Pathologists Say TV Forensics Creates Unrealistic Expectations
Jane Servais, a search and rescue K-9 handler for the mid-Atlantic region, and her Australian shepherd Glory
To watch the popular television show "CSI," you'd think forensic science was nearly infallible. A forensic pathologist extracts blood from a shirt, tests the DNA and matches the evidence to a suspect tracked with information provided by a hi-speed computer identity searchall in a "CSI" minute.
But for working pathologists, that's a significant problem. At the AAAS Annual Meeting Sunday in Washington D.C., some said they're seeing crime victims and jurors who have TV-fueled misconceptions of what evidence needs to be tested and how real-life investigations ought to be conducted.
"Common misperceptions include the idea that scientific testing is infallible and fast, and that the results alone can solve crimes," said Max M. Houck, director of the Forensic Science Initiative of the West Virginia University. "Prosecutors tend to fear the 'CSI Effect' on juries because the public has unrealistic expectations of what evidence needs to be tested."
Forensic, or physical, evidence usually includes DNA, fingerprints, matching bullets to a murder weapon, imprints of a suspect's shoes or any other samples that can tie a suspect to a crime scene.
Forensic science describes the science of associating people, places, and things involved in criminal activities; these scientific disciplines assist in investigating and adjudicating criminal and civil cases. The term describes scientists whose work answers questions for the courts through reports and testimony.
But forensic testing is expensive and not always cost-effective. Crime labs are backloggedespecially with requests for DNA analyseswhich means it could take days, if not weeks, for pathologists to sift through the evidence.
Patricia McFeeley, a forensic pathologist at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, explained that the survivors are often dissatisfied with the investigation into the death of a loved one, demanding more forensic evidence.
"The perception is that the medical examiner isn't doing all the things they see on TV. They expect toxicology results to be instantaneous, instead of taking months, which is the reality," McFeeley said. "They want everything to be tested at a crime scene when it is not warranted by the facts or by the fiscal realities of the lab."
Houck agreed. "People see science as a juggernaut of infallible evidence because of the increased popularity of television shows like 'CSI'," he said. "Television shows teach the public about forensic procedure and tests, but not when to apply them."
Forensics laboratories are feeling the pressure. Labs are overburdened and analysts struggle to meet the challenge, often expected to do much more than they are capable of doing. Additional funding is absolutely necessary to increase the efficiency of labs and to handle the growing amount of requests coming in, according to Houck.
"In this country," he said, "more money is spent on holistic medicine than on forensic science research."
Jane Servais, a search and rescue K-9 handler for the mid-Atlantic region, and her Australian shepherd Glory understand realistic expectations.
"The use of cadaver search dogs in crime scenes has drastically increased. The level of training has also stepped up in order to pinpoint tiny amounts of human decomposition," said Servais.
Servais and Glory have responded to more than 300 search missions involving lost persons, victims of foul play, and victims of drowningincluding a 12-day detail to the Pentagon in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terror attack.
21 February 2005