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Crime shows harmful and unrealistic: forensic experts

AT THE 2011 Sexual Health Conference, held recently in Canberra, leading forensic experts discussed the negative effects fictional crime shows have on real life crime investigations and forensic operations, ALYSON VARDOS reports.

What is the ‘CSI effect’?
Forensic experts in the ACT have expressed concerns that crime shows aired on television such as the American hits CSI, Law and Order and NCIS portray very believable crime scenarios that are, in fact, unrealistic. ‘The CSI effect’ is the name of this trend that is having huge influence on the public’s perception of forensic science. Local forensic medical staff and the Forensic Operations department within the Australian Federal Police (AFP) believe that the false impression given to viewers is causing large problems in their field of work.

How are crime shows causing problems?

Crime shows on television follow a similar storyline: A crime takes place, forensic investigators comes in and examine the scene, collect evidence, analyse the evidence such as DNA in their ‘crime labs’, investigate suspects and catch the perpetrators thus solving the case. This is all done before the end of the episode, which often includes a court case. The timelines of these shows are usually no more than a couple of days, sometimes just a matter of hours. According to Paul Reedy, Manager of Forensic Operations within the AFP, this is a very unrealistic and unfair portrayal of forensic science. “If we are talking about large, complex crimes, we are talking in the order of 50 to 100 forensic scientists being involved… Solving two crimes, in 45 minutes, looking pretty good while you’re doing it; that doesn’t happen. It’s long hard work, it’s a slog.”

Why are these unrealistic expectations an issue?
Although these shows are fictional (even those based on ‘a true story’), they provide viewers with an insight into the fictional world of crime investigation, giving many viewers their only perception of how it all works. This is an issue, according to Dr Vanita Parekh, Director of Clinical Forensic Medical Services at The Canberra Hospital. “We don’t solve crimes quickly, in fact we are only a very small piece of that puzzle. It’s a really unrealistic expectation that the same person will go to the crime scene, analyse all the material and then take it to court. It’s a very different scenario.” Dr Parekh says that this unrealistic perception of solving crime is being seen more and more frequently in her field of work and can be a strong deterrent for victims to follow through with the entire investigation process. “We see it all the time and I think it really upsets a lot of victims as they come in expecting it to all be over by the end of the week, when it can in fact take months or years.”
These issues are dealt with on a day to day basis in Canberra by the staff of Clinical Forensic Medical Service (CFMS). CFMS includes Clinical Forensics ACT (CFACT) and Forensic and Medical Sexual Assault Care (FAMSAC).

Who else do these problems affect?

According to The Economist, a 2008 study conducted by American criminologist Monica Robbers found that 62 percent of defence lawyers and 69 percent of judges believe jurors have unrealistic expectations about the reliability of forensic evidence. Many people who watch crime shows, including people selected for jury duty, expect the results they’ve seen on TV; results that modern science is not actually capable of providing. DNA and fingerprints are often unobtainable, and if they are obtained, can take several weeks to process; this is not good enough for many jurors sitting on large criminal court cases. Mr. Reedy said, “I have been summonsed to court, to explain to the court why there was a delay in being able to produce the evidence that the court required.”

What can be done to minimize ‘the CSI effect’?

In America, many states are adopting policies in an attempt to counteract the effects of television shows on jurors. For example, there have been cases in which prosecutors have been allowed to question potential jurors about the television shows they watch to identify and exclude a potentially biased juror. Also the use of expert witnesses is important, these are forensic specialists who can come in and explain to the jury issues such as why there is a lack of forensic evidence, why certain forensic techniques are unnecessary and the significance of the forensic evidence available. In Australia, although nothing has been done yet to try and fix the problem, forensic experts such as Dr Parekh are hoping to increase public awareness of the realities of their profession by educating people through the recently established Sexual Assault Reform Program (SARP). SARP is a reform process which FAMSAC is involved in and is, according to Dr Parekh, “a little step along the way of rectifying the wrong”.

What’s next in the field in the real world?
The ACT is introducing a laser dissecting microscope. This allows for one significant cell to be identified, laser dissected from the sample and literally catapulted into a machine which will amplify and analyse its DNA, allowing for a profile to be made from this one single cell. This has come a long way from the huge number of cells initially needed to obtain a DNA profile. This real system is yet to be seen on television.

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