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C.S.I. offers false reality

Jan. 27, 2010

BU forensic science courses teach on fundamentals

Jed Dean | Photo Editor
Dr. Laura Marsh holds petri dish no. 4, containing the surface cleaner Oxyclean, and cornstarch to her Trace Evidence Analysis class Tuesday, in the Marrs McLean Sciences Building. Students were asked to identify individual substances from a conglomerated batch of substances.

By Erin Nipper

A dead body is surrounded by yellow crime scene tape. A team of investigators, forensic scientists and police surround it, taking photos, writing notes and making predictions about how the woman met her untimely demise. Samples of fluid are taken and rushed off to a lab.

Fast-forward 30 minutes: It is made known that an obsessed ex-lover strangled the victim after she turned him down. He waited for her to come home, killed her and left.

Fast-forward another 15 minutes: The murderer has been arrested and placed on trial. He is convicted of his crime in the first degree.

Sound familiar?

It is a common scenario on television crime shows, as detectives like Olivia Benson and Eliot Stabler of Law and Order: SVU bring justice to the world one criminal at a time-- in less than an hour.

Ask any real-life forensic scientist about television shows like C.S.I. or Law and Order, and they will immediately roll their eyes.

"C.S.I. has a lot of technology that doesn't exist," Dr. Lori Baker, associate professor of anthropology, said. "They pull a screen out of thin air and can pull it with their finger, and there are hologram images. Not even close to something that exists. Even if it did exist, there is not a forensic scientist in the world that could afford it. Forensic scientists usually work with a small budget. It's a little bit comical."

Lecturer of forensic science Laura Marsh puts "It's not like you see on TV" at the top of the syllabus for her survey of forensic science class.

"They make it seem like a crime is solved in one hour on TV. Students end up surprised because shows portray forensic science as a more varied profession," Marsh said.

Baker said it can take up to two months for lab results to return and that DNA testing is not always necessary. Crime shows often make real-life trials difficult because the jury has unrealistic expectations about forensic science.

"The real problem arises when you are testifying in cases because the jury expects certain evidence," Baker said. "Even when you have fingerprint-evidence that links someone to a certain crime, it's always, 'Where's the DNA?'"

Baker said DNA testing is expensive and time consuming, but jurors often expect it because they have seen it used to solve cases on television.

"After the O.J. Simpson trial ,there was a vast education on DNA analysis, whereas before I would be in a lab working and someone would say, 'What's that?'" Baker said.

According to Marsh, people often think forensic science is simply one area of study. There are many different areas of forensics, including forensic dentists, pathologists, anthropologists and accountants.

"It's a very, very diverse field. It has a vast amount of applications," Marsh said.

No matter what area of forensics one chooses to embark upon, Marsh said forensic scientists can be assured they will have job security.

"Crimes have been happening since the beginning of time and will keep happening," Marsh said.

Emily Atwood, a senior forensic science major from Shreveport, La., spent five weeks interning for a coroner's office. She said it could take six weeks for toxicology reports to come back from a lab.

"If someone is in a car accident and we don't know why­-- maybe it was in the middle of the day and they flipped their car for some reason­-- if they were drinking, we won't know for another six weeks," Atwood said.

Although many aspects of crime shows are unrealistic, there are aspects that apply to real-life situations.

"Several of the basic techniques that they use, like dusting for fingerprints, looking for bodily fluids, paint transfer on cars, that sort of thing-- a lot of those things are legitimate and we actually use those out in the field," Atwood said. "The equipment is not accurate, but the techniques are."

Although Baylor no longer offers a major in forensic science, a minor is still offered.

Marsh said that because there is only a minor, forensic classes are open for all students to take.

"Come over, take a class," Marsh said. "Forensic science is still a field."