If you’ve watched enough reruns of shows like CSI, NCIS, Law and Order, and Bones, you probably think you’re pretty well-versed in the science of forensics and crime-solving. Think again. Sure, you’ve probably picked up a few handy tips for the next time you plan on committing a crime (which we hope is never), but for the most part, these TV shows misrepresent the forensics profession in some major ways. If you’re thinking of a career in forensic science, make sure you know the truth behind these 10 myths spread by TV before you get in too deep.
Think of the number of people you know who have died. Now consider how many of those were murdered. The percentage is probably pretty low. So is the percentage of homicide cases that forensic scientists work on in their careers. Even though we only see the CSI team studying evidence from bizarre murders, the real forensics teams deal with far less crime. There are many more accidental deaths or deaths from natural causes than there are homicide investigations, so someone who works in forensics won’t be solving murders every day of his career. In Portland, Ore., for example, medical examiner cases are made up of 60% natural-causes cases and only 2% homicides. Some cities may see more action than others, but it’s still unlikely that the bulk of their cases will be murders.
Sure, they deal with dead bodies, fluids, and weapons on a daily basis, but members of a forensics team aren’t compensated nearly as well as you’d think they’d be. The national average for a medical examiner is $45,000. Southern states tend to pay a little less, and salaries get higher as you move west and north. Forensic engineers, who are often called to help in fire investigations and traffic accidents, tend to be paid a little more, making as much as $79,000 a year in some states. None of the pay scales, though, are quite enough to make Horatio Caine’s Hummer in CSI: Miami believable.
In forensic shows on TV, it seems like the CSI unit is the most important team at the murder scene, calling the shots, interviewing the bad guys, and then hauling them off in handcuffs. In reality, most forensic analysts work mostly in the lab, occasionally going out in the field to collect evidence or process a crime scene, depending on what their exact role is. All the interrogating and arrests are left to the police. There are some instances of CSI agents also being sworn police officers who could do both jobs, but those cases are much rarer than you see on TV.
You see it in almost every episode of whatever version of CSI you happen to be watching. 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 truth is, while DNA evidence is a great tool for police and lawyers, it’s not fool-proof and it’s not a guarantee that the case will be solved. 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 10 years, but there are still fewer than 9 million offender profiles in the system as of 2010. Considering there are about 313 million people in the U.S., it’s not hard to imagine that not every DNA sample found matches up with someone on file.
On TV, we see analysts performing various tests and then rushing to their supervisor with the results minutes later. Often, medical examiners are rattling off the results of the toxicology report before the body’s even been fully autopsied. It certainly makes for quicker paced TV shows, but 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, and often involves the specimens being passed between many different people. A forensics toxicology test actually takes four to six weeks in a normal case
As the entertainment market has become inundated with forensics shows, the average person becomes more and more familiar with what they think is the real justice process. It seems commonplace that prosecutors would have piles of irrefutable forensic evidence to convince jurors of a suspect’s guilt. This idea, known as the “CSI Effect,” is actually affecting real-life trials. Juries expect to be given a show and hard evidence like they’ve seen on TV, and when they don’t get it, they often 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 analysts’ test results, even though it’s been proven time and time again that many tests can be flawed.
Another detrimental aspect of the “CSI Effect” is the knowledge it gives criminals about what crime scene units do. Many murderers and rapists now know what measures to take to avoid leaving DNA evidence behind, 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 could really be messing things up 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. New Hampshire, for example, has one lab that serves the whole state. Not only are these labs few and far between, they’re also not as fancy, roomy, and well-equipped as you see on TV. Labs across the nation are underfunded and understaffed, and you won’t find every piece of needed equipment in any of them.
On NCIS, CSI, and Law and Order, murders are solved in an hour — and that’s including the commercials. Even though Law and Order lets you see a time and location for every move its detectives and attorneys make, it can’t begin to show the real time frame of solving most crimes. Let’s put it in perspective: there are more than 300,000 backlogged requests for forensic services in labs across the country, 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. The average lab has 152 backlogged DNA requests. While we’re not saying that the majority of cases go unsolved, those that are solved will likely take months if not years to figure out.
Forensics analysts and CSI agents are used to being around dead bodies, but this doesn’t mean they’re insensitive enough to make puns about a person’s death on a regular basis. CSI: Miami‘s Horatio Caine is known for putting on his signature pair of sunglasses and dropping a corny one-liner about the dead body at hand right before the theme song begins playing. It’s safe to say that a real forensics investigator would have to go through sensitivity training if they acted like this during every case.
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