In a recent blog entry about forensic phenotyping, I wrote “Much of the information in these [crime scene investigation] TV shows is not exactly accurate. (I have long thought that I should write a blog entry contrasting forensic DNA laboratories as they exist on screen and in reality.)” It seems that someone has beat me to the punch. In his recent paper (1), Evan Durnal eloquently sums it up: “With this new style of ‘infotainment’, comes an increasingly blurred line between the hard facts of reality and the soft, quick solutions of entertainment.”
Durnal points out the single largest gripe that many criminal justice officials have about crime scene investigation (CSI) television shows: the common myths that are created and perpetuated by these types of TV shows. Durnal lists four main categories of myths: capabilities, roles and responsibilities, evidence and schedule. All of these myths are well known (and probably frustrating) to anyone who works in a forensic laboratory. Durnal also summarizes the effects of CSI shows on the judicial system, including jurors, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement officials and the criminals themselves. In part I of this two-part blog entry, I will present Durnal’s four categories of myths about crime scene investigation.
The first category, capability myths, refers to the fact that much of the science portrayed on CSI shows does not exist or is exaggerated. Modern forensic labs have amazing abilities and resources at their disposal to solve crimes, but TV producers are not satisfied with the reality. Maybe reality is not sexy enough, or there simply are not enough car chases and explosions? Durnal’s example of this type of myth is the omniscient database. On TV, it seems that databases exist for every possible product or material. In reality, these databases are restricted to information gathered and entered by law enforcement officials. There are huge databases for DNA (e.g., Combined DNA Index System, CODIS) and fingerprints (Automated Fingerprint Identification System, AFIS), but other examples of such universal databases are rare. In this same category is the perception that evidentiary samples require very little preparation before analysis. If you watch these types of shows, how often have you seen a forensic analyst put a blood-stained swab directly into an instrument, which then spits out the answer? Real science doesn’t work that way, not yet. Samples collected at a crime scene require preparation. For example, DNA needs to be isolated in most cases, and viscous, concentrated liquids need to be cleaned up and diluted before injection into a gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) instrument. However, such pre-analysis preparation is often tedious and boring, making it toxic to television ratings. No one wants to watch a scientist pipetting, diluting, vortexing, centrifuging and poring over data for hours. Yet, that is the reality.
The second myth that Durnal lists is related to roles and responsibilities. On television, forensic analysts are jacks-of-all-trades. They can perform DNA analyses, ballistic examinations and GC/MS and, in their spare time, they dabble in entomology, using insects present at the scene to assign a time of death. It appears that there is nothing these TV scientists cannot do. In reality, each step in processing crime scene evidence requires specialized skills, so forensic analysts focus their skills on one discipline, becoming an expert in that one area. For this reason, forensic analysts spend their time in the lab; they do not interrogate suspects or question witnesses. With rare exceptions, analysts do not visit crime scenes, leaving evidence collection to specially trained personnel. One of my favorite misperceptions in this category is that forensic analysts carry guns. Most do not. I have joked about this with some of my forensic analyst friends. Police officers on patrol carry guns for obvious reasons, but forensic analysts spend most, if not all, of their time in the lab—why would they need to carry guns? In case the deionized formamide “goes bad”?
I think lack of objectivity belongs in this category too. On TV, it seems that forensic analysts are privy to all evidence collected in a case, and as a result, form an opinion one way or another about a suspect’s guilt or innocence. In some cases, they develop elaborate schemes about how a crime was carried out to try to explain their results. In other words, they do not remain unbiased throughout the investigation. Real forensic analysts must remain objective. They report the unbiased results and cannot allow their personal beliefs to play a part in the analysis.
The third category on Durnal’s list is “evidence”, referring to the perception that criminals always leave enough suitable evidence to allow a crime to be solved. Despite continuing advances in forensic science that allow analysis of trace amounts of evidence, there are situations where there just is not enough evidence to solve the crime or the evidence that is recovered does not help resolve the case (e.g., a suspect’s DNA is recovered at a crime scene, but the suspect admits to being at the crime scene but denies participating in the crime). One negative effect of CSI shows is that criminals learn from them, and as a result, leave less incriminating evidence at a crime scene. Having said that, I feel that I have to add an observation here: I have heard plenty of examples where, despite a criminals’ best efforts to avoid leaving evidence behind or to clean up evidence after a crime was committed, enough evidence was recovered to allow a suspect to be identified and implicated. In many cases, law enforcement officials and forensic analysts still seem to be one step ahead of the criminals, and I think that is unlikely to change, considering the continuous advances in forensic science.
The final category is “schedule”, and I have to admit, these are the myths that annoy me the most. On TV, all crimes are solved within a 60-minute time slot, all database searches are done in a matter of seconds and all analyses are completed only minutes after they are started. I’ve worked in a lab, I’ve done PCR, and I’ve used some of the same chromatography techniques portrayed on these shows. There is a lot of preparatory work that gets glossed over or missed entirely on TV. Also, there are never inconclusive results. Everything works the first time; there is never the need to repeat an analysis. (Wow, I wish I had had that kind of skill/luck back when I was in the lab!) As Durnal points out “Good science can be extremely tedious and takes a great deal of time. It is paramount that the correct conclusion is reached, regardless of the time it takes.”
As you can see, there are a lot of myths being propagated by these TV shows, and those of us with science backgrounds realize that these television shows are not accurate. The directors do not claim that they are accurate. However, others with less science education and training may not recognize the disparity between TV and reality.
Be sure to watch for part II of this series, where I discuss Durnal’s summary of how the media’s portrayal of CSI TV shows is contributing to jurors’ unrealistic expectations in the courtroom and positively and negatively affecting the judicial process.
Do you work in a forensic lab or know someone who does, or do you have enough scientific training that you recognize (and are annoyed by) the inaccuracies? What are some of your favorite myths or inaccurate portrayals regarding science in CSI shows? Let’s generate a Top Ten list of “Reasons I Don’t Watch CSI Television Shows”. Add your suggestions for the Top Ten list to the comments field. I’ll start the list with another one of my favorites: Forensic labs on TV are always dark. Why is that?
- Durnal, E. (2010). Crime scene investigation (as seen on TV) Forensic Science International DOI: 10.1016/j.forsciint.2010.02.015
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