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Forensic-based police shows have sparked a lot of interest in crime scene investigation over the last several years, but they have also created a few headaches.
“The juror thinks he knows more than the experts,” Texas Ranger Stacy J. McNeal said. “The juror’s thinking, ‘That’s not what they said on TV.’ That can backfire a little.”
He spoke to the Rotary Club of Paris on Friday about the “CSI Effect” and the impact such shows have had on the legal system, especially juries.
McNeal is a member of the Texas Ranger Company B major crime scene investigation team.
“We are the best of the best when it comes to crime scene investigations,” he said. “Anything of major significance, we get deployed to.”
Most think that means a lot of murders and bank robberies, but McNeal said Rangers are sent to look into a wide range of crimes, including kidnapping, firearm thefts, child abuse, assault and even small charges against local political officials.
“There truly is no crime too small for us to investigate,” he said. “There are times I have to tell someone no because I’m just one guy, and there are only 24 hours in a day.”
Because of the “CSI Effect,” jurors and victims’ families have heightened expectations about forensics. Jurors are more likely to expect to find DNA on every piece of evidence and expect to find a “smoking gun” that wraps everything up nice and neat.
“Just because somebody’s DNA is there doesn’t mean they committed the crime lock, stock and barrel. DNA puts them there, but it doesn’t mean they’re guilty,” he said. “Jurors are more likely to ignore witness testimony and more circumstantial evidence because they don’t talk about that on TV shows.”
One of the biggest problems is that forensics-based programs create unreasonable expectations, which makes it more difficult to convict. On television, a lab can gather evidence, get a fingerprint and DNA from it, run it through the federal database, get a hit back, find a cell phone number and locate the suspect’s cell phone in what appears to be a matter of hours.
“I want to work there,” McNeal said. “It takes months to get results back from a laboratory.”
In reality, backlogs and quality control procedures move things along at a much slower pace, and labs cannot jump on a piece of evidence just as soon as it is received. Fingerprints often have to be handled manually rather than via computer because what is lifted from a crime scene is not as clear as what they show on TV.
“Technology increases, but it can’t make something nonexistent exist,” McNeal said.
One of the things the show does is create unrealistic ideas about the job, he said. Lab analysis is not done by law enforcement, and technicians do not conduct investigations.
“You have to interpret evidence. You have to identify evidence. You have to collect evidence,” McNeal said. “Hopefully, through the process all the way from beginning to end, it’ll all make sense.”
That also means the job is not always glamorous. McNeal talked about having to collect spit from the ground for DNA samples and even going over autopsies.
“The dead tell us a lot about the crime,” he said. “I always tell investigators, ‘If you’re not going to the autopsy, you’re not doing your job.’”
A real crime scene investigation involves a lot of hard work. Everything has to be photographed. Depending on the crime, there may be shoe or tire impressions to be cast, fingerprinting and mapping of a crime scene. There are also shooting reconstructions, biological fluids to test for and bloodstain pattern analysis.
“Juries love to see photographs and drawings,” McNeal said. “They like to feel like they’re in the crime scene.”
In an ironic twist, CSI and related shows have also created a new breed of criminal more likely to clean up after himself.
“They set fire to things,” McNeal said. “They pour chemicals on them. They set vehicles and houses on fire.”
In the end, he said, there is one important thing to keep in mind.
“Remember – it’s just a show,” McNeal said. “It’s not real life. It’s not what we do.”