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Friday, September 16, 2005

CSI makes it difficult for prosecutors and police

Friday, September 16, 2005

A glance at the September 10 issue of New Scientist: TV forensics and the real thing

Television programs such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation have raised enrollments in college forensics courses, but they have also made it more difficult for police investigators and prosecutors to convict criminals.

So concludes Peter Bull, a forensic sedimentologist at the University of Oxford, according to Rowan Hooper, a reporter. Mr. Bull has found that the television shows have convinced many jurors that forensic evidence should be ironclad, so that they "are not impressed with evidence presented in cautious scientific terms," Mr. Hooper reports.

Even law-enforcement officials, he says, have come to hold unrealistic expectations of the certainty of forensic evidence and of the speed with which it can be developed.

The TV programs also are making some forensics experts loath to cooperate with news-media and entertainment programmers, out of a fear that their expertise "informs criminals of the techniques the police employ to catch them," Mr. Hooper writes. So, for example, criminals increasingly don rubber gloves during break-ins, wear condoms during rapes, and dump cigarettes into stolen cars to confuse investigators about who has been in the vehicles.

The good news, one expert tells Mr. Hooper, is that skilled, patient investigators still are able to identify suspects because "it is extremely difficult not to contaminate a crime scene." Only a few moments' presence in a room is enough to contaminate it, and investigators have many tools to pursue that evidence, so that even a skilled forensics expert would be hard-pressed to conceal his presence, Mr. Bull tells Mr. Hooper.

"If you want to commit the perfect murder," Mr. Bull says, "there's one thing I'll ask you: 'Do you feel lucky, punk?'"

The article, "Television Shows Scramble Forensic Evidence," is online at