Crime Scene Investigation - Myths versus Reality!

The following article is brought to you by Susan Kelly a past-pupil of CMI's CSI, Criminology and Forensics Psychology Diploma. Susan discusses the differences between CSI's portrayal in the media compared to the realities faced by crime scene investigators and those who work in the field of forensic psychology.

I’ve been such a huge fan of the TV series ‘Crime Scene Investigation’ and ‘Criminal Minds’ since their inception in 2000 and 2005.  Every week I watched CSI with rapt attention and along with 73 million other viewers, eventually found myself solving crimes alongside Grissom and the rest of the team. Initially I would think of fingerprinting, body fluid analysis and footprint casting, but thanks to the ever evolving technology of the show, found myself thinking of bullet trajectories, blood spatter analysis and weapon analysis.

 

I was always in awe of new equipment such as one which could scan and identify fingerprints at a crime scene and within seconds could search the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) or the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) and find a match, identifying a suspect, including any previous criminal history, and all done before taking a coffee break.

 

I became familiar with terms such as ‘Luminol’, Ballistics and Gun-Shot Residue. I would predict test results and findings and had the case wrapped up and solved, along with the cast of the show, all in 60 minutes… we can only wish for such a reality.

 

The reality as you might suspect, is that any investigation takes time and like most things, a lot of hard work. I enrolled in CMI’s course in Crime Scene Investigation, Criminology and Forensic Psychology, because I was fascinated by the technology and theories that were demonstrated on the above mentioned shows. One of the first lessons I soon learned, is that technology, although important, is very much secondary to skilled observation, recognition, collection and preservation of evidence. A good Crime Scene Investigator will know the importance of preserving a crime scene and preventing the contamination of evidence. Investigators don’t walk into a crime scene in stilettos with coiffed hair ready for their close-up. They wear protective clothing, several pairs of gloves, shoe coverings and cover their hair to prevent any possible contamination of the scene. No glamour shots in reality.

 

As seen on TV, they do number evidence and photograph it before removal, examination and preservation. We’re taught the importance of using a common approach path to a crime scene and how to search the scene systematically. We’re taught Locard’s principle of exchange: ‘every contact leaves a trace’.

 

Yes, there is a scanner available for fingerprinting, that can scan and electronically submit prints to AFIS to search for a match, and it can produce results within an hour. But it is extremely expensive and therefore as its availability is limited, equally reliable and less expensive methods are used to document and preserve fingerprints with AFIS then used for comparisons.

 

When looking for blood evidence at crime scenes, we regularly see TV characters liberally spray the crime scene with Luminol, which they point out confirms the presence of blood and spatter pattern which shows directionality and can identify the position of the attacker. In reality, there are several different substances any one of which can be used to ascertain the presence of blood, Luminol being one of those. But TV shows fail to mention that Luminol contains carcinogenic properties and that the user must wear protective clothing and face mask to protect themselves. Blood patterns do tell a story, but it’s the trained eye that can interpret them correctly. It takes years of experience to develop that trained eye and there are no shortcuts. Currently in Ireland there is no CODIS database, but as recently as October 2013, the Minister for Justice proposed such a bill to the Dail, which it is hoped will be shortly enacted.

 

All the samples collected, notes taken, interviews conducted and information amassed must be tested, verified and interpreted. It all takes time, weeks, months, maybe even years, and is not wrapped up over several days condensed into a 60 minute episode.

 

The second TV series that I mentioned, Criminal Minds, delves into the darkest part of an individual’s mind.  It examines crime scenes too, and using the evidence found, interprets the criminal behavior, identifying whether it is a crime of passion, or a pre-meditated murder, for example. They cross reference the information gathered against other crimes to ascertain if it’s a repeat offender, perhaps a serial killer and they present a profile of the suspect. They announce they are looking for a 25 year old male, probably single, has a menial job, had a trauma in early childhood which deeply affected how he treats women…..and drives a mid-size Japanese car…..well not quite. But they do arrive at in depth profiles and descriptions which make us think that this is quite a science.

 

The reality is somewhat different. Forensic Psychology classes have taught me that you cannot create such specific profiles. There are volumes of research studying Criminal Behavior and Criminal Homicide and the more I learned on the subject, the more questions I had, and the more I wanted to find answers to those questions. I learned that the Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) on Criminal Minds may have their profiles close to the truth, but not from a deep insight and analysis of the crime scene. The reality is that research shows that 90% of all homicides are committed by males and of those males, 50% were under the age of 25 years and a further 22% were under the age of 18 years. Perpetrators of these crimes may also have experienced family violence in early childhood which may have affected their relationships as an adult and therefore affected how they interact with others both in personal and professional relationships. It may also appear that there are a huge number of criminal homicides to be solved by the BAU each week but I have also learned that only 1.2% of all crimes reported to the police are homicides.

 

So I conclude by saying that we are all in good hands with so many skilled and knowledgeable Law Enforcement professionals out there, that we can curl up on the couch and watch our favorite episodes of CSI and Criminal Minds and know there is a small percentage of truth in the fiction.