By Bruce Lieberman
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
February 21, 2005
Forensic experts say programs such as «CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,» which stars William Petersen and Marg Helgenberger, often show them as perfect crime fighters.
WASHINGTON – All right, Sherlock, here’s a crime scene investigation for you: A man is found sprawled on the floor, clutching a plastic bag filled with blue powder.
Do you collect a small sample of the substance and place it under your crime lab’s electron microscope? Or should you analyze the powder for trace chemicals that might yield clues about where and when it was manufactured?
And since the corpse is lying in a laundromat, here’s one other distinct possibility: Could the blue stuff be laundry detergent?
Science isn’t always the key to solving crimes, forensic experts said yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
But that’s hard to tell by watching the CBS line-up of cops and corpses – «CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,» «CSI: NY» and «CSI: Miami.»
These wildly popular TV shows and others like them celebrate the power of science to solve the unsolvable crime. Their make-believe investigators, typically well-dressed and armed with DNA samples, microscopes and computer simulations, always figure it out within an hour – commercials included.
«I joke that ‘CSI’ is the perfect TV show,» said Max Houck, who teaches forensic science at West Virginia University. «They dress like doctors, they carry badges and guns so they’re cops, and they act like cowboys.»
With a dose of reality, Houck and other forensic scientists talked about their work and the TV programs.
«As I tell my students, it’s less about wearing leather pants and driving Hummers than it is about wearing a (protective) jumpsuit and crawling under somebody’s porch looking for body parts,» Houck said.
Television’s obsession with forensics has generated a positive effect, though, the forensic scientists said. Many people have become more aware of the important role that science plays in solving crimes. The TV series may play loose with the details, but they’re not always off the mark.
«Twenty years ago, somebody would ask what you do and you’d say you work in forensic science and they’d kind of look at you and say, ‘What’s that?’ » said Richard Ernest, a ballistics expert with Alliance Forensics Science Consultants in Fort Worth, Texas.
«Everybody today says, ‘Oh yeah, you do ‘CSI’ work.’ »
It’s clear that these shows have made a huge impact on young people, the speakers said. In 1999, four students graduated with a degree in forensic pathology at West Virginia University, Houck recalled. Today, more than 400 people are majoring in the subject, and forensic pathology is the most popular major on the 25,000-student campus.
Women constitute about 90 percent of those majors, an indication that at least one slice of pop culture may be encouraging women to pursue science careers, Houck said.
Not everyone is thrilled with the «CSI effect,» as Houck calls it.
Prosecutors have problems with it because many juries now harbor an unrealistic expectation of what evidence in a court case can tell them. Jurors frequently assume that a crime lab will test everything, Houck said.
Meanwhile, defense attorneys fear that juries view forensic science as «this juggernaut, this infallible, objective method that is always right, is always accurate and spells doom for their client,» Houck said.
As for the forensic science labs, they’re overwhelmed with evidence that police and attorneys want examined.
The National Institute of Justice estimates a backlog of 200,000 to 300,000 DNA samples awaiting analysis in crime labs around the country.
People also have developed an unrealistic sense of how long it takes to investigate a case, said Patricia McFeeley, a forensic pathologist with the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center.
On the TV dramas, toxicology results are available almost instantaneously. That’s why in real life, family members of a victim often cannot understand why it takes months to obtain a death certificate, McFeeley said.
The shows also portray forensic pathologists as ũber crime fighters who routinely have all the answers.
«(The actors) know everything. They never have to go to a book, go to the literature,» McFeeley said.
To be fair, advances in technology – particularly in analyzing DNA evidence – have made forensic scientists formidable crime fighters, said Demris Lee, a forensic scientist for the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Rockville, Md.
«When DNA (studies) first started, you pretty much had to have a pool of blood to do a DNA profile. . . . Now you’re talking about getting a speck of blood off a bullet,» Lee said.
Investigators look for DNA in many other places, including saliva on a ski mask and skin cells on a gun handle or a cigarette butt.
In England, authorities are building a database of DNA samples from carjackers, Lee said. Recovered cars are routinely swabbed for skin cells sloughed off on steering wheels, door handles and other places.
However, DNA evidence won’t always crack a case.
«That’s one of the (fantastical) things with ‘CSI’ – they always know who they’re looking for,» Lee said. All the DNA in the world will do little good if investigators have no one to compare the evidence to, she said.
Still, the promise of science in the fight against crime captivates many people.
«I had someone call to ask me if I could detect who was in a room by taking an air sample,» Lee said. «You can’t do that.»
Ernest, the ballistics expert in Fort Worth, said he enjoys the shows so much that he bought four seasons of «CSI: Crime Scene Investigation» on DVD.
However, Houck said he makes a point of missing such programs.
«I can’t watch it,» he said. «If I do, I break out in hives. It just drives me crazy.»
By Bruce Lieberman