Forensics and the CSI Effect

As we all know, a job in forensic science allows you to interrogate criminals, use guns and solve all crimes using sparkly, high tech machines… Right? Well, some of the 20.4 million weekly viewers of programmes such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigations might say yes, but in reality a career in forensic science is more specialised and less glamorous than these shows make out. Unfortunately, shows such as CSI, Waking the Dead and Silent Witness have had an impact on the public’s view of forensic science. The question is: are people able to distinguish science fact from science fiction? 

The glamorisation of forensic science by TV programs has been termed “the CSI effect”. Forensics is shown as fast paced super science but in reality it has been estimated that about 40% of the science in CSI doesn’t exist. On top of this, all of the characters in CSI are profcient in multiple areas of forensic science which is unusual for forensic scientists in the real world. Usually, a forensic scientist would specialise in one type of crime and have the forensic skills necessary to solve it. For example: crimes against property such as arson are best suited to chemists. According to the Forensic Science Services, there are 5 areas of forensic science which are split in to 9-10 specific services. For instance, in the area of “Analytical Solutions”you can find services such as blood pattern analysis, drugs and toxicology. Forensic science courses at university can often help students decide which area to specialise in.

The number of forensic science undergraduates has increased dramatically since the showing of shows like CSI. In 1999, four forensic science undergrads graduated from West Virginia University but by 2004 that number had increased to 400 students. In the UK, with over 100 forensic courses available, 8,685 undergraduates and postgraduates are studying forensic science. The forensic science courses available in the UK are said to be of high quality with low employability. Employment after studying a degree in Forensic Science is often difficult to find. Employers often discover gaps in undergraduates’ technical skills such as depth of basic scientific knowledge and evidence recovery. They have also been describes as lacking in communication skills, understanding the integrity of evidence and IT skills. Employers usually prefer applicants to have a degree in pure science, such as chemistry, followed by a Masters in Forensic Science.

There is evidence the “CSI effect” also has an impact in court. Juries often do not convict criminals in cases where the forensic techniques they see in TV shows are not employed. For example, in one case a bag of drugs was thrown down by a defendant and it was not fingerprinted due to a backlog of 6 months for forensic testing. The jury complained after the trial that the bag could have been there all along as there was no forensic evidence, ignoring an eyewitness who saw the defendant throw down the bag. Forensic analyses which are expensive, time consuming and requiring a great deal of money and patience are often requested by juries. For instance, in the case of the Night Stalker (aka Richard Ramirez), scientists spent 2 years analyzing forensic evidence in order to present it in court. This demand has placed an extra burden on the prosecution as well as the defence. Jurors should be reminded forensic evidence isn’t usually overwhelming or definitive, and that science is fallible and should not be relied on so heavily.

The influence of Silent Witness and CSI has even caused a change in behaviour of criminals and victims. Some criminals have taken to wearing plastic gloves for burglaries, condoms in rape cases and leaving cigarette butts from the street in cars to confuse the police as to who was involved. In the case of Lance Corporal Jonathan Hayes, a rapist committing his crimes in Wiltshire and South Wales, he made his victims clean themselves with towels to remove evidence. He was eventually caught after one of his victims spat on his car seat and pulled out some of her hair to leave in the car. The girl in question said that she remembered the forensic evidence often seen on shows like CSI so she knew what to do.

Shows like CSI, Waking the Dead and Silent Witness are fun, successful and interesting. They may inspire the public to learn more about science, but at the end of the day we shouldn’t believe everything we see on TV.

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