The Forensics of the Night: A Closer Look at the CSI Effect by a Forensic Microscopist
The tenth season of the television drama series, C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation (C.S.I.) began on CBS September 24, 2009. Although I didn’t watch it, and haven’t watched for years, the promos lead me to believe that season 10 would be exciting for the general viewing public, but not particularly interesting to a forensic scientist.
Nevertheless, C.S.I and its spinoffs have been so influential on the public’s view of forensic science that it has even received its own name: the CSI Effect. The CSI Effect has also had a remarkable effect on the practice of forensic science, public policy, the educational interests of our young people and, therefore, my own career. It all started unexpectedly with the trial of O.J. Simpson.
Court TV (now TruTV)
Although the nature of Court TV has changed recently and expanded into a variety of other crime-related reality shows, it was conceived as the first and only network dedicated exclusively to courtroom trial coverage. In November 1991, Court TV provided live coverage of the trial of William Kennedy Smith, who was accused of raping a woman at the Kennedy family compound in West Palm Beach, Florida—obviously a trial with tremendous public appeal. In its 4th year (1995) Court TV came into its own during the O. J. Simpson trial and fixed the public’s interest forever on forensic science.
The CSI Effect germinated and, for the first time, publicly revealed the use of DNA evidence. Unfortunately for microscopists, DNA became synonymous with forensic science, and trace evidence was left behind, by both crime scene investigators and by laboratory managers. Before OJ, when asked what I did for a living and I said I am a forensic scientist or criminalist, blank stares would follow (sometimes a question about Quincy)—after OJ, they wanted to talk more about it. Now, I can even mention that I am a forensic microscopist and not get ignored. The interest in forensic science has been sustained by television programs depicting other real cases, such as Forensic Files, Cold Case Files, The New Detectives, and American Justice.
C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation
With growing interest in Court TV, DNA and forensic science in general, prime time network crime dramas rejoined the evening lineup just prior to the millennium; the first and most interesting was C.S.I. Regardless of the truth or fiction in these dramas, the public’s expectations were raised. The viewing public expected forensic science in the crime dramas.
Today, all crime dramas contain C.S.I.-like forensic science and everyone is talking forensic science around the water cooler even if only to remark about the ridiculousness of David Caruso’s character, the crime lab director on C.S.I. Miami.
To better understand why C.S.I. has had such a remarkable effect on my own career of late, I bought the DVDs of the first three years and watched many of the episodes again. The first episodes reveal, in the darkness of the night shift, the strong forces that caused the CSI Effect.
The Mystery of the Night
Immediately when you watch an episode of C.S.I., the setting and music is mysterious and seductive, punctuated by the money, sex, and glitz of the Las Vegas strip. The film noir videography most often uses low-key and cameo lighting with no fill lighting, leaving the background a mystery.
I found it quite different than another series that delighted me previously, Hill Street Blues. Hill Street Blues was filled with hilarious police activities in the background. The film noir of C.S.I. leads the viewer into the new world of forensic science in an irresistible way. It calls to mind the lyrics from Phantom of the Opera:
Night-time sharpens, heightens each sensation
Darkness stirs and wakes imagination
Silently the senses abandon their defenses
Helpless to resist the notes I write
For I compose the music of the night.
Let your mind start a journey through a strange, new world!
Leave all thoughts of the world you knew before!
Let your soul take you where you long to be!
Only then can you belong to me
Close your eyes, let the music set you free.
[Phantom of the Opera, “The Music of the Night” by Andrew Lloyd Webber]
Having worked many nights processing major crime scenes in and around Flint, Michigan, I understand the feeling: the liveliness of the nighttime city streets when and where crime occurs is replaced by the quietness and tranquility of the suburban streets in the early morning hours on the way home, when the job is done.
Who are You?
Well, who are you? (Who are you? Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh.)
I really wanna know (Who are you? Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh.)
Tell me, who are you? (Who are you? Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh.)
‘Cause I really wanna know (Who are you? Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh.)
[C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation, “Who Are You?” by The Who—Pete Townshend]
The intrigued viewer wants to know, and what they see and hear is who they want to be. Now, everybody wants to be a forensic scientist; it’s due to the CSI Effect. Who is the professional who claims he is a criminalist? He often tells the viewer exactly who he is with his collection of reference specimens in his laboratory, the ever-present microscope, his wide range of knowledge about things microscopical, and the forensic philosophy he imparts.
Although he has no other life outside of his expertise in all matters microscopical, Gil Grissom (actor William Petersen) periodically offers up some sensible and wise forensic philosophy that will ring true with forensic scientists:
- “Shortest distance between two points is science”
- “Every case teaches you something about the next”
- “Everything you encounter is a singular occasion that can never occur again”
- “I tend not to believe people, people lie”
- “We chase the lie ‘til it leads to the truth”
- “The answer is usually in the question”
- “We need to listen to all the evidence, anything less is reasonable doubt”
- “Sometimes it’s all about what didn’t happen”
- “You don’t crunch evidence to fit a theory”
- “Confused is the best place for a scientist to be”
- “If you want to go fast, go slow”
- “The more the why, the less the how; the more the how, the less the why”
- “A case has no face”
- “The innocent man: the jail is full of them, but it only takes one”
- “I’ll take your case; I don’t know if I’m going to help your case or not”
As interesting as the criminalists on the night shift seem, their jobs are not at all like real criminalists. The main difference is that real criminalists do not interview victims and witnesses and interrogate suspects (detective work). C.S.I even has its criminalists conduct medical examinations and notify next of kin. On the other hand, the combination of crime scene investigator (CSI) and crime lab analyst is not uncommon, as forensic scientists sometimes assist the police with the scientific investigation at major crime scenes. The operative word here is ‘scientific’; many crime scenes need to be investigated scientifically by scientists.
For a more realistic account of the life of a crime scene investigator, read Never Suck a Dead Man’s Hand by Dana Kollman, an irreverent autobiography of a real CSI. When you have been there and done that, it’s hilarious.
Crime Scene Protection
In most episodes, people of all sorts are seen standing around the crime scene like a herd of buffalo. In C.S.I. crime scenes, in addition to the hit parade (police chiefs, coroners, detectives and district attorneys) having a look, the crowd often includes victims, witnesses, and suspects, which is totally unacceptable to forensic scientists. Often the analyses on TV are conducted right in front of the crowd.
The protection of a crime scene from contamination is not a new problem; it occurs much too frequently in real cases. Crime scenes need to be treated like a frozen section in time: nothing added to the crime scene, nothing inadvertently taken from the crime scene, and nothing disturbed until ready.
Because of our success in Michigan in the use of footwear impressions as evidence, C.S.I.’s interest in this evidence impressed me. Footwear evidence is often the most overlooked clue, even though it is virtually impossible to commit a crime without leaving such evidence. Perpetrators must always enter a crime scene, do something, and leave again. Unless they levitate, they will need to walk in and out, thereby leaving impression evidence.
As a forensic scientist, I am often irritated by the fictional portrayal of really good forensic evidence—by C.S.I.’s half-truths. The series started slowly by using commonplace trace evidence including blood, semen, hairs, fibers, fingerprints and bullets, although the pilot episode included a comparison of a piece of toenail found in a discarded shoe at the crime scene with the suspect’s toenail. Although less common than other types of trace evidence, I reported on a fingernail match some 30 years ago. [“A Fingernail Identification,” AFTE Journal, 12 (1980), 27; Identification News, XXX (1980)] A physical match of a leg also is a little unusual, but I had one of those cases once too. By the fourth episode, the 13 STR (short tandem repeat) markers of DNA were introduced to viewers. C.S.I.’s writers tried really hard in the beginning to portray reality.
Nevertheless, no matter the expert advice from their technical consultants and how hard they tried, they more often than not missed the mark by the time the episode aired. They usually ignored my advice too, although I received a couple of nice C.S.I. ball caps for my efforts. Here are some examples of forensic foolishness.
In episode 103, Crate and Burial, when all else was exhausted, the unit turned to voice prints to solve the crime. That was novel and will strike the fancy of viewers. Only those few forensic scientists who had actually been involved with voice prints at one time in their career would know that the voice spectrum shown was not any such thing. The writers interjected two simple sine wave graphs and overlaid them for a match. A real voice spectrum would not be so easily matched.
Episode 110, Sex, Lies and Larvae, started all right with the usual finding of a body (all C.S.I. episodes start with finding a body; I always wanted to find a body) and the collection of two samples of maggots, one preserved in hot coffee (alcohol is usually used for that purpose) and the other allowed to mature in a jar with beef jerky. But, when explained that the time of death can be calculated backwards given the known time required for the particular fly species to mature, they tried to make it sound more scientific with: “We used linear regression to count the hours backward.” Well, it sounds good, but it had nothing to do with linear regression.
An interesting art theft case was also portrayed in the same episode. Two types of physical evidence were used. An ear print was detected near the stolen piece of art. Like a case I had, the ear prints were on the wall in order for the culprit to listen through the wall. [“Trace Evidence,” Spitz and Fisher’s Medicolegal Investigation of Death, 4th Edition, edited by Werner U. Spitz (Charles C. Thomas, 2006)] The fiction occurred when the prints were compared on the spot, at the crime scene, with the principals gathered around, and a match proclaimed. The writers did not stop there.
Art forgeries are often detected because pigments used in a painting were not available to the artist at the time the piece was alleged to have been painted. McCrone Associates has a long and remarkable history of debunking old masters’ works by identifying titanium white (TiO2) in the paint. TiO2 artist pigments were not available before about 1920.
The C.S.I. case was not unlike a case at McCrone Associates where the culprit removed the art on the wall, copied it, and returned copies to the wall, thereafter selling the originals for a considerable sum. The criminalist in C.S.I. proclaimed: “Titanium was not used before 1960 (note the wrong year). If titanium was used in this painting, it will fluoresce in the painting. If it fluoresces, it is a fake.” Well, titanium white pigment does not fluoresce and it is not identified in the painting by viewing with a black light. It is identified by polarized light microscopy or electron microscopy.
Episode 301. The Accused is Entitled, was remarkable because it refreshed my memory of the O. J. Simpson trial. The defense tactics mimicked those actually used by the dream team. The tactics included:
- Co-examination of evidence with defense experts present at all stages
- Requesting a speedy preliminary hearing in the hopes that the crime laboratory could not get the analyses done in time
- An all out attack on the collection of the evidence and the chain of custody
- A claim of contamination of the blood samples
- Revealing personal matters of the criminalists (medical histories and gambling habits) and suspicious relationships in order to discredit their testimony
- Discovery of disputed proficiency test results
- Subpoena of criminalists’ clothing worn during the crime scene investigation
The CSI was truly on trial just as in the O. J. Simpson trial. I wonder where the writers got the screenplay.
As the writers attempted to increase the gore in the third season, they tried too hard. Episode 302, Revenge is Best Served Cold, included fictional scenes from an autopsy. In order to make it more believable that the viewers were actually watching the cutting of the corpse in order to deflect the scalp to inspect the skull, the pathologist pretended to cut a line across the deceased’s forehead and a bead of blood droplets marked the line, suggesting to the viewers that the pathologist was really making the cut. Later in the scene, the bone saw used to open the chest cavity produced a shower of blood which spatters onto the CSI. Well, dead bodies don’t bleed and I have never seen a pathologist’s bone saw produce blood spatter, because the blood accumulates in the bottom of the body cavity due to gravity. Finally, the bullet was extracted from the skull with needle nose pliers. Oh my! That was about the time I quit watching C.S.I.
It’s a Match
Although half-truths about forensic science are irritating enough to the forensic scientist, two misconceptions have done the most to raise the unreasonable expectations of the CSI Effect: “It’s a Match” and the fast turn-around time.
In virtually every episode, one of the CSIs would make a comparison and proclaim: “It’s a match.” Most agree that the word “match” connotes too positive of a conclusion for most forensic comparisons, although by definition it is the correct word. Science is seldom that positive and particularly science done in a few seconds in front of the camera. Nevertheless, due to the poetic license of C.S.I. writers, the public now expects all forensic science to be that easy and that exact. I believe that most jurors convert all evidence into a binary code—match or no match, regardless of the explanation given by the expert witness and the arguments offered up by the attorneys. Due to the CSI Effect, attorneys have been sensitized to the word match when referring to an association based on a comparison. The prosecutors use it and the defense attorneys object.
Like all science, forensic science is provisional: scientific research is cumulative, and findings are based on the latest evidence. In episode 305, Execution of Catherine Willows, a hair match completed 15 years earlier became the bone of contention in an exoneration case, not unlike The Innocence Project cases on which I have consulted, like the case described by John Grisham in The Innocent Man. The hair match was being reevaluated with mitochondrial DNA analysis (mtDNA). In the end, the mtDNA confirmed the microscopical match and the writers got the mtDNA explanations right too. Now, that was interesting.
The most common criticism of the real forensic laboratory is the slow turn-around-time. All clients want results that are faster, cheaper and unequivocal. Thus it’s not surprising that the most common criticism of C.S.I. from forensic scientists is the fast turnaround time.
Forensic scientists know that to complete a scientific study of the evidence requires a considerable investment in time. The fictional CSIs finish their study in a few seconds right at the crime scene or within a few hours back at the lab—it is all done within an hour of television time. Unfortunately, the naïve public doesn’t understand; they expect their crime lab to be able to do likewise and get answers immediately. The fact that most crime labs have hundreds of unprocessed cases backlogged adds to the public’s frustration, particularly victims of crimes.
Microscope Model of Science
In all television dramas, whenever science is being portrayed, a microscope comes into prominent view in the laboratory scene. The same is true for all print aids or any other time science is indicated—the microscope is the model. Likewise, the phrase “Under the Microscope” is used much too often to suggest that someone is taking a close look at something and that there is science involved, somehow.
The fiction of the microscope in C.S.I. appears whenever someone looks down the microscope tube and the image of what is allegedly seen appears to the viewers quite mysteriously. However, the image seen by the audience is seldom what would actually be seen with the microscope used. All types of strange things are seen down the tube of the C.S. I. microscope—and most are made up.
For example, in episode 109, Unfriendly Skies, another award winner, semen was detected with a hand-held toy microscope at no greater than 50 times magnification. What the viewers saw was a scanning electron microscope (SEM) image of spermatozoa at several thousand times magnification. Sperm heads, which are only about 5 micrometers (one thousandth of a millimeter) in size, cannot be seen in a stain with the hand-held microscope. The same microscope was used in a subsequent episode to view a fly, an object of about 5 millimeters. In episode 117, 35K OBO, the SEM image of an animal hair was seen down the tube of a light microscope. Some real images of animal hairs can be found in two Modern Microscopy articles.
On the other hand, the microscopical image of a hair from a person with cartilage hair hypoplasia (CHH) was well done and the story behind it in an episode (A Little Murder) about a hanging at a little people’s convention was remarkably accurate.
Hairs, fibers, and other trace evidence are always larger than life and readily visible to the camera when held up pinched at the end of a relatively large forceps. Also, the trace evidence always occurs in large clumps, which is seldom the case in reality. The ultimate irritation is the picking up of a fired bullet with metal forceps as occurred in episode 313, Random Acts of Violence. Forensic scientists would never pinch a bullet with forceps and destroy the striations on the bullet.
Although the microscope is often portrayed as the symbol of science, a flashlight and lifting tape are routinely used at the crime scene, and both are used in virtually all episodes. It is true that both tools are essential to crime scene investigation. A full history and description of lifting tape can be found in Mute Witnesses: Trace Evidence Analysis edited by Max Houck. A flashlight is not only essential to crime scene investigations, it is essential to the viewers of C.S.I. Without the spot of light from the flashlight highlighting the bullet hole or trace evidence, how would the viewer find it in the seconds available in the scene. The flashlight not only lights the way but is used as a pointer and that is true in real cases too.
The CSI Effect
What is the CSI Effect and what has it done to the public’s expectations? How has it affected our justice system? How has it affected our local and national public policies? How has it affected our educational system?
The CSI Effect is a phenomenon of popular television shows, such as C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation, which raises crime victims’, perpetrators’, investigators’ and jury members’ expectations of forensic science caused by the dramatic license taken by the writers of crime dramas glamorizing the field. It overstates the accuracy of forensic techniques, and exaggerates the abilities of forensic science.
The CSI Effect skews public perceptions of real-world forensic science, as well as the behavior of criminal justice system participants. This is of particular concern in the courtroom where attorneys often feel pressured to deliver more forensic evidence to meet jury expectations. DNA evidence, in particular, is expected more and more by jurors whether it is relevant or not in a given case. In a recent case, the plaintiff’s attorney introduced my evidence by telling the jury, “This is real C.S.I. stuff.” Although the technologies lauded on these fictional crime dramas are found in real crime labs, they often require much more time and deliver answers more equivocal in real life than on television.
The CSI Effect may also be altering how crimes are committed. Tammy Klein, a criminalist for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, and other criminal experts, have noticed an increase in criminal cases in which suspects burn or tamper with evidence (e.g. using bleach to destroy DNA evidence), or attempt to carefully clean the crime scene of trace evidence such as hairs and fibers.
For example, in Trumbull County, Ohio, a C.S.I. fan murdered a mother and daughter, and then used bleach to wash his hands of blood, and covered the interior of his car with blankets to avoid transferring blood as he transported the corpses, which he then burned along with his clothes and cigarette butts, which he feared would yield trace amounts of his DNA. He attempted to throw the remaining evidence into a local lake, including the murder weapon, a crowbar. Truth is sometimes funnier than fiction—it was winter and the lake was frozen. The crowbar was later recovered by investigators from the surface of the lake and the suspect arrested.
Public policies have also been altered by the CSI Effect and DNA. The Innocence Project’s groundbreaking use of DNA technology to free innocent people has provided irrefutable proof that wrongful convictions are not isolated or rare events, but instead arise from systemic defects. The value of DNA is that it provides substantive affirmative evidence of actual innocence (someone else’s DNA in the semen inside the victim) instead of an argument about the lack of sufficient evidence to convict or a rare change in testimony, the only means to exoneration in the past.
Recently, The National Academy of Science (NAS) used the paradigm change caused by The Innocence Project and DNA to leverage their proposals for change. While remarkable advances in biotechnology have enabled DNA typing to become the gold standard for forensic science, other forensic evidence such as fingerprints, toolmarks, bitemarks, hairs, and blood spatters struggle to defend themselves against their critics. We should all expect forensic science to solve crimes and put the right people in jail whether the expectation is due to the CSI Effect or it comes from the professionals in the forensic community—but it doesn’t always work that way. That’s why on February 18, 2009, the National Academies’ Committee on Identifying the Needs of the Forensic Sciences Community issued a report on the scientific shortcomings and policy changes that could improve the field. Titled “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward,” the report looked forward with a prescription for improving forensic science in the United States; it rejected dwelling on the past.
Although the recommendations will no doubt be hotly debated, the committee was most concerned with forensic scientists’ knowledge base, and its recommendations regarding needed training should be widely accepted. They concluded that staffing and equipment to reduce backlogs was not enough; forensic scientists need more fundamental research to validate their techniques and more training to conduct them proficiently.
In my mind, it’s all about education, research and training. As the report says, forensic scientists need to understand the principles, practices, and context of the scientific methodology they use, as well as the distinctive features of their specialty. [“Deficiencies in Forensic Science Training Must Be Met Head-On,” Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News, Volume 29, No. 7 (April 1, 2009), pp. 6-8]
Education and Training
Academia is also said to be feeling the CSI Effect. Universities have seen an increase in students enrolling in forensic science and related science programs. For example, at West Virginia University, a campus of 27,000 students, forensic science was the most popular undergraduate major in 2004, attracting 13% of incoming freshmen that fall. By 2006, West Virginia University had more than 400 students enrolled in the forensic science major.
The traditional academic route followed by a would-be forensic scientist has been to pursue a primary (bachelor’s) degree in a general science subject such as chemistry or biology, followed by suitable postgraduate courses or in-service training in a crime laboratory. There has been criticism from the forensic community that, in an effort to increase their student numbers, universities have been offering unsuitable courses, leaving graduates unprepared for real-world forensic work. In response to the concerns of the community, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences promulgated accreditation standards for forensic science educational programs through its Forensic Science Educational Program Accreditation Commission (FEPAC).
A hybrid approach that includes an essential element of forensic science, microscopy, and a traditional undergraduate major in chemistry or biology has recently been of interest to colleges and universities. For example, Concordia University Chicago in partnership with the Hooke College of Applied Sciences offers a Bachelor of Science in Applied Microscopy. This program combines rigorous training in mathematics and science with a focus on microscopy, the workhorse tool of the forensic scientist. While an undergraduate with this degree is well-prepared for either employment in one of the forensic sciences or graduate education, it also opens the possibility to work in other fields such as art conservation or the pharmaceutical industry.
The program is pitched with the following description: Do you enjoy solving mysteries and have a flair for materials science? The highly in-demand field of microscopy is providing exciting new career opportunities for today’s students. Microscopy is for those interested in science, solving problems, and analyzing or building on a nearly microscopic scale.
Microscopy graduates are in demand for virtually any industry that requires small particle identification, such as pharmacology; clinical medicine; environmental and ecological sciences; materials engineering; forensic science; research and even art history. Demand is high in the areas of homeland security/public health and safety; aerospace and automotive technology; art and archaeology; chemical identification and development; contamination identification; education; electronics; environmental and forensic applications; food contamination; manufacturing; materials analysis; medicine and healthcare; nanotechnology; manufacturing and identification of paints and coatings; packaging; pharmaceuticals; polymer research, and development and sales. Employers strongly prefer microscopists with a four-year bachelor of science degree in one of the materials sciences.
Nowhere does it emphasize that the program at Concordia University is a forensic science program. Nevertheless, many prospective students are interested in the program because they want to be forensic scientists. Some existing Concordia students feel that the applied microscopy dual degree program offers better training for acquiring a post-graduate forensics degree than a forensics undergraduate program because of its more rigorous fundamental science course requirements.
After the O.J. Simpson trial and the popularity of C.S.I., everyone wants to be a forensic scientist. Will the CSI Effect and its ramifications ultimately improve forensic science and criminal justice, or lead the system astray? The chapters are still being written. What it has done is spurred interest in programs such as Concordia University Chicago’s Applied Microscopy dual degree program. And nobody should disagree that with better trained personnel entering the field, more crimes will be solved, and, hopefully, justice will be better served.