly split.” The defendant was therefore entitled to a new trial.

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This article has been provided by the Law office of Robert Castro. For more information or questions contact our office to speak to an experienced lawyer at (301) 705-5137.