Tuesday, December 3, 2013

When Anti-CSI Jury Instructions Go Too Far

Last week, the highest state court in Maryland granted Emanuel Ford Robinson a new trial because the judge hearing his case gave the following instructions to the defendant's jury:
During this trial, you've heard testimony of witnesses and may
hear argument of counsel that the State did not utilize a specific
investigative technique or scientific tests. You may consider these facts
in deciding whether the State has met its burden of proof. You should
consider all of the evidence or lack of evidence in deciding whether the
defendant is guilty. However, I instruct you that there is no legal
requirement that the State utilize any specific investigative technique
or scientific test to prove its case. Your responsibility as jurors is to
determine whether the State has proven based upon the evidence, the
defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
These instructions were apparently in response to the Opening Statement given by the defendant's attorney, which, among other things, included the following:
There will not be any fingerprints from any door, any piece of paper or
tape, or whatever they're saying, on any weatherstripping, on the doors,
no fingerprints of his. There won't be [the defendant's] DNA on
anything, not on any screwdriver, not on any weatherstripping, not on
any piece of tape, not on anything. Quite frankly, there's just not,
there's absolutely no evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr.
Robinson committed these crimes.
In overturning the defendant's burglary conviction, the Maryland high court determined that the judge's instructions constituted improper burden shifting. According to the court,
in light of "the currently inconclusive state of the scholarly legal and/or scientific communities' research,
taken as a whole, regarding whether such a phenomenon as the 'CSI effect' exists,"
the instruction should not be given preemptively and should be "confined to situations
where it responds to correction of a preexisting overreaching by the defense, i.e., a curative instruction."
This case offers some very interesting takeaways. First, it provides an excellent overview of the CSI effect. For those interested in a history of the CSI effect or a quick review of the literature and law on the topic, this case is a good read. Second, this case demonstrates that prosecutors and judges should not be so quick to believe that the CSI effect exists. As illustrated by this case, the fear of the CSI effect maybe worse than the reality. As pointed out by the high court,
The academic and scientific community has
yet to conclude that a "CSI effect" exists and, thus, supports our skeptical view that the "CSI
effect" exists.
For previous posts about the CSI effect as it relates to jurors go here.

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