LAW AND POPULAR CULTURE
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (CBS, 2000–present)
This fictional crime drama is set in Las Vegas, Nevada (although two spin-offs are set in other cities, one in Miami and one in New York). The original CSI series chronicles a team of forensic scientists who work for the Las Vegas Police Department. The series was originally set in Las Vegas because the city’s actual crime lab is one of the busiest in the United States. Although the television show has been wildly popular, it is widely criticized by law enforcement, forensic scientists, lawyers, and criminologists alike because it lacks any basis in reality. Consider these discrepancies between forensic fact and fiction.
• In reality, crime scene investigators certainly process crime scenes as the team on CSI does, but forensic experts do not engage in police activities like pursuing suspects, conducting interrogations, staging sting operations, conducting raids, and so on. “The actors playing forensic personnel portrayed on television, for instance, are an amalgam of police officer/ detective/forensic scientist—this job description does not exist in the real world. Law enforcement, investigations and forensic science are each sufficiently complex that they demand their own education, training and methods” (Houck 2006, para. 11).
• The crime laboratories on television have a dazzling array of forensic equipment and technology at their disposal. But some of the technologies that are depicted on CSI—upwards of 40 percent according to some experts— do not really exist (Houck). Real crime labs, on the other hand, are often understaffed and lack all of the scientific equipment they need. Moreover, very few crime laboratories can perform all types of forensic analyses, “whether because of cost, insufficient resources, or rare demand” (Houck, para. 12).
• On CSI, a handful of forensic personnel possess an incredible range of scientific expertise. In real crime labs, however, different types of forensic examinations are performed by specialists in the given forensic subfi eld.
• The CSI investigators are seemingly able to lift fingerprints off of almost anything. In reality, prints can be lifted off of only certain surfaces under certain conditions. Moreover, on CSI, the prints are uploaded into a computer database and a screen nearly instantly appears with a photo of the person to whom the fingerprint belongs. In reality, many latent fingerprints lifted from crime scenes are not good enough to use for identification purposes. But even when a set of prints can be run through IAFIS (the FBI’s integrated Automatic Fingerprint Identification System), the computerized database provides a list of potential matches. This process is not instantaneous; it typically takes up to two hours (FBI 2008). And while IAFIS has the capacity to store and distribute photos, it does not provide pop-up photographic identifications when a set of fingerprints is potentially matched. A human trained in fingerprint comparison must then compare the latent prints with a set of known exemplars.
• On CSI, crime-scene evidence is tested immediately, resulting in cases being solved quickly and efficiently. Real crime labs across the United States are seriously backlogged, contributing to between 400 to 1,000 cases going unsolved in each U.S. jurisdiction.
• DNA solves many cases on CSI. But evidence on which DNA tests can be run is recovered in only about 10 percent of criminal cases (Garrett 2008). And even when there is evidence to test, the results take several days at best (often several weeks), not the mere minutes in which genetic tests are run on CSI. Most importantly, DNA is not infallible even though CSI presents DNA results as 100 percent foolproof.
• CSI routinely overstates the probative value of forensic evidence. “In one episode, for example, investigators perform a remarkable ‘reverse algorithm and enhancement’ of an audiotaped ransom demand. Using a spectrograph to match the sound waves from the ransom recording to those from a different voice recording, they are able to conclusively identify the kidnapper” ( Tyler 2006, p. 1070). While this makes for great fiction, the shortcomings of voice identification are legion, as current technology simply cannot “conclusively identify” a voice to the exclusion of others.
1. Recall from the text of this chapter that several common forensic techniques may be unreliable or prone to either high or unknown error rates. Why do you think that CSI presents its storylines in terms of scientific fact rather than exploring the indeterminate nature of several forensic techniques?
2. Were you aware of all of the above differences between forensic fact and forensic science- fiction? If so, how did you learn of the reality? If not, what is your opinion of the show now that you know more about the truth?
3. As you know from reading this chapter, CSI and other shows like it, such as Bones, Crossing Jordan, and Cold Case, may have affected jurors’ expectations in real criminal trials, a phenomenon referred to as the “CSI Effect.” What effect do you think forensically based shows like CSI have on criminals? Do you think these shows have influenced how they commit some crimes? Why or why not?