Investigating the Truth Behind CSI

Author:  Rebecca Straw

In a scene from the popular television show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, two forensic scientists carefully crawl across the floor of a dark room. Their tiny flashlights leave little pools of light on the floor as the scientists search for clues. After watching the scene, forensic scientist, real-life Max Houck, declares: “They always use flashlights. I don’t know why. I always turn on the lights.”

Houck, Director of the Forensic Science Initiative at West Virginia University, has been thinking about the reality behind the show CSI  and how it is changing the public’s attitudes toward forensic science. He and several other forensic scientists spoke at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference in Washington D.C. on February 20, 2005.

Just the Facts Behind CSI

 CSI depicts forensic scientists as sexy, crime-fighting detectives who happen to use microscopes. The show is based on science heavily flavored with Hollywood exaggeration.

“There is science behind each of these episodes but they use poetic license,” says Patricia McFeeley, the Assistant Chief Medical Investigator for New Mexico.

 “[Forensic science] is not about leather pants and driving a hummer,” Houck says. “It’s more about crawling under porches looking for body parts.”

The work, though interesting, can be tedious and time consuming.   When entering a crime scene, every detail must be documented.  Every bullet and cartridge case must be collected. Sometimes, forensic scientists spend a whole night processing a crime scene, and if many witnesses are involved, the processing may take weeks.

Once the evidence is gathered, the scientists examine it in the lab.  On the show, viewers are only shown a handful of scientists working on a case.   In reality, many different specialists, including ballistic specialists, trace evidence specialists, lab technicians and pathologists, will work on one case.

The smoking gun and other firearms from the crime scene belong to the ballistics specialists. These scientists spend hours collecting bullets, examining their cartridge cases and identifying their shoot paths, says Richard Ernest, a forensic scientist.

One CSI episode depicts the specialists recreating a gun fight through simple cartoon-like programs and comparing bullets fired in the lab to ones at the crime scene.  Actual forensic scientists conduct experiences similar to those shown.   Ballistic specialists frequently rely on programs and instruments like AutoCAD to determine the path of the bullets. These programs are not as simple or cartoon-like as the ones on the show, but they perform the same function.

While ballistic specialists discover bullet paths, the trace evidence specialists examine minute fragments for incriminating meanings. Trace evidence describes tiny particles that have been carried from one location to another, according to Houck. 

After observing the evidence, the scientist then use instruments like microscopes and computers. This work can be time consuming and can be dull.

“You wouldn’t want to watch someone do this,” says Houck.

These specialists search the evidence for anything that seems unusual.  For example, while Houck was examining the murder and rape of a nine-year old girl, he found a hair from a person’s torso.  The girl was too young to produce a hair like that, so Houck assumed that her attacker was an adult.  

While examining the evidence, the scientists must sort through volumes of excess information before making conclusions. A forensic scientist’s process of reconstructing a crime is like trying to determine what a person ate for breakfast based on a kitchen full of ingredients.

 “Look at all the stuff in your kitchen,” Houck said, “then look at the few things it would take for you to reconstruct your breakfast. For people [from the outside] to reconstruct your breakfast, it would take much longer.”


Lab Technicians Decode DNA  

Any evidence that needs to be examined for DNA will be sent to a lab technician, according to Demris Lee, the Technical Leader of the Nuclear DNA Section of the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory. The technicians perform tests at the request of others involved in the case, but make no conclusions about the crime.

 “Lab technicians do not solve the crimes,” says Lee

 Lab technicians frequently examine chemicals and DNA evidence left at the crime scene to identify the criminals. Many people expect that DNA can be gathered everywhere and that the DNA testing is foolproof.  This is not the case.  Sunlight and water can destroy DNA evidence.  Over time DNA can also degrade, making it useless.


Pathologists Discover Dead Men do Tell Tales

 In forensic science, the pathologist identifies the cause of death and examines the body. Though the investigators on CSI have constant access to a body, working pathologists do not.  A team of pathologists will examine a body only once.  Since they have a short period of time with the body, the pathologists conduct a complete autopsy, even if the cause of death is obvious.  The pathologists also photograph important parts of the body and refer to these photographs to refresh their memory for court appearances and to allow other pathologists to review their work.

Unlike the minimal protective gear in the television show, pathologists doing autopsies put on much more than a small facemask and some gloves.  An autopsy requires a full outfit of protective booties, scrubs, a gown, apron, eye protection, special masks, head covers and gloves that tie further up the arm.


The CSI Effect

Although inaccurate in some areas, the television show effectively introduces viewers to forensic science.

“[Viewers] get the flavor but not the tedium,” Houck said.

By introducing its viewers to forensic science, CSI and its spin-offs have shifted forensic science from an obscure and almost morbid corner of the science world into the public’s attention.

Since these television shows debuted, the public views forensic an exciting method of crime fighting. As the shows become more popular, the public’s interest in forensic science grows.   The viewers’ knowledge and opinion of forensic science have changed, creating a rippling of changes within the field.  This ripple is referred to this as the CSI effect.

Even the president is interested. In his State of the Union address, President George Bush encouraged Congress to fund his DNA Initiative program that would increase funding for research to use DNA to solve crimes.

“This field,” says Houck, “Is ripe for research.” 

The CSI effect has both positive and negative ramifications for universities teaching forensic science. Before the shows aired, West Virginia University’s forensics program graduated four students a year.  Four years later, the number has leaped to 400 students, according to Houck.

Many smaller universities have created their own forensic science programs.  In order to test the quality of these programs, the American Academy of Forensic Scientists created an accrediting program.  But due to the influx of students, limited jobs and lack of funding, graduating seniors may not find employment.

The CSI effect has also rippled through the legal system.  Jurors carry high expectations for forensic scientists.  They expect every piece of evidence to be tested even when testing is not necessary, according to Houck.  Many defense attorneys worry that jurors view forensic science as irrefutable, and prosecuting attorneys may now hesitate to use uncertain forensic evidence. Even police officers carry unrealistic expectations for forensic science. They believe that the scientists will solve the crime like the characters in the television show.

Houck encourages the forensic scientists to take advantage of their increased visibility as an opportunity

“Forensic science must grab the wheel and drive,” he says.  He hopes the CSI effect will cause advancements in research, more positions and more respect of the field.


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