Forensics v. TV Forensics

MATTHEW DAVID BROZIK: Some years ago, at a birthday party for a friend who was and possibly still is an assistant United States Attorney, I got to making small talk with another guy there who told me that he was a forensic something-or-other. For reasons I can’t recall, I asked him if he knew what “forensic” means; he didn’t. I was sorely disappointed. Indeed, I might even have been aghast. And I promptly stopped talking to that guy.

Most people… or, too many people, anyway, think that “forensics” is something really specific, like “the exact science of proving someone guilty of aggravated manslaughter just before the credits roll.” I blame television.

“Forensic” simply means “relating to, used in, or appropriate for courts of law (or public discussion or argument).” You can look it up. Although courtroom dramas (such as Law & Order, CSI, CSI: Miami, CDI: Ancient Rome, NCIS, NSAID: Cold Relief Files, et al.) give the impression that one can call down to “Forensics” and get whatever evidence one needs to convict or acquit, in reality (that is, “actual” reality) there are myriad forensic disciplines, or disciplines with forensic branches.

There’s forensic medicine, of course. There’s forensic anthropology. There’s even forensic entomology. That one is my favorite. (I like that one so much I wrote a novel about a forensic etymologist who is constantly mistaken for a forensic entomologist. Ha, ha!)

The typical law-and-order drama viewer doesn’t know, and probably doesn’t want to know, that “forensics” isn’t a magical department in the police station. (I know I was crushed when I learned that there was no “Korean War.”) Not that this is suprising, mind you. A television show about professionals that shows what the workaday lives of those professionals are really like would never get picked up. Maybe doctors’ lives are constantly exciting, but lawyers’ sure aren’t. Nobody’s going to watch even half an hour of an associate drafting motion papers. (“He’s making sure his citations are in proper format! Awesome! I want to be a lawyer!” No.) And the process of presenting evidence in court is boring. Really, really boring. There is almost never a smoking gun, literal or figurative. And anyone who thinks that witnesses are lining up to testify is sadly mistaken. Nobody wants to be a witness. (On a related note, nobody likes a witness.)

So, to summarize: One, know what you do for a living, in case you ever meet me in a bar and I quiz you. Two, don’t believe everything you see on TV or in movies, unless there are transforming robots from space. Those are real.

MOLLY SCHOEMANN: Last week someone broke into my car and ripped out my stereo.  Since I fancy myself to be a bit of a forensics buff, I took some clear tape and lifted a partial fingerprint off the car door handle and brought it to my local precinct so they could ID it and catch the criminal.  Well, they laughed in my face!  Told me to stick the tape over my mouth and buy a car alarm.   I was shocked and offended!  While these guys were out writing speeding tickets and answering domestic disturbance calls, some crazed junkie was making off with my car stereo!

I just knew that if David Caruso from CSI Miami had been there, he would have slowly removed his sunglasses, squinted at me, tossed off a one-liner about catching the guy ‘in stereo’, and used my partial fingerprint to pull up a copy of the perpetrator’s criminal record, including a glamour shot of him looking like a threatening lowlife.   Then he would have pinpointed the thief’s exact location by tracking his cell-phone signal or figuring out what he ate for lunch that day or where he bought his shoes or something.  Finally, he would trick the guy into confessing, exposing a giant car-stereo-theft crime ring in the process.  A hot girl would try to seduce him for some reason, someone else would get pushed down an open elevator shaft, and after an hour everything would be neatly wrapped up with a parting shot featuring David Caruso slowly removing his sunglasses and squinting.

So what the hell were those lazy boring police officers thinking?  They were doing it all wrong!  When will law enforcement catch up with television law enforcement?  Those guys on TV—now THEY know how you get things done!  They don’t second-guess themselves!  There’s no whining about how blood spatter analysis is an inexact science.  The title character on Dexter can tell what kind of weapon was used, at what speed, and whether the attacker was left or right handed just by looking at a few errant drops.  On CSI Las Vegas, the team used lasers to convert the grooves in some clay on a pottery wheel into sound so that they could hear what the victim had been saying as he threw a pot.  And you’re telling me that real law enforcement can’t even tell for sure if fingerprints are a definite match or not?   Batman pulled a fingerprint off a shattered bullet in The Dark Knight.  He’s putting non-televised criminal investigators to shame.

So what if lie detector tests are inadmissible in court!  From what TV has led me to believe, if you’re a hard-bitten FBI agent who’s passionate about your job, you can make someone confess to a crime they committed just by yelling at them, because you can just tell that they did it!

The next time I visit the local police station to ask if one of their trained dogs can tell if my coworker is a drug addict by licking his coffee cup, and they give me the cold shoulder, I’m going to suggest that they watch more CSI and do less boring paperwork and beat-patrolling.  There are apparently a few things in life you have to learn the hard way, from television—not from experience.

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