I did something really cool last weekend. I went to a seminar sponsored by Mystery Writers of America (MWA), an organization I joined after the publication of THE ANTIQUITIES HUNTER (from Pegasus Crime). The seminar was entitled Finding Evidence: CSI vs. Real-Life Forensics.
This was a day-long seminar on on how real Crime Scene Investigations differ from the Hollywood versions we all know and love. It was fascinating, dare I say riveting. It’s gonna take me forever to type up my notes.
There were about 30 mystery writers at the free event (which included a delightful lunch) and filled the community room at Diablo Valley College to capacity. A life-size cutout of Edgar Allan Poe presided over the talks which were given by Julie Jaecksch, a retired crime scene investigator from Oakland PD, and Oakland District Attorney Michael O’Connor.
They did not disappoint. We received a host of useful and fascinating information about how real CSIs operate. Julie detailed evidence collection processes and flow-charted the process of how the evidence makes its way through the various working groups to finally be used to crack a case and/or prosecute a crime. She spoke about the many ways evidence can be mishandled, and how a CSI coming across a key piece of evidence can be the big break in a ase. She gave an example of a case she personally solved by choosing to fingerprint an item others had overlooked as being unlikely to yield evidence.
I bet you want to know that that was, huh? It was a coffee cup that had been sitting on a ledge above a rape victim’s bed. Logic dictated that the fingerprints on it would be the victim’s. Julie dusted the cup for prints anyway and found that the prints on the cup belonged to the rapist. Yessiree, Bob. That guy was so supremely confident (read: obtuse) that he got himself a cuppa and enjoyed it at some point during the commission of a crime.
Mike used the Golden State Rapist case to walk us through how the forensics teams, detectives and DA’s office cooperated in the solving of the crime. This was a case in the 90s involving an ex-police officer who ultimately raped 50 women and killed a dozen people. He enlightened all of us as to how real courtrooms operate in contrast to how they’re portrayed on Law & Order.
Can you imagine any happier group of people than a couple of experts talking about the work they loved (and hated) and the two dozen or so writers scribbling away in their notebooks, iPads and computers. (I was one of the notebook scribblers; I’m taking my laptop, Monroe, with me next time.) This was mystery writer heaven. Research junkie Nirvana. It was chocolate, baby. It was better than chocolate—it was bangers and mash, cottage pie and a good pub curry all rolled into one.
There was a real-world dark side to Hollywood’s fixation with law and order. The way that forensics is portrayed in both fiction shows and allegedly true crime shows is not quite the way any of this works. Hollywood’s portrayal of both CSI and courtroom drama have made the jobs of both CSIs and prosecutors job—more difficult.
How so? Evidence, especially that collected by crime scene investigators, is often ”quiet” and incremental rather than immediately explosive. It builds up layer by layer and requires that the CSI establish connections between the various layers. It also requires that the jurors have the mental acuity and patience to understand those connections. Without the capacity to comprehend how each new layer changes the ultimate whole, juries may acquit simply because they fail to understand the final picture the evidence paints. If it doesn’t make you gasp, it can’t be THAT important, right?
Prosecutors now routinely encounter juries so jaundiced by TV shows that many have started asking prospective jurors if they watch CSI shows during the jury selection process.
CSI shows also affect how savvy criminals commit their crimes by tailoring them to outwit the sort of investigations they see on TV—which may include tech not really available to Law Enforcement. Of course, it’s also caused some criminals who showed extraordinary care in one aspect of a crime to completely bungle something else. One perpetrator took the expedient of using duct tape both in the murder of his victim, and in faking his own attempted murder. He forgot one aspect of the very quality of duct tape that made it a useful restraint: everything sticks to it, from fibers to skin cells. He was literally deposed by a roll of tape.
All I can say is MWA-Ha-Ha!