Author and retired law enforcement officer, John Lamb, spoke at the recent Dying to Write conference on the topic of "Why You Shouldn't Use TV's CSI as a Research Tool for Your Book." He should know -- he's been a a deputy sheriff, a street cop, a hostage negotiator, a CSI, a homicide investigator, a detective sergeant, and a hostage negotiation team leader. John was considered one of the premier homicide detectives of San Diego County and earned frequent praise from the District Attorney's office. He also has over 700 hours in specialized training in bomb scene investigation, clandestine laboratory investigations, and psychological profiling.
In TV CSI-land, crime lab results are usually instantaneous and clear-cut. The bad guys are caught, and their prosecutions, basically a mere formality, are speedy and absolute. The reality is quite different. Prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges call it "the CSI effect." Here is a summary of some of John's comments during his talk:
(1) Fingerprints aren’t instantaneous. On TV, you plug it into the computer and bingo! There you are. The reality is, you have to have a good print to begin with; then you scan it in, and the computer will provide several possible matches, listed by numbers and not names. Then a trained latent fingerprint expert has to eyeball each one and look for the match from there, because the computer can’t testify in court -- the human expert has to make the actual call. The process can take days, if not weeks, depending upon circumstances. Even then, there's no guarantee that the person you're looking for is even in the system.
(2) Same with DNA -- there are many labs which are backlogged; smaller jurisdictions don’t even have their own labs, so they often have to send them out to the state laboratory; a typical job can take six weeks or more and even a "rush" job can take at least three weeks at times (if you're lucky), depending upon the area and other case priorities.
(3) On TV, the CSI cops can call up just about anything from magic computer databases, but for the most part, those don’t exist. For example, they might find a tree sap sample and type it into the computer, to find out it only exists on one kind of tree found in only one section of town. Or perhaps the computer database will tell them that one type of seashell associated with a crime scene can only be found on one tiny little section of beach in one part of the county. All of this in under 45 minutes! (Or even within a day or two in the episode's timeline). It would be nice, but it just doesn’t work that way.
(4) Not every CSI or tech can do everything. There are specialists. Fingerprint people don’t do DNA, and so on.
(5) If an officer is involved in a shooting, they don’t automatically just go back out on the street. There’s always an investigation and it can take the officer off the bear for up to 72 hours, more or less, depending upon the jurisdiction and the circumstances. If a partner is shot or killed, the surviving partner will most likely be taken off the case, because a defense attorney might be able to argue that his/her objectivity was off, and they were biased.
(6) Police offices aren't the neat, tidy, well-run machines they appear to be. They’re messy and sometimes dysfunctional. There are personality conflicts, there are people who are in higher-up or managerial positions who don’t know as much as those below them, just like any other profession (probably where you work, too!).
(7) The TV cops often are shown holding their guns improperly, although the directors probably do that because it looks "cool"; in reality, a copy will not stick out the gun with one hand way out in front, because it could be taken away from them by the bad guys; it helps to hold it closer in, or with two hands.
(8) Someone who is shot doesn’t get thrown backward; they usually just drop in place.
(9) If someone is hit over the head hard enough to knock them out, there’s probably going to be blood and/or a hemotoma. It’s not going to be clean and neat, like the victim just went to sleep.
(10) Criminals are, by and large, not very smart. They often kill because it just doesn’t occur to them there are other ways to solve problems. They may have an issue with someone, but after working through 2-3 options of what they could do, they run out of ideas. So they just kill the other person. John Lamb worked 100 murders and went to over a thousand other assorted death scenes during his career, and he only ran across what he would consider one truly evil person, a woman who hired fou marines to kill her husband so she could collect the insurance money. One of the marines shot a bullet into the woman’s station wagon tire in addition to the victim’s head, and when the police arrived, voila! there was the flat tire with the same caliber and type of bullet found in the victim. So again, stupid criminals.
(11) Miranda Rights are not iron-clad. Something you say *voluntarily* after you’ve been read your rights may be used in a court of law.
(12) Every CSI show features a piece of physical evidence that categorically links a suspect to the crime. John Lamb says he wishes it were that easy in real life.
(13) The public's expectation of what crime scene investigation can do in a criminal case has changed as a result of TV. Many people who watch those shows develop an irrational belief that every crime can be solved by physical evidence found at a crime scene. Physical evidence is very important, but you can’t always recover something of value from a scene. The problem is that CSI on TV is now influencing juries. Prosecuting attorneys have to explain to jurors that it's just a TV program, and things aren’t always clear-cut at an actual murder.
John Lamb is the author of the Bear Collector's Mystery series, and will hold the launch of the third book in the series, "The Crafty Teddy," at Boyds Bear Country, in Gettysburg, Saturday, November 3, from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. For further information, you can visit his website at www.johnjlamb.net.
One interesting note about John's books: It took him 75 rejections before he found an agent. Two weeks after signing the publishing contract for "Echoes of the Lost Order," a standalone mystery, he had a three-book deal with Berkley Prime Crime, for the Bear Collector series. Another fun tidbit: John's wife Joyce is a latent fingerprint expert and crime analyst.