Monday, February 26, 2007

Criminal Profiling Topic of the Day: The CSI Effect

The CSI Effect: A Serious Distortion of Reality

I was reading my readers’ comments the other day as any author will do, enjoying a sense of pride when I get kudos and praise, and wincing when I am called an idiot or a moron - or worse, a fraud. Good and bad, these opinions are par for the course when you are in the public eye. However, some of the anger was directed at my supposed lack of competence based on what folks are “learning” from fictionalized television (and this includes “true crime” and “forensic” shows like Body of Evidence and I, Detective). The result of viewers believing what they are watching is called the “CSI Effect,” and these misperceptions gleaned from television are having an influence on how we think crimes are committed and solved. Take for instance, one comment a reader of my book, Killing for Sport, made about a television appearance in which I said that the killer was in a hurry to get home and wash his clothes: “Anyone who watches Forensic Files or CSI knows that all blood does not wash off and can also leave traces in the sink, pipes, washing machine.” This led this woman to conclude that Pat Brown “knows less than the average person on the street” and that she is a “con artist.”

The lady has half her information correct; CSI does teach its viewers that washing your clothes, even with bleach, is not a sure-fire methodology of removing all biological evidence. Advanced DNA techniques indeed may find DNA even after materials have gone through the wash cycle and because of this, more criminals today have chosen to burn their clothes after committing a violent crime. On the other hand, an awful lot of DNA does get destroyed with soap and bleach and the tests may come back inconclusive, so if you haven’t got a faraway dumpster to lose the clothes in or a match handy, washing the items may not be such a bad idea.

With DNA, are you familiar with other chemicals that destroy DNA? YES. What are they? HEAT, LIGHT, UV LIGHT, HIGH HUMIDITY, DIRT, SOAPS, BLEACH. Is it protocol to clean the work area with bleach so it doesn’t contaminate the area? YES.


Furthermore, not all criminals are all that smart and many are not even worried about DNA testing. Some still do go home and wash their clothes. Why? Because their first concern is not whether all the blood will wash out to the point that DNA cannot be detected but that it washes out well enough that their mother or their wife or their girlfriend can’t see the blood on it.

Here is a bit from the story of serial killer Joe Kondro:

By then, the killer had covered his tracks. He had washed his clothes, showered, and thrown away his shoes. Police searched his home and questioned him, but came away empty-handed. “I knew they didn't have any solid evidence," he says. "I knew they didn't have a body.”


In other words, if the police don’t see anything terribly wrong, they aren’t going to be able to get a search warrant and tote your stuff to the lab. Even if they can get a search warrant, not all police detectives do the job as thoroughly and cleverly as CSI would have one believe. From a trial transcript we have this exchange:

Did you see the washing machine? YES. Look in the machine? YES THERE WAS A LOAD OF LAUNDRY. Did you do any test on the laundry? I DON’T RECALL. Did you and Agent Lewis discuss testing the laundry? I THINK SO. I DON’T RECALL IF WE DID A TEST ON LAUNDRY.


So, washing your bloody clothes may be good enough. The detective may ignore the washed clothes because there are piles and piles of them or because they were washed and then put back with all the other clothes in the closet. It isn’t so easy figuring what is worth taking and what tests you can make the lab do. “Hey, guys, I have fifty shirts and thirty pairs of pants I need you to luminal for blood” …Real life, folks, real choices. This holds true for both the cops and the killers………because life isn’t a television show. Life doesn’t have script writers and editors making sure everything is brilliant and wrapped up by the end of a thirty or sixty minute time frame. Don’t believe everything you see on the box. Shows are made to be fun and interesting and sell advertising; the producers aren’t overly concerned that the contents are accurate or conveyed in a totally truthful manner…………because a television show isn’t life.

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