This is a guest post by Spencer Blohm
It’s been 15 years since the CBS hit CSI: Crime Scene Investigation first premiered. Since then, they’ve depicted numerous crimes, speedily solved using a breadth of forensic techniques. Last year, the show was finally laid to rest with the series finale providing the closure dedicated fans demanded. Yet throughout the span of the show until the very last episode, the differences between the television science and real life are glaringly obvious to the trained eye.
Let’s take a look at some of these forensic techniques and how they compare to what transpires in the real world.
1. Lab Results Take Time
If an episode were to cover a realistic time span of a DNA test or toxicology report it would cover at least a couple weeks time — at the quickest, and frequently much longer if there’s just trace evidence. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to speed up lab times as we see on crime dramas. Lab tests take time to perform with no way to speed the process up at the current time. While it’s true there are some novel technologies that can provide DNA results in a considerably shorter timescale, many haven’t been approved or aren’t compatible with current databases, rendering them useless.
2. No High Heels in the Field
Television is full of beautiful people wearing stylish clothes: often, a member of the team gets summoned from an glamorous party and shows up to the scene in heels or an expensive suit. Real-world technicians must don appropriate suiting (e.g. coveralls) and abide by strict guidelines concerning the personal protective equipment (PPE) that must be worn. There are several dangers than can be potentially waiting for the technicians, such as blood-borne pathogens, and yet we rarely see them worn in the show. Moreover, we see CSI Nick Stokes sporting a bulletproof vest regularly, when in all actuality this is all but unnecessary.
3. No Gunfire or Action
To keep viewers entertained, writers like to throw in some intense gunfire and action, but this is far from the mark in reality. There are multiple teams that come in to investigate a crime scene. The first team that arrives are the police — they secure the crime scene, take statements, and begin implementing the initial parts of investigative protocol. Next, we have the crime scene technicians (or SOCOs). These are the individuals that search the scene and collect relevant evidence. This evidence is then dispatched to forensic scientists, by way of the exhibits officer, who analyse it using their own, specialised techniques. Most of the time these roles do not cross, unless one is called to the field to collect evidence or process elements of a crime scene.
4. Well-Lit Working Areas
Crime scene technicians don’t look at a scene in near dark conditions. There are several lighting instruments and lamps brought out to ensure the entire scene can be thoroughly examined. The same, of course, goes for the forensic scientists in the labs. With so much attention to detail needed to perform the job, crime labs are well-lit and relatively tidy environments. While dark mood lighting makes for good TV, it’s hardly beneficial for thorough and complete crime scene investigations.
5. DNA is Not Always a Cold Case-Breaker
Unlike the scenarios played out on crime dramas like CSI, real-life crimes are not always solved through DNA evidence. Picture the scene: an actor walks in with DNA evidence, uploads it to be scanned by a computer program, and not a minute later — a suspect has appeared on a screen. While it can constitute a very critical part of the puzzle in many cases, the reality is that DNA evidence isn’t always useful. Depending on the scenario, there can be many reasons for someone’s DNA to be in a certain location.
6. Fingerprints Aren’t Always Useful
Fingerprints are ubiquitous, and some of them — depending on context — can be useless in solving crimes. Crime dramas certainly have a penchant for the ‘partial print’ gimmick to help break open a high-profile case. While they’re never fans of finding a partial print in TV shows, they’re actually the most common prints found. It’s also — at times — extremely difficult to lift prints or DNA from a gun, something that’s often depicted as quite simple on television. Many crime scenes are also devoid of criminal fingerprints since many criminals know to wear gloves or some other method of blocking their prints.
Even with all its real world flaws, CSI came to be one of CBS’s most successful and most watched shows of the decade. The fact that these dramatised forensic science-themed shows have created a false awareness among the general public is concerning, especially when considering the long-tail repercussions for the judicial system.
Many lawyers have had to contend with juries that are anticipating types of evidence and examinations based on shows they’ve seen — like CSI, Bones, or Criminal Minds — despite their inaccuracies (a phenomenon commonly known as the “CSI Effect”). And with the show available for easy streaming, it doesn’t seem like we’ll be getting a break from the consequences of programming like this any time soon.