by Donn Cortez with Leah Wilson

Smart Pop Books

Before CSI, only criminal justice and physical anthropology geeks even knew what forensic sciences were all about. Years ago, I went to lunch with several forensic anthropologists. As people are prone to do, the anthropologists started talking shop. Did you hear about the three heads in a refrigerator? Do you like beetles or boiling for defleshing corpses? Did I tell you about the leg they found in the belly of a shark? About halfway through our meal, I noticed that we were alone in the corner of the restaurant. I don’t think that would happen now. If our fellow diners were CSI fans, they would probably have eavesdropped or maybe even tried to join in. With the popularity of CSI and other forensics-oriented shows, everyone thinks they know what forensic science is all about.

Investigating CSI collects essays that explore both the real world of crime scene investigators and discussions of the impact of the television show. The first thing the real CSI investigators tell you is that CSI is FICTION. Real crime scenes are dirty, messy, smelly places. Real CSI’s don’t go to work in designer clothes or wear sexy strappy sandals to work. Instead they wear functional work clothes that they sometimes accessorize with duct tape to keep the bugs from crawling up their legs. Real crime scene investigation is laborious and often boring. DNA and fingerprint analysis takes days, weeks, months and even years to process. Unlike on TV, crimes are not solved in an hour.

Once the CSIs have had their say, the writers and media critics have their say. We get interesting essays on the psychology of Gil Grissom, Horatio Cain and Matt Taylor. The so-called CSI Effect is discussed in several essays. The CSI Effect is the idea that juries in real life courtrooms are going to expect forensic evidence like they see on TV. In real life, the fantastic evidence presented on TV is rarely available. In real life, your local crime lab probably doesn’t have all the cool technology in Grissum’s lab. While there is much discussion of the CSI Effect, the general consensus is that the influence of the show on juries is more of an urban myth that a daily occurrence.

The final essay argues that the CSI shows may actually be doing a great service to America. While news is increasingly blurring the line between entertainment and news, the CSI shows are just about the only place on television where the truth is valued above all else. If people come away from the CSI shows with an interest in finding truth and valuing scientific evidence, then maybe the shows are changing America.

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