It was just another drug possession case and it was cut and dried.

Prosecutors were convinced that the damning evidence and testimony collected and presented to the jury were more than enough to secure a conviction. Better yet, two police officers actually saw the suspect holding the drugs when they arrested him. “How could the jury come back with anything but a conviction?” thought Illinois State Attorney Robert Haida. After all, they had the bad guy cold.

Then the jury returned and the foreman declared, “Not guilty.” A juror approached a shocked Haida after the trial and said, “We think he did it, but where were the fingerprints on the drug baggies? Why didn’t you take prints at the scene?”

“Well,” Haida replied, “because two of our police officers saw the defendant handle the baggies. We didn’t need to take fingerprints.”

Bob Haida had just experienced a CSI moment.

With millions of potential jurors tuning in to television shows like CSI, CSI: Miami, CSI: New York, Cold Case, NCIS, Law and Order, Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Without a Trace, the possibility that jurors have seen at least one episode is highly likely. The result: too many jurors expect DNA, fingerprints and other undisputed evidence be presented at every trial.

Prosecutors call it the “CSI effect,” and Haida and the law enforcement community are wary. They point out that most communities don’t have the resources to investigate cases as thoroughly or as rapidly as they do on television.

The expectations of jurors, judges, prosecutors and everyone else involved in the criminal justice system have been raised,” he said. “But this is real life. And budget restrictions and resources are limited. We have charged about 1,700 felonies in this county by June July 2005. Of that number, about 300 are violent crimes. Of those, we will have scientific evidence on only about 50. That’s real life.”

On television, the CSI techies never have a problem collecting and testing DNA and fingerprint evidence and getting proof positive results in about 40 minutes of airtime. There’s never a manpower shortage, a backlog of cases or any concern about budgets. Each investigator focuses on one case and runs every available scientific test on every case. They’re attractive, dress stylishly, drive Hummers, and they always get the bad guy to confess in time for the nightly news.

But with its growing popularity, are CSI and its offspring tainting the jury pool? Are juries influenced by television’s forensic experts using high tech tools sometimes usually not available to local police departments? Do jurors have TV-fueled unrealistic expectations about proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt?

Law enforcement officials take these questions seriously. So seriously, that in June 2005, Maricopa County, Arizona, the country’s fourth most populous county, prepared a formal report on the phenomenon.

Titled, “The CSI Effect and its Real-Life Impact on Justice,” the report said that nearly 40 percent of county prosecutors believed they had at least one trial that ended in either an acquittal or hung jury when forensic evidence was not available.

In one case, the arresting officer removed a handgun from a suspect’s waistband. The defendant later admitted that he possessed the gun and hid it under his clothing. Neither the officer’s eyewitness testimony, nor even the confession, however, were enough to convince the jury. One juror asked the prosecutor to prove that the defendant’s fingerprints were found on the handgun. A deputy Maricopa county attorney complained after losing a case, saying, “The jury wanted more crime scene photos…they placed more emphasis on police investigation than on the victim’s testimony. Another said, “Jurors always want more fingerprints or some sort of scientific evidence to convict even with a full confession.”

But if CSI and similar television shows are having such an impact on juries, just how accurate are they? According to one real life CSI expert, not very.

“CSI shows what is possible forensically, not what commonly happens,” said Sergeant Jay Zuma, an Illinois State police officer and field supervisor of the Metro East Crime Scene Unit in Fairview Heights, Ill. According to Zuma, real crimes are still solved by good, old-fashioned police work.

“CSI shows the realm of extreme possibilities,” he said. “It doesn’t always happen like that. We don’t solve a crime as rapidly as they do on TV, and we certainly don’t get results from forensics tests as quickly as they do. We’ll usually spend two hours handling evidence and working on paperwork for every one hour we work in the field [collecting forensic evidence]. I’m also not aware of television CSI people being concerned about budgets and case loads. That’s paramount in our minds.”

Television is such an influence these days that prosecutors now ask members of a jury pool about which shows they watch. Viewing habits do influence jurors, says John J. Riley, Presiding Judge of the 22nd Court of Missouri in St. Louis. He said that although he’s never seen the television show, he’s well aware of the CSI effect in his courtroom.

“I think jurors today have higher expectations of the state to prove their case,” he said. “It’s not uncommon for a juror to ask for fingerprints when they aren’t really necessary. But lawyers do a pretty good job asking the right questions during voir dire [pre-trial questioning of prospective jurors].. They used to ask jurors what newspapers and magazines they read. Today, they ask what television shows they watch. They have to enforce the idea that the courtroom isn’t a television show. ”

Are legitimate crime scene investigators worried about criminals learning all the tricks of his trade via a television script? Are the bad guys getting smarter? Not really, submits Sergeant Zuma. Besides, CSI life really does imitate the series at time.

“On occasion, it does go down like it does on TV,” he said

He recalled one incident when a predator sexually assaulted a woman. He worked the scene in the morning, brought the evidence back to the lab, and gave it to one of his most experienced fingerprint examiners fifteen minutes before lunchtime. Fourteen minutes later, the examiner had a fingerprint match from the computer system. Zuma got to lunch on time and he also got a conviction.

“No matter how careful a criminal is, there can be evidence at the crime scene,” he said. “We can identify a suspect from just a fragment of a fingerprint. I’ve even seen DNA cases where we find a speck of a blood smaller than a pin head embedded in a shoelace that’s gone through the washing machine. Fantastic things do happen, just not every day.

“That’s why I’m not really worried about the TV show,” the state trooper added. “They may show our capabilities, but it doesn’t really affect the mechanism of the crime. The contact is still there and the transfer is still there.”

So maybe CSI the television really does depict life in a real crime scene unit.

“Not really,” Zuma sighed. “We drive 10-year-old mini-vans, not Hummers.”