Wednesday, May 09, 2007

CSI and Forensics

The April 30 issue of The Wall Street Journal ran an interesting article about TV’s CSI dramas—and how they “glamorize” and “oversimplify” the use of forensics in trials. Most importantly, these shows are believed by some judges to be influencing juries.

The article cites that job applications at the Las Vegas criminalistics bureau have jumped in recent years due to all the attention forensics is getting these days. As my own daughter is applying to start college, we heard the same thing from the university she’ll be attending, regarding their own forensics department.

Trouble is, on the CSI-type shows, all the forensics results are certain. This hair definitely matches the hair of so-and-so, and this fiber is exactly the same fiber as somebody’s carpet. In real life, results often aren’t so certain. While DNA is considered reliable, hair and fiber samples often rely on the judgments of individuals in the lab. What’s more, I know that many times the results are simply along the lines of—“This hair cannot be ruled out as a match for that hair.” (If you can match the mitochondrial DNA of two hair follicles, that’s a different story.)

According to the WSJ article, judges are seeing the CSI effect in the courtroom. At one Louisiana conference of judges, when a speaker asked if they thought CSI had influences their juries, every judge in attendance raised a hand.

I don’t watch any crime dramas on TV because I can’t rely on the information they present. These dramas have to connect all the dots in 46 minutes, and to do that, they often skew the forensics details in numerous ways. One way is to have the protagonist(s) of the show doing all the work. In reality, a lot of people are involved in processing a crime scene. Those collecting evidence aren’t the same as those conducting all the lab tests, for example These shows can’t possibly handle all the characters it would take in real life, so for the sake of story, they’re compressed into a few individuals. In addition, as the article says, the way the tests are conducted—and the results—aren’t always correct. If I watched these shows too much, I’m afraid that info would settle into my subconsciousness. I do watch the real-life shows such as Forensic Files and Cold Case Files.

If turning fiction to reality can be dicey, sometimes so can turning reality into fiction. When I was writing Eyes of Elisha, I had to do a lot of research—everything from attending murder trials and talking to defense and prosecuting attorneys to interviewing homicide detectives and researching all the forensics. I toured the local county forensics lab, guided by its director. We passed a young woman carefully scraping a gigantic pair of men’s underwear. “Whatcha doin’? the director asked. The gal looked up, her eyes shining. “I’m scraping for semen samples. Getting some great ones!”

The sight was so incongruous to me—this lovely little gal and the horribly awful task she was doing—and she was so enthused about it. I put the exact scene as a short tidbit in Eyes of Elisha. When I gave the manuscript to that same lab director to read for correctness, he pointed out that scene to me and said, “I don’t think anyone would really be scraping underwear like this.”

I had to remind him we’d seen exactly that in his own lab.


eileen said...

And ahh, my dear, it's exactly that precise detail that makes your writing zing! And dethrones BHCC presidents!

Patricia W. said...

In this day of reality TV, viewers sometimes forget that dramas are just that, dramatic fictional stories.

Knowing that you take the time to do that level of research is both intriguing and inspiring. I've got to suspend my BHCC membership and read at least one of your books!

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

You can do, Patricia!

D. Gudger said...

One of my close friends is a lab rat who does CSI work for the state of CO. She never watches those shows b/c "they are so far from reality."
She's spent many years sniffing and scraping underwear for rape cases, "there's nothing glamerous about that." She told me.

Thanks for pointing this out. It's easy to assimilate what we see on TV and think it's fact when we go to write our stuff.

Susanne said...

So interesting this peek into your world.