The fictional forensic investigators in shows like CSI put old-time sleuths like Sherlock Holmes to shame. They can read a crime scene like it's a glossy magazine.

But Post Mortem, an investigation by NPR, PBS Frontline and ProPublica, has exposed how death investigation in America is nothing like what you see on TV. Many prosecutors complain that shows like CSI make their job harder, as jurors demand ultra-high-tech tests to convict suspects.

"I think that CSI has done some great things for medico-legal death investigations. It has brought what we do from the shadows where people really didn't want to know and didn't care what we do to the bright light of day," says Mike Murphy, the coroner for Clark County, Nev. His office was the model for the original CSI show.

"It's also caused some problems. And some of those problems are [that] people expect us to have DNA back in 20 minutes or that we're supposed to solve a crime in 60 minutes with three commercials. It doesn't happen that way," he says.
Anthony Zuiker, the creator of the CSI franchise, says making amends for television is part of his job.

"Our job really is to make great television, first and foremost. And so, we have to, quote, 'sex it up,' " Zuiker says. "I think Americans know that DNA doesn't come back in 20 minutes. I think Americans know that there's not some magical computer that you press and the guy's face pops up and where he lives. You think America knows that the time sheets when you're doing one hour of television have to be fudged a bit. Americans know that. They're smart."

But legal experts are concerned that juries may well be confusing fact with fiction.

It's termed the CSI Effect. Prosecutors have been complaining that shows like CSI are creating the expectation that every trial must feature high-tech forensic tests. They fear that when they don't show off CSI-style technology, juries might let criminals get away with murder.

'Blaming CSI Is Too Simplistic'

Donald Shelton, the chief judge of Watenshaw County, Mich., is skeptical. He began to notice that reports about the CSI Effect were long on anecdote, and short on data.

"One of the things that surprised me when I started looking into the CSI Effect was that there was no empirical research. Even the so-called studies that were out there were simply surveys of lawyers' opinions," he says.

Is The 'CSI Effect' Influencing Courtrooms? : NPR