"'CSI' Effect" Is Mixed Blessing for Real Crime Labs

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Jay Siegel used to run the Michigan State program and now heads a new undergraduate forensic-science program at Indiana-Purdue University in Indianapolis. He says the field is so competitive that it attracts the very brightest students, though many come with unreasonable expectations.

"A lot of them have watched CSI and say, 'That's what I want to do, go to crime scenes and collect evidence, analyze it, and confront [the criminals] and testify in court,'" Siegel said. "But no one does all of those things in real life, so people have to be disabused of these expectations."

Gadgetry

While the cool technology in the CSI crime lab sometimes seems lifted out of Star Trek, real-world experts say the equipment used on the shows is firmly rooted in reality.

"The gadgetry that you see on TV is very close to what we have in real life," said Dean Gialamas, the director of the forensics laboratory at the Orange County Sheriff-Coroner Department in Santa Ana, California. "The major difference is the application of some of that technology."

For example, on CSI, a computer automatically matches fingerprints to those in its database. But in real life, scientists must perform such detailed work. And while DNA testing on the show is instant, in real life it takes at least a week.

There have been some obvious errors. In one episode during the first CSI season, scientists put a casting material into a stab wound and let it harden. When they pulled it out, the cast was in the shape of a knife.

"That's totally unrealistic," Gialamas said.

Real-life investigations, of course, take a lot longer than they do on television.

"We don't show any of the immense amount of documentation that has to be done in the field," said Devine, the CSI producer. "Nobody wants to see someone sitting at their desk taking notes."

Real-life forensic scientists are also often too busy to focus on a single case.

Take, for example, the L.A. County Sheriff's Office, the largest sheriff's office in the United States. It handles more than 50,000 cases involving forensic evidence per year. A crime lab in Downey, south of Los Angeles, handles about 70 percent of the cases—those involving narcotics and alcohol.

The rest of the cases, including major crimes such as homicide and rape, are handled in a nondescript building on the edge of downtown Los Angeles. Here, scientists analyze a wide array of forensic evidence, from firearms and explosives to fingerprints, hair, and fiber.

The workload is so severe that forensic scientists may work two dozen cases at the same time, though there are exceptions. Two scientists spent two years solely on the case of Richard Ramirez, also known as the Nightstalker, a serial killer who stabbed, shot, raped, and tortured dozens of victims in southern California in the mid-1980s.

But improved technology, such as DNA testing and advanced databases, has helped scientists in their crime-solving quest. Forensic experts from the L.A. County Sheriff's Office recently solved a 20-year-old homicide by identifying the DNA in a piece of hair.

The Big Picture

So what makes a great forensic scientist?

"Strong technical competency, first of all," said Harley Sagara, an assistant director at the L.A. County crime lab. "But [he or she] should also be open-minded and have the ability to analyze the big picture and test an hypothesis."

Forensic scientists must also be able to explain their science. Sagara, who has more than 30 years of field experience, says he has given 300 to 400 court testimonies. Others have testified more than a thousand times.

The field is still dominated by men, who run 75 percent of U.S. crime labs. But that may be changing. The vast majority of students applying to university forensic-science programs are now women.

Devine, the CSI producer, says she would recommend the forensic-science field to anyone.

"I loved the crime scenes, I loved the challenge, and I loved the puzzle," she said. "It's a fantastic job."

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