CSI Effect: Part One

By: Ashley Davidson
By: Ashley Davidson

Almost every night of the week the major television networks air hour-long programs depicting how crimes are solved. The shows are a hit with viewers and now a phenomenon known as the "CSI Effect" is impacting local police departments and the legal system. WBKO went to the state crime lab and talked with experts in forensic science about what they think.

As entertaining as the programs are, they are not scientifically accurate. All the experts we talked to say there was a particular episode that was so unrealistic they stopped watching altogether.

CSI now has three shows dedicated to solving a crime through the use of forensics. There's just one catch, they aren't true to life.

"To be sure they are dramas. And it's a form of forensic fantasy," says
John C. Hunsaker III, MD, JD, Associate Chief Medical Examiner for the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet.

In the real world, Dr. Hunsaker works to determine how the victim of a crime died by performing autopsies.

Hunsaker says: "That together with background and scene information is put together by various folks including the medical examiner to determine why the person died and how the person died."

On any given night there is a program on at least one of the major networks that let's viewers into the minds of homicide detectives, medical examiners, DNA experts, and others.

Edward Taylor is a Forensic Scientist Specialist in DNA. He says: "I guess on CSI the stars do both, investigative work as well as the laboratory analysis. In our world that's just not realistic. There's no such individual."

The glorified investigators are always able to track down a suspect and solve the crime within a day’s time, an illusion for real life DNA experts.

Taylor says: "Many of these cases require weeks and even months to analyze because of the number of exhibits we have to go through and identify what we consider to be valuable evidence and then forward it on to the DNA process. And then the DNA process itself takes several weeks to several months."

Last year Kentucky's Crime Lab received 1,350 cases and already this year they have 68 cases. Workers at the Kentucky's Justice and Public Safety Cabinet say they have their reason for not tuning in to the popular programs.

Matthew Clements is a Forensic Scientist Specialist in Firearms and Toolmarks. He says: "I used to until some of the subjects they came up with were so outlandish I couldn't sit there and watch it anymore."

In reality, Clements has worked on cases ranging from slightly strange to truly bizarre.

Clements says: "There are instances where suspects will take a firearm apart and scatter it or drop it in the river. Whatever they want to do to try to destroy the firearm."

When the actors who play agents on television make it look simple to identify a suspect by fingerprints they really are just acting.

Terry Lohrey is a Latent Fingerprint Analyst for Kentucky State Police. He says: "The recovery of latent print evidence is challenging. We deal with a broad variety of surfaces from rocks to bricks to paper items. Unfortunately TV portrays it's a very simple thing to pull a print from items. In fact, it's not."

When fingerprint analysts are able to pull a print they can get results back in as little as five minutes from anywhere in the state but even it is possible to have a false positive.

So the next time you turn on one of the "real life" crime investigations, think about what the experts say before you put too much faith in the program.

Hunsaker says: "I don't watch CSI much. I've seen a few episodes because I've got better things to do."

The biggest reason experts we spoke to say they don't watch is the accelerated time it takes to solve the crime. They say they have so many cases to work on there's no way it could ever be resolved that quickly.

Tomorrow you'll hear from a homicide detective on how they handle crime scenes and true-to-life methods for cracking a case.

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