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Before They'll Convict, Juries Want Some Fancy Forensics

In criminal trials, juries sometimes acquit defendants despite overwhelming evidence of guilt. This is called "jury nullification," and it changes with the times.

Early in U.S. history, juries in northern states that opposed slavery often set free black former slaves who had broken the law by fleeing their masters. All-white juries in racially segregated southern states routinely refused to convict white defendants, whatever the evidence. More recently, some inner-city jurors have openly admitted they voted to set black defendants free because they mistrust the testimony of white police officers.

In celebrity cases involving sports heroes, actors, and musical stars, court watchers have speculated that some jurors vote "not guilty" because they simply cannot believe these larger-than-life figures could commit serious crimes. Other juries have freed defendants in marijuana and assisted-suicide cases because they don't think people should be prosecuted for such things.

And now, in this television age, there's a high-tech form of jury nullification called the "CSI Effect." The name is taken from a popular television show that spotlights the use of DNA and other forensic evidence to catch and convict criminals. "CSI" stands for "crime scene investigation." And among those who love these shows are people who are called to serve on juries.

In Galveston, Texas, a jury acquitted a wealthy real estate heir accused of murdering and dismembering a neighbor. He admitted the crime but claimed self-defense. "Not enough forensic evidence" to prove murder, the jury reported. "What about blood spatters, fibers, molds of tire tracks, or fingerprints?" juries have asked in other cases.

The CSI effect has altered the meaning of "guilt beyond a reasonable doubt." These days, juries are saying they have lots of doubt unless somebody in a white lab coat convinces them otherwise.

This is one of VOA's Only in America radio essays on events and trends that are peculiarly American. To visit our Only in America home page click here.