If you’ve watched shows like CSI, NCIS, Law and Order, and Bones, you might feel well-versed in the science of forensics and crime-solving. Wrong! While you’ve probably picked up a few handy tips for the next time you commit a crime (which I hope is never), these TV shows misrepresent the forensics profession in some major ways.
On TV, perpetrators inevitably leave behind plenty of telltale signs of their passing at the crime scene. The team finds DNA evidence, sticks it into a computer program, and minutes later, a suspect appears, along with his complete criminal record and a current address. How are there any unsolved cases out there with magical technology like this?
The system that many shows use to match their DNA is CODIS, a real U.S. DNA profile archive. The number of DNA profiles in CODIS has risen significantly in the past 17 years, but there are still fewer than 20 million offender profiles in the system. Considering there are about 313 million people in the United States, it’s clear that not every DNA sample found matches up with someone on file.
The scene evidence includes fingerprints, hairs, fibres, skin or blood. In real life, many crime scenes yield no forensic evidence whatsoever. It’s often impossible to distinguish what’s criminal evidence from stuff left over from just everyday activity. When forensic evidence is found, it’s often too degraded or contaminated to be usable.
On TV, the CSI unit is the most important team at the murder scene, calling the shots, interviewing the witnesses and then hauling the suspect away in handcuffs.
In the real world, forensic analysts work in the lab, occasionally collecting evidence in the field or processing a crime scene. The interrogation and arrests are left to the police officers and detectives.
On TV, analysts perform tests and immediately rush to their supervisor with the results. Medical examiners rattle off the toxicology report results before the body’s been fully autopsied. While it makes for fast paced TV shows, it’s far from reality. A typical toxicology test involves taking samples of blood, urine, and various body tissues, testing them for drugs and other substances. A forensics toxicology test takes four to six weeks or more in a normal case.
The ‘CSI Effect,’ is affecting real-life trials. Juries expect to be given irrefutable forensic evidence like they’ve seen on TV, and when they don’t get it, they don’t think the case is strong enough. On the other end of the ‘CSI Effect’ is the notion that forensic analysts are infallible. Juries believe these test results, even though it’s been proven that many tests are flawed.
Another detrimental aspect of the ‘CSI Effect’ is the knowledge it gives criminals about what crime scene units do. Murderers and rapists now know what measures to take to avoid leaving DNA evidence at the scene, such as burning bodies or using bleach, and how to keep blood out of their cars. This doesn’t mean that they don’t screw up in other areas or have friends who turn them in, but it is certainly making it harder on police to get solid evidence linking someone with a crime. Combine this fact with jurors not convicting as often without high-tech evidence, and forensics shows are complicating things for our police and prosecutors.
Crime shows give the impression that every police department has its own forensics lab. Police, medical examiners, and analysts all seem to be housed in the same building, when in reality, forensics labs often serve hundreds of city and town police departments. Not only are these labs few and far between, they’re also not as fancy, roomy, and well-equipped as you see on TV. Generally forensics labs are underfunded and understaffed.
On NCIS, CSI, Law and Order, and Bones, murders are solved in an hour (44 min if you don’t count commercials.) Let’s put it in perspective: there are more than 300,000 backlogged requests for forensic services in labs across the U.S., and the longer DNA sits in a lab, the colder a case can get, and the less likely it is the crime will be solved. I’m not saying that the majority of cases go unsolved, but those that are solved will likely take months if not years to figure out.
Final thought: Do your research if you are using forensics in your novel. You never want to be called out or discussed as an author who gets the facts wrong.
Are you a writer or screenwriter? Here’s where you can check your facts.
“First Aid 4 Writers”
Weekly tips by Dwayne Clayden – supporting you to write realistic Medical, Police, EMS, Fire, Air Medical, Dispatch, and Disaster scenes and procedures.
Check out, the “Live” show, 4th Thursday of the month at 9 pm EST / 6 pm PST
View LIVE or the Replay: Facebook Live