5 ways CSI gets it wrong

When the bodies are cold and the paperwork’s filed, being a real-life crime solver is a far cry from what’s portrayed on TV.
by Amanda Bertholf // Fall 2011
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Alex Holsinger

Alex Holsinger, associate professor, criminal justice and criminology at UMKC

myth one //
Prison guards instigate violence

The amount of violence in prisons is exaggerated and so is the interaction between inmates and prison guards, Holsinger says. Guards do not walk around prison like sheriffs carrying sidearms, he adds. “There are no firearms in prison with the possible exception of guards in a tower or along a catwalk,” Holsinger says. “You’d never see a firearm on anyone circulating in a prison. Someone’s going to end up shot, and typically it’s not the inmate.”

Also, Holsinger says, if you asked the general public what it would be most afraid of in prison, most would say sexual victimization. “I’m not going to say victimization never happens, it does,” he says, “but the extent to which you see that kind of violence on TV is exaggerated.”

myth two //
Every case has DNA evidence

Crime lab technology appears in TV and movies to be more plentiful than it really is. The technology is expensive, Holsinger says, and some states are considering suspending the death penalty because they’re dealing with years-long backlogs of cases. And then there’s the so-called CSI effect on jurors, who might think every case must have a component of DNA evidence. “With DNA profiles, these shows take artistic license with a kernel of truth and make it something that we’re not even close to being ready to do in actuality,” Hunt says.

To head it off in court, Hunt asks potential jurors questions like, “Is there anyone here who would expect or demand or require the state to produce DNA evidence in a case where there’s no reasonable expectation that there should be DNA?” For example, at a gas station robbery, a suspect might not leave behind blood or other biological material. Because of that, Hunt says a juror might think the state didn’t meet its burden of proof by not producing DNA evidence to link the suspect to the crime.

To combat the CSI effect, the state brings in experts who can explain the reasons why police wouldn’t find DNA. “You may obtain a DNA profile by swabbing a surface,” Hunt says, “but when you do it in a public place and it turns out not to be the suspect’s DNA—does that mean that he was never there or he didn’t commit the crime? No.”

myth three //
The crime lab is luxurious

Besides the overblown use of DNA to solve cases, the crime labs in Hollywood tend to have more lavish facilities than most labs in real life. Take, for example, an episode of CSI where officers investigated a boating accident. “They had a swimming pool that they used to recreate the boating path,” says Frank Booth, B.S. ’80, the former director of the Kansas City Police Department Crime Lab. Booth says it wasn’t the reconstruction of the scene that was inaccurate—that’s becoming a major deal in the forensic community.

“It’s that they had all that space in the lab to have a huge pool to do those things,” he says. “Most labs don’t have quite that much space.” Another less-than-glamorous aspect of life in the crime lab that TV doesn’t portray is the smell. “You lose perspective of that when you’re watching TV,” says Michael McCunniff, D.D.S. ’83, associate professor of dentistry at UMKC and a dental forensics investigator for Jackson County. “The olfactory part of this job—they don’t depict that at all. Many aspects of this job aren’t pleasant.”

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