I’ve been weathering a recent spate of bad weather seeing what television says is the current state of forensics science.
Shows like Court TV’s The Forensics Files purport to be non-fictional accounts of how forensics science solved particularly heinous crimes of murder, rape, etc. But if you ask me, most of the accounts show how forensics solved crimes in which the perpetrators deserved to be caught, if only because of their stupidity in tracking blood through crime scenes, retaining possession of evidence, and the like. Not criminal masterminds.
However, the fictional forensic investigators in shows like CBS’ CSI or NBC’s Law & Order are an entirely different matter. Smarter criminals here. 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. If fact, the investigation found that many autopsies are performed by forensic pathologists who can only be described as incompetent and whose results are erroneous and described by competent professionals as “junk.”
This can be blamed on a dysfunctional system which exists in 11 states—1,300 counties nationwide—in which county coroners (many of whom lack certification, training, or oversight) are elected. 7 states have an appointed county medical examiner system. Only 16 states have a centralized medical examiner system. The remaining states have hybrid systems. It is a crazy-quilt and there are no national standards or regulation.
Many prosecutors complain that shows like CSI make their job harder, as jurors demand ultra-high-tech tests to convict suspects. Increasingly suspicious of circumstantial evidence, juries often acquit if prosecutors don’t back up their claims with science.
“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 NV. 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.
An NPR article on the subject quotes Anthony Zuiker, the creator of the CSI franchise, as saying that 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.”
However, 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 feature high-tech labs and glib, gorgeous techies. The shows are creating the expectation that every trial must feature high-tech forensic tests. They fear that when prosecutors don’t show off CSI-style technology, juries might let criminals get away with murder.
By shining a glamorous light on a gory profession, these TV programs have also helped to draw more students into forensic studies. The case can be made in raising juries’ expectations from the field of crime investigation, they are influencing forensics to improve. But they’re probably also responsible for a certain amount of overreaching in the field, too.
“Junk science” takes the form of false autopsies, inaccurate evaluations of hair and fiber evidence, handwriting analysis, dog scent lineups, grossly misleading reports and testimony by corrupt, incompetent or shoddy crime labs, and the use of disproved arson investigation techniques. You can read more about junk science here.
Even the age-old belief that every set of fingerprints is unique in the world has been definitively overturned by the case of attorney Brandon Mayfield. He was arrested in 2004 by the FBI in Portland OR after his fingerprints were “matched” to those found at a crime scene for the bombing of four commuter trains in Madrid, Spain, where 191 people were killed and over 2,000 were injured. The fact that Mayfield had not been in Spain was trumped by the fingerprint evidence. It was only after Spanish authorities made an arrest that Mayfield was released.
There are few-to-none scientific studies underpinning the reliability of any forensic evidence besides DNA. US District Court Judge Louis H. Pollak ruled in January 2002 that such evidence does not meet standards of scientific scrutiny established by the US Supreme Court, and said that even fingerprint examiners cannot testify at trial that a suspect’s fingerprints “match” those found at a crime scene.
Yet the programs foster what analysts say is the mistaken notion that criminal science is fast and infallible and always gets its man. Some of the science on CSI is state-of-the-art. Real lab technicians can, for example, lift DNA profiles from cigarette butts, candy wrappers and gobs of spit, just as their Hollywood counterparts do. But some of what’s on TV is far-fetched. Forensic scientist Thomas Mauriello estimates that 40% of the scientific techniques depicted on CSI do not exist. In addition to using unrealistic techniques, CSI ignores all elements of uncertainty present in real investigations, and instead portrays experimental results as absolute truth.
“You never see a case where the sample is degraded or the lab work is faulty or the test results don’t solve the crime,” says Dan Krane, president and DNA specialist at Forensic Bioinformatics in Fairborn OH. “These things happen all the time in the real world.” Betty Layne DesPortes, a criminal defense lawyer in Richmond VA (who has a master’s degree in forensic science) notes that during the past 15 years, human errors and corruption have skewed test results in crime labs in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, California, Texas, and Washington state.
Defense lawyers say the misconception that crime-scene evidence and testing are always accurate helps prosecutors. Prosecutors say the misconceptions help the defense. But the CSI effect may also help the criminals themselves.
In 2000, the year that CSI: Crime Scene Investigation debuted, 46.9% of all rape cases in the United States were solved by police. By 2005, the solve rate had fallen to 41.3%. By 2013 it had fallen to 40.6%. Some investigators attribute this decline to the CSI effect, as crime shows often explain in detail how criminals can conceal or destroy evidence. For example, several rape victims have reported that their assailants forced them to shower or clean themselves with bleach after their assaults.
There are lots of moving parts in the whole picture, and probably no one is ultimately helped more than any other. But it is changing for everybody, which means that the best way to avoid being influenced by the CSI effect is to avoid crime altogether.
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