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Australian Government : Australian Institute of Criminology

This article originally appeared in the Sunday Herald Sun, 23 January 2005 and is reproduced with permission of The Herald and Weekly Times.

The real CSI

By Ross MacDowell

"These forensic shows are obsessed with darkened rooms and high-powered torches. What's wrong with turning on the light switch on the wall?"

The public image of forensic detectives is largely shaped by television programs such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. But as Ross MacDowell finds, the truth, in Melbourne at least, is far less glamorous

Detective-inspector Bob Sitlington and Detective-Sergeant John Dacey of Victoria Police's Forensic Services sit next to each other cackling with laughter. They joke about what they have learned from the multitude of police forensic shows on television.

"When entering a room containing a crime scene, we immediately draw all the blinds, switch off all the lights and only use torches to look for evidence," Insp Sitlington says. "For some reason the people in these forensic shows are obsessed with darkened rooms and high-powered torches. What's wrong with turning on the light switch on the wall? Any crime scene examiner will tell you the best way to search a crime scene is in daylight, not under false light and particularly not under high-powered torches because of the shadows they cast."

Insp Sitlington, a police forensic veteran, compares Victoria Police's crime scene examiners with those portraying the same role on television: "We're not dressed in the latest Pierre Cardin suits, rolling into crime scenes driving Hummers, looking like models, words of wisdom constantly flowing from our mouths. It's just not like that.

"It's a job that requires you to follow a similar course of action every time, ensuring we don't destroy or contaminate evidence. It's not glamorous and can be laborious, hour after hour."

CSI, CSI: Miami, Crossing Jordan, Six Feet Under, Cold Case and Silent Witness are some of this year's forensic crime shows. Television networks are cashing in on global audiences addicted to a forensic "who dunnit".

In the US, judges now refer to the "CSI effect" a phenomenon resulting from juries accepting as real the tests and procedures they have watched countless times on forensic television shows.

Prosecutors complain of the increasing difficulty to gain convictions in cases where scientific evidence is irrelevant. Jurors are demanding CSI-type evidence from prosecutors. The American newspaper, USA Today, reported on a Phoenix murder trial in which the jury asked the judge why a bloody coat hadn't been tested for DNA. As the defendant had admitted to being at the murder scene, a DNA test wasn't required. The judge decided television had taught the jury about DNA tests, but not enough about how to use them.

Victoria Police's Forensics Services Centre is a sprawling, cream-brick building located in semi-bushland at Macleod in Melbourne's outer northeast. It is the only police forensic complex in Australia that performs the full range of forensic examinations; DNA, finger printing, documentation, ballistics, explosives, fire, botany, drugs, and chemistry. Twelve regional forensic offices are located around Victoria, handling mostly fingerprints. Unlike the glamorous television forensic offices, the Macleod complex is public service in style, a combination of high school science classroom meets local public library.

Security is tight due to the sensitivity of the evidence in the building. Visitors are checked in by a uniformed receptionist, protected by bulletproof glass.

Occupying the forensics services building are 207 staff who last year processed 23,000 forensic exhibits relating to 10,600 cases. Police comprise only one third of the staff, the majority being public servants who perform administrative duties or forensic officers who are the science experts.

Victoria Police locate their crime scene examination teams at Macleod. Team members include specialists who can relate to every type of crime. A firearm murder will require a ballistics expert, a general crime scene expert, a still photographer and a video operator; a suspected arson will have a fire and chemical expert.

If a crime scene is chaotic with vehicular traffic or a large number of investigating police, a forensic co-ordinator is assigned to "protect" the forensic experts from interruption from other police or media.

Sgt Dacey has been a crime scene investigator for 27 years. Dressed in nondescript pants, shirt and tie, he looks identical to any 50-year-old detective you might meet over the counter at your local police station. He has attended "thousands" of crime scenes. His first homicide was in 1976, which he attended as a forensic photographer. It was a "single shot, very clean" domestic murder and that night he lay awake thinking about the following day's photography he would be required to perform during the post mortem on the victim at the mortuary.

Sgt Dacey says most real-life crime scenes are not like those depicted on television.

"Television crime scene examiners seem to be expert in every single thing. They always zero straight in on some microscopic bit of evidence that the whole case apparently hinges on. It's just not like that. The reality is, you walk into the scene and usually what is perceived to have happened usually has happened.

"We then expect to find predictable pieces of evidence that go with that crime and that is what we find. There's rarely hidden evidence. We exactingly document the scene and the facts. That's why we don't spend a lot of time in court. It's very cut and dried. The court accepts what's happened: the victim was hit on the head with an iron bar, he bled, there's the iron bar, there's the shoe impressions. It's all accounted for. There's nothing out of the ordinary.

"It's painful to watch forensic shows where no officer ever has a pen in their hand or a clipboard, no one takes a note. So I'd be fascinated to see them in court being grilled by the defence barrister with no notes and working only from memory.

"That's the other thing. The television experts never seem to go to court. The crime's always solved, obviously within an hour."

Sgt Dacey doesn't find any crime scenes upsetting.

"I don't know that I've ever been upset. However, there are gruesome aspects. Spending time exhuming bodies at a scene, their smell, the difficult weather conditions in which you find yourself working. While we may become desensitised to crime scenes, we still are aware of the human side to tragedy and human loss."

Insp Sitlington and Sgt Dacey acknowledge the false reality of the forensic television shows even influences police detectives.

"Police officers watch these CSI shows like everyone else. Unfortunately, they think what they see on these shows is reality. We have had detectives at crime scenes ring forensics and say, 'I have seen a certain forensic technique on television. Are you capable of doing it?'

"Forensic science has moved so fast that people are unsure whether new techniques are available or make believe."

Forensic teams routinely discover interesting explanations for simple situations. Recently, an investigating detective was struggling to piece together the circumstances of a suspicious death. Sgt Dacey was called to an outdoor scene where a dead man had a gunshot wound to the head. The police who were first to the scene thought the situation looked like a suicide, but were unable to find a firearm or witnesses to confirm the circumstance of the death.

Other possibilities had to be considered. The victim could have been shot and dumped. Even a scenario of suicide after which a dog ran off with the gun was considered.

"Our initial search failed to turn up any clues. We then went to the deceased's house and found equipment used to manufacture firearms. The deceased had built a 100mm long, hand-held firearm, which used a single shotgun cartridge. When he put the gun to his head and discharged it, the force of the shotgun cartridge caused the gun to fly out of his hand.

Crime scene examiners eventually found it lodged in the fork of a tree a long distance from the body. Further searches of the deceased's home revealed letters which were consistent with suicide."

Sgt Dacey said bomb scenes were the most time consuming crime scenes. The blast disperses evidence over a wide area, requiring many investigators.

"The biggest crime scene the department has handled was the bombing of the Russell St police headquarters," Sgt Dacey said. "Bomb fragments were travelling at hundreds of metres per second. Fragments are evidence and in this case, the evidence was spread over several city blocks.

"If you don't search, you don't find. Bomb fragments found half a kilometre away can provide the link to items found in a suspect's house. If you stopped looking in the immediate area, you may not turn up those links. You don't know what you will find until you have finished. That's why all bombings are long, slow and laborious."

Serial killer Paul Denyer's first murder scene was examined by Sgt Dacey. "There was nothing there. Pouring rain washed any forensic evidence away. The female victim was lying in a pool of water."

But as Denyer's serial killing progressed, he started leaving his DNA at the scene.

"Once those three letters, DNA, came up in discussion with Denyer, he admitted to the crimes knowing he had left his blood behind at the crime scenes," Sgt Dacey said.

DNA is the acronym for deoxyribonucleic acid, a molecule present in every organism and which we inherit from our parents.

DNA leaves our body via a vast array of ways including our skin, breath, blood, sweat or semen. We also leave DNA on items that have contacted with our bodies and then become dislodged, such as clothing fibres.

DNA samples collected by crime scene examiners are processed by the DNA branch at the Macleod forensic complex. Dr Peta Stringer is the manager of the DNA branch. She has been a forensic scientist for 23 years.

Last year, Dr Stringers' 36 testing staff performed 15,000 DNA tests with Profiler Plus, the system used by all Australian police forensic departments. A national system enables results to be compared across all jurisdictions and generates a national DNA database of criminals.

Dr Stringer believes Profiler Plus is the best testing system due to its ability to exclude innocent people, equally important as providing matches to crime scene samples.

The ability to discriminate between different DNA is essential. During an armed hold-up, the gunman may use the pen from the bank's deposit counter to write his demands. His DNA may be left on the pen, together with every recent customer's DNA who also used the same pen.

Testing time for DNA at Macleod varies greatly from what's portrayed on television.

"Television forensic laboratories always seem to be able to get the results within an unrealistic time frame. They never portray a real laboratory's work pressure.

"Some tests are more complex than others. Testing clean clothing is easier than clothing from a sexual assault that can be dirty and bloody. With those samples, before we test for DNA, we make notes about the distribution of bloodstains, location and quantity of seminal fluid, presence of hair as well as describing the damage to the clothing. This is a complex and lengthy process."

While an urgent single sample DNA test can take two days, the Macleod DNA laboratory usually performs tests in batches of 30, every two weeks. Batch testing is more time and cost efficient, spreading the $50 cost of testing a single sample across the 30 samples.

Dr Stringer's view of forensic television such as CSI is that the technology and vast array of tests are mostly realistic, but not the people or procedures.

"Twenty years ago, forensic scientists who were experts in multiple forensic areas existed, but these days scientific disciplines are so technical and complex you can't be an expert in more than one area.

"In these shows. the actor is an expert in fingerprints in one program, then an expert in ballistics in the next and then a chemistry expert in another."

According to Dr Stringer, it takes years of training to become an expert in any area of forensic science. This doesn't only apply to staff but also to new equipment.

"Every time we introduce a new instrument in forensic science, you don't just buy it, turn it on and start using it. There's a long period of staff training and calibrating the performance characteristics of each new instrument. That can take months or sometimes years.

"I remember an episode of CSI where the forensic team was trying to locate a person with a new form of global positioning technology. They walked up to a machine and said, 'Oh, we got this yesterday'. They then turned it on and started using it. That could never happen in our world.

"Forensic scientists have no vested interest in whether a person is guilty or innocent. The forensic scientist's role is to make a proper scientific examination of exhibits and interpret the results. We never think, 'Yahoo, I've finally got the evidence that's going to convict this person'.

"We're not particularly interested in whether there's a conviction or not. It's up to the jury and judges to take our information and use it as they see appropriate."

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© 2006 Australian Institute of Criminology