Monday, March 31, 2008

Separating Fact from Fiction

by Andrea Campbell

Do you remember the television show "Qunicy, M.E."? It was a long time ago and I’d say that forensic science and crime-scene drama on television has increased twenty-fold since then. Even the primetime shows such as 20/20, Primetime, and 48 Hours
have gone to the crime drama format. And for good reason: we love a mystery, we love to see stories about desperate people, and we love to see some kind of resolution. The problem lies mainly with the last element, the resolution part. Since everything on the “tube” (or should I say flat screen now?) is wrapped up in these neat, 30-60-90 minute formats (not counting commercial breaks), it gives the impression that things went smoothly from discovery, to arrest, and subsequently to conviction. Wow! if only real-life crime and cases were that condensed, we’d have to think about other things, like crime prevention (a not-so-novel idea that gets short-shrift).

I give a talk called The CSI Effect: 7 Key Differences Between TV Crime Drama and Reality. It’s amusing and I even bring props, but the scary thing is, it’s true stuff. For time’s sake and word count in this article today, we’ll take just one element I address: manpower. Television, for the sake of simplicity, has taken the jobs of twenty or more real-life criminologists and law enforcement, and rolled them into a small cast of easily-recognizable characters, maybe four or five. Okay, if you are in Podunk hill country with a population of 900, you probably know all the characters you’re going to meet at a crime scene. Get into the average, medium-sized city, however, and there is a crowd! For starters, you’ve got the “first responders,” the patrolmen of the local police department who are dispatched to the scene because of a 911 call, when a citizen discovers a body. (Outdoors it could be a hunter, berry-picker or just someone in recreation.)

The police cordon off the area, and detectives (from the police department), and the M.E. or coroner will be alerted to show up. (The difference between a medical examiner and a coroner are: 1) education - the M.E. is a
doctor of pathology; 2) appointment vs. election - the coroner is an elected position and political in nature; and 3) jurisdiction - they can both pronounce death but if the manner is a suspicious death such as a homicide, suicide, or undetermined, the examination of the body at the morgue is generally done by a medically trained pathologist conducting an "autopsy.") Now most times a city has officers who are trained to collect evidence. They are called crime-scene techs, or criminalists, or any number of outfit names like CSU, crime-scene investigators, etc. Their job is to photograph the scene, collect evidence properly, and preserve chain of custody between the scene and the lab.

At the laboratory (in Arkansas we have a state crime lab), the evidence is brought in and given to lab evidence technicians at Intake, who log-in the materials, make sure the paperwork is sacrosanct, and then later, funnel it to the correct department for scientific analysis. All the while this is going on, the detectives are looking up information for identification purposes, notifying the families, conducting interviews, checking on reports and canvassing the neighborhood, if necessary, for witnesses, etc. Whew! A lot of things swirling around and many people have been linked to the scene per their own special job.

Why, if we count only those I’ve mentioned thus far, we could have between 10 to 12 people, and the evidence hasn't even begun to be processed forensically! Okay, so I’m running out of column inch here, but suffice it to say, that upwards of 20 to 30 people can eventually have touched this case in the capacity of their jobs—and the phones haven’t been silent this whole time because crime doesn’t wait for the first case to be finished. I know you get it, it’s just not something everyone thinks about when they consider the realities of working on a homicide, rape case, or other serious felony. So there’s something to think about when you watch TV.


Donna Pendergast said...

How true, how true. I always voire dire my juries on the "CSI Effect" (I even call it that as well) preparing them for the idea that real life is not like TV. A crime is not solved in an hour and many times you don't have forensic evidence like on TV. We are such a TV society that it makes it hard for prosecutors to obtain convictions when you don't have the kind of evidence that jurors see on TV. They expect to see what they see on TV. I always now also present "negative evidence"----in other words I put on the fingerprint expert etc even when there are no fingerprints or DNA or whatever to explain to a jury why fingerprints, trace evidence etc were not found and how common that is. I didn't used to do that years ago and of course the crime lab personnel hate it. It's expensive and consumes a lot of resources but unfortunately these days it needs to be done

Kathryn Casey said...

My favorite is that cool halogram facial reconstruction thingy on the Fox series "Bones." Wouldn't you just love to have one of those? Wow! I understand there are computer programs that use skull dimensions to reconstruct facial features, for departments large and flush enough to have them. But halograms with dead folks' floating heads? I don't think so...