Saturday, December 10, 2011

D.P.Lyle: The CSI Effect

We are pleased to have D. P. Lyle, MD as our guest today. He's the friend of mystery writers everywhere because he helps us murder our fictional victims with poisons, bludgeon them with blunt instruments, stab them, shoot them, or just find them in their different states of decomposition. He'll tell us what the body looks like when frozen in a lake, burnt in a building, or buried in a shallow grave.

He's also the Macavity Award winning and Edgar
Award nominated author of the non-fiction books, MURDER & MAYHEM, FORENSICS FOR DUMMIES, FORENSICS & FICTION, FORENSICS & FICTION 2, and HOWDUNNIT: FORENSICS as well as the Samantha Cody thrillers DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND and DOUBLE BLIND, the Dub Walker Thrillers STRESS FRACTURE and HOT LIGHTS, COLD STEEL, and the media tie-in novels ROYAL PAINS: FIRST, DO NO HARM and ROYAL PAINS: SICK RICH based on the hit TV series. His essay on Jules Verne’s THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND appears in THRILLERS: 100 MUST READS.

He has worked with many novelists and with the writers of popular television shows such as Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Peacemakers, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, 1-800-Missing, The Glades, and Pretty Little Liars. And here he is to tell us about the CSI Effect.

You’ve no doubt heard of the CSI Effect but what exactly is it? Does it actually exist? Both the definition and whether it is real or not are controversial with experts weighing in on both sides of the issue.

It derives from the many forensic science shows, both fictional and documentary-style, that populate/dominate the TV schedule. Many point to the CBS series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation as the beginning of the effect, which then expanded with the appearance of the “CSI clones” and shows such as Bones, NCIS, Cold Case, and Forensic Files. It’s impossible to flip on the TV without seeing some crime show and forensic science is invariably part of the story. The same goes for most mysteries and thrillers you read and virtually every real-life case you see presented on national or local news.

The CSI Effect could be defined as the impact of these shows, which reveal cool and clever forensic science techniques, on the public, criminals, law enforcement officials, juries, and courts. They have created a level of expectation that simply isn’t realistic. They portray crime labs as being fully equipped with very expensive instruments and staffed with brilliant minds that magically uncover the most esoteric evidence. They make the very rare seem almost commonplace. They suggest that all these wonderful tools are widely available and frequently employed in criminal cases. The truth is vastly different. DNA is involved in perhaps 1% of cases and it isn’t available in 20 minutes. Crime labs are severely underfunded and most have meager equipment, not the plasma screens and holographic generators seen on TV. The lab techs are indeed smart and dedicated individuals but they aren’t prescient. They can’t magically solve complex crimes by simply “seeing” the solution in a microscope or within their minds. It doesn’t work that way. At least not often.

So how does all this information---or is it misinformation?--effect the public, criminals, and the police and courts? Simply put, they teach criminals how to avoid leaving behind evidence and unrealistically raise public expectations.

Criminals watch these TV shows and then alter their behavior to avoid detection. They learn not to leave behind fingerprints and DNA, to hide from surveillance cameras, to avoid using cellphones and computers in the planning and execution of their crimes, and a host of other things. Fortunately, these shows are not always accurate and don’t cover all contingencies involved in a given criminal activity, proving the old adage that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. The criminal thinks he has thought of everything but while he focuses on one bit of evidence he ignores others. An example would be the thief who planned a breaking and entering home robbery. He knew that shoe prints could be left in the soft dirt of the planter beneath his entry point window so he took off his shoes. He then realized he had not brought gloves, so to prevent leaving fingerprints, he removed his socks and used them as hand covers. The crime was interrupted by the home owner, an altercation with blood shed followed, and the thief left a bloody footprint on a piece of broken window glass. This proved to be his undoing.

The public, and thus jury members, comes away from these shows believing that high-tech investigations are involved in every case and if the police or prosecutors fail to make DNA or blood analysis part of the case they must have done something wrong. Defense attorneys often latch on to this and use it to undermine the police investigation. During the famous Scott Peterson case, how many times did you hear news reports and pundits talk about the lack of DNA evidence as if this made the case weak? In truth, finding Laci’s blood or DNA on Scott or his clothing would be of little help. They were married, they lived together, there were a hundred innocent reasons for Laci’s DNA to be found. Scott’s conviction stemmed from his stupidity, and the fact that he was guilty, not from high-tech forensic techniques, underlining the fact that most cases are solved by good police work and not by cool science.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, juries wanted confessions and eyewitnesses, both of which we now know can be false and erroneous. Now, after the saturation of our psyche with forensic sciences, they expect DNA and other sophisticated evidence. This not only makes gaining a conviction more difficult but also gives prosecutors pause before filing charges in cases without such evidence.

So, it can be said that the CSI Effect alters the criminal justice system in many ways. It helps criminals avoid detection, creates unrealistic expectations in the public and in juries, and makes prosecution of some crimes problematic. But there are positive aspects in that this increased interest in forensic science has led to more people choosing this as a career and indeed the number of colleges offering forensic science curricula and degrees has mushroomed.

Thank you, Doug. See more about him at his website and his blog:


Sheila Connolly said...

Good to see you here, Doug! You provide a great service to writers--we at least can get the details right.

One odd question: we know that often a trial does not take place until months or even years after the crime has been committed. Does that synch with the speed of the slow forensic labs? Is a trial ever delayed to allow the lab to catch up with processing the evidence, or is setting a court date an entirely separate process?

D. P. Lyle, MD said...

The timing of the trial once it is decided that case will go to trial is up to the judge and when he can get it on his docket. Motions of all types from both sides weigh into this decision. The crime lab delays often impact whether something is going to go to trial or not. Maybe the DA is waiting on DNA results to see if he even has a case before he files charges. This could take months in a back-logged lab and in turn delay scheduling a trial.

D. P. Lyle, MD said...

The timing of the trial once it is decided that case will go to trial is up to the judge and when he can get it on his docket. Motions of all types from both sides weigh into this decision. The crime lab delays often impact whether something is going to go to trial or not. Maybe the DA is waiting on DNA results to see if he even has a case before he files charges. This could take months in a back-logged lab and in turn delay scheduling a trial.

Melinda said...

I saw Anthony Zuiker speak at Screenwriting Expo a couple years ago and he pretty much the same thing about unrealistic jury expectations and more knowledgeable criminals. He made it sound like law enforcement wasn't particularly thrilled with him.

LRHunter said...

Thank you so much for your post, Dr. Lyle. I've never seen these programs, but have heard about them and have worried about them for the same reason that I worry about the evening news.

Making criminals smarter. Letting the enemy know all our methods of detection.

I'm just sitting here wondering how I would process the information given/refuted during a trial, if I were to be picked for a jury. I'm not at all sure.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Sheila, criminal trials are all subject to the speedy trial requirement of the Constitution. It's not uncommon for a crime lab to bump a case up in its queue because a trial date is approaching, particularly if the defendant does not waive the right to a speedy trial. Of course, that means tests in other cases get delayed further.

jenny milchman said...

I remember getting a critique on my ms from a fellow writer about a kidnapping scene. The writer said, "We know how crucial it is to collect evidence immediately following a crime, so I can't believe police would just do nothing at first." I explained that an adult isn't even considered missing for 48 hours after a disappearance when there is no sign of foul play--but this was definitely a CSI effect! Thanks for the post.