Tuesday, January 27, 2009

CSI: Reality

I don't really watch much TV. Cable here is really expensive and I haven't got the time. I'd much rather delve into a book or Vanity Fair than watch some lame TV shows. However, I did take in one recent episode of CSI and I've got to tell you: wow, is that show terrible! I'm a big fan of reality - don't really buy too much into science fiction. Sometimes I am able to suspend disbelief (like, in the case of Harry Potter), but usually I am a stickler for details. I didn't love Spiderman because they showed a spider biting him and then the spider's DNA intercalating with Peter's DNA and that's how he became Spiderman. From a scientific point of view, I can't even tell you how many wrong things there are with that picture....
Anyways, I get off topic easily. Back to CSI. In it, there is a crime committed, the people in the lab examine some inconsequential piece of evidence (rapidly, I might add) and discover the true identity of the killer. While some of the things they do on CSI are plausible (for example, you can extract DNA from smaller and smaller pieces of tissue left behind - but the results are neither rapid nor without fallicy) most of the things they present cannot and do not happen. Trust me, you CANNOT look in a microscope and be able to tell whether DNA is human or animal. DNA is DNA is DNA. You also cannot look at a drop of blood under the microscope and tell what species it comes from. Sequencing DNA is a long and arduous process, we don't put some tubes in a machine and have a read-out right away. The truth is that police departments around the nation are strapped for cash. Unless a crime committed is unusual or involves a celebrity or rich person, there are not enough resources to do all the things that are done on a case in CSI. While I hope the majority of people realize this, it can lead to a serious problem.
I served on a jury over a year ago. It was a really interesting experience, and I highly recommend it if you can do it. The suspect was charged with possesion and intent to distribute crack cocaine. The only witnesses were cops on a stakeout who both observed the suspect opening the door to a known crackhouse and busted the suspect in the crackhouse later on. A large amount of cash was found on the suspect. Drug paraphernelia and the drugs themselves were found at the house. The jury ended up being a hung jury (for several reasons, really) but we kept coming back to the fact that NOTHING had been fingerprinted. Wouldn't that have sealed the case if the suspects fingerprints were on the bag of drugs? If they were on the paraphernelia? We kept talking about it, saying we had seen it on TV, why couldn't they have done something so simple? Well, the truth of the matter is that the Philadelphia police department is hard up for money, just like every other place in the country. They can't afford to run tests like fingerprinting, DNA tests, etc. These tests cost tons of money. Take it from me, I could blow a grand in a day buying reagents for my experiments. It concerns me that we can't afford to pay for simple lab tests to proporly prosecute criminals. It also concerns me that innocent people could be convicted of crimes they did not commit because of circumstantial evidence. I can only hope that the future will bring cheaper, faster lab tests to be used in law enforcement. And that people take everything they see on CSI with a grain (or perhaps a bag) of salt.

1 comment:

Randi said...


I recommend Bones. I love it.