Forensic science can make for great television as evidenced by popular crime shows such as “CSI” and its subsequent exponentially growing spinoffs “CSI: Miami,” “CSI: New York,” “CSI: The Moon” and “CSI: The Edge of the Known Universe” (the audience really hasn’t developed for that last one and hopefully the network will give it time to grow).
As these and other shows like it become more ingrained in popular culture and embedded in the eyeballs and brains of people who watch them, the plot gaps and misconceptions that the writers cover over and write through to make the episodes more seamless and linear than they actually would be if they were investigating an actual crime. There are a billion tiny scientific boo-boos and mistakes that these TV shows make, but there seem to be five major mistakes that the show keep making over and over and over again.
Forensic scientists are also licensed law enforcement personnel
The scientists on these shows aren’t just ultra-cool nerds who skirt sexual-harassment office statutes and put perps in steel cages by identifying bodily fluids with matching DNA strands. They also have badges and guns that give them carte-blanche to get into any place they deem to be a crime scene, just upping their cool factor for the audience.
What’s the Truth?
In the real world, most forensic science experts who work in crime labs or do scientific processing and analysis for police departments don’t have any law enforcement credentials whatsoever, which means if they tried to use a badge or a gun in the field, they would be investigating their own felonious crimes. That also would be in and of itself a crime (interfering with a police investigation) on top of a crime (impersonating a police officer) and would require another forensic team to investigate it.
Toxicology reports take less than a second to complete
The team is up against a ticking time clock against either some bloodthirsty madman who has turned the fragility of human life into their own twisted game or a worldly defendant who plans to flee the country in a matter of hours on his private jet, even though he’s been ordered by police not to even leave the bathroom of his own house. Every precious second means the detectives need solid scientific evidence processed efficiently and within the blink of an eye, they get the proof they need from the scientific results they processed.
What’s the Truth?
Real toxicology tests take on an average of four to six weeks per case. Toxicology and other scientific processed reports actually take quite a long time to efficiently process. Fluids taken from a body during an autopsy are sent to a lab for processing, usually one that already has a fair number of bodily fluids waiting in line ahead of it to be tested. Most times, once the specimen is received and processed, more samples are needed to confirm the previous testing.
Science is infallible
Police detectives have been grilling a suspect for hours but they just won’t budge. The coppers need a closer to put this scumsucker away for longer than a newlywed couple keeps a third-rate blender from their Aunt Melba in their attic. The detective calls in a member of the “CSI” team who claims they have definitive scientific evidence that not even God himself could deny. They walk right up to the perp with a plastic envelope and the evidence in hand, throw it right in their face and use the awesome power of biological science and physics to reduce them to a blubbering mess of crying confessions.
What’s the Truth?
Beyond the mistaken belief that a science major can reduce any man to grown tears let alone a slight sense of fear for their well-being, science is also not the end-all and be-all of any criminal investigation. Sure scientific evidence such as DNA and fingerprints can swing detectives towards a certain suspect and eliminate others, but nothing in science is definite and unprovable. Even if the odds are 1 in 1,000,000 that the evidence obtained through scientific means that it is wrong, there still exists evidence that can fit into the “1” column and can therefore swing an investigation completely on its head. So science is not the definitive answer to any criminal investigation.
The testing is always accurate
The scientists in the crime lab aren’t your typical cops. They don’t live in office areas that are caked by years of cigarette smoking, spilled coffee and donut residue. They work in pristine environments to ensure that none of the samples being tested are tampered with or infected with foreign agents or particles. This attention to detail shows in every perfect report that they throw on their boss’ desk before heading out to celebrate their big win with drinks and a high-five freeze as the credits roll.
What’s the Truth?
In reality, scientists might have more attention to detail and a head for the kind of information that would make most cops wish they have gone into the easy going world of mall security but they are still human, and humans always make mistakes. Testing samples can degrade over time, sometimes even in the time is take to test them properly. Tests don’t always offer conclusive results. Sometimes, lab technicians make flat out, dumb mistakes that can totally cock up an investigation from a scientific point-of-view. Nothing, not even science, runs so perfect.