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Classes give budding CSIs a reality check

Popular shows give unrealistic view of tough job
/ Source: The Associated Press

In one hand, he holds a blood-smeared cotton swab over a beaker. In the other, he delicately clasps a dropper filled with a chemical solution.

Matthew Forneris pauses and looks to his forensic science professor for instructions. Very carefully, he’s told, he must squeeze a drop of the liquid onto the tip of the swab.

But the college junior squeezes a bit too hard and the solution squirts onto the table, onto his hand — everywhere but onto the swab.

“Whoops,” Forneris mutters with a sheepish grin as the liquid dribbles down his fingers.

Professor Marilyn Miller gives him a sideways glance and says, “Did I tell you it was a carcinogen? No — just kidding.”

It’s not exactly the slick and glamorous image of crime scene investigators portrayed on the “CSI” TV shows or “Crossing Jordan.” But that’s fine with Miller. The Virginia Commonwealth University professor began her career as a forensic scientist in 1979 — long before it became trendy.

While such shows have boosted enrollment in forensic science classes nationwide, many in the field say they give budding crime scene investigators an unrealistic view of what the job is all about.

“All the kids think our lives are like ‘CSI’ — in reality, it’s not,” said the forensic scientist best known for his work on the O.J. Simpson murder trial, Henry Lee. “The student has to understand it’s a lot of work.”

Miller works to help her students become “critical consumers” of the TV programs, while still drawing on the shows to keep them interested.

And she knows what she’s talking about. Miller has testified as a forensics expert in more than 350 trials and helped write “Henry Lee’s Crime Scene Handbook.” She continues to work as a forensics consultant on criminal cases across the country.

“I don’t try to debunk them completely — instead I try to point out their limitations,” Miller said. “We don’t have those cool little flashbacks — God, I wish we did!”

Fact is different from fictionIn the real world, the job can be messy and frustrating. Liquids spill, lifting a good fingerprint can take hours, and, as one of Miller’s former students remembers her old professor telling her: “It always rains on a crime scene.”

“And the first crime scene I went to, it did rain,” said Andrea Champagne, now a 28-year-old forensic scientist for a sheriff’s department west of Chicago.

So just how different is fact from fiction?

“We don’t solve crimes in 46 minutes, we don’t all drive Hummers and we’re not all models,” said Ronald Singer, immediate past president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and crime lab director for the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office in Fort Worth, Texas.

Aside from the superficial differences, the shows tend to combine the job of 10 workers into one and the technology used is often exaggerated — or completely fabricated, Singer said.

Experts say curtailing some of the myths surrounding forensic science is becoming even more important because of what they call the “CSI effect” — the shows are giving juries unrealistic expectations of what their local crime labs are capable of doing.

That’s one of the reasons many forensic science professors say painting a realistic picture of the job is so vital — even if doing so causes some students to run the other way.

“We’ll lose two out of ten (students) because they come in with these crazy views of what it’s really like,” said Claire Shepard, director of the forensic science program at Griffin Technical College in Griffin, Ga., and another one of Miller’s former students. “Most people don’t understand, even though it says ‘forensic science,’ that it’s science.”

“A lot of them come in thinking it’s gonna be interviewing people and getting the confession out of them and hiding in bushes ... and that’s, of course, not what it is at all,” she said.

Becoming a forensic scientist requires years of intensive chemistry studies, something that many students balk at, said Jose Almirall, director of the forensic science graduate program at Florida International University.

“A lot of kids say, ’I want to be a CSI because I like what they do on the show,”’ Almirall said. “And then you tell them, ‘Well, you have to take four years of chemistry.’ And they say, ‘Oh. I don’t wanna do that.”’

The TV shows and movies do get some things right, Miller said. And she frequently uses movies that glamorize the profession in her class to help point out what some of those things are. One of her favorites, “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle,” contains a spoof of ‘CSI’ in which the characters collect evidence from a crime scene.

“As farcical as this is, they’re actually using good physical evidence in this case,” Miller said as she watched the scene. “It’s a tool for keeping them engaged.”

Miller also keeps the students engaged by sprinkling her lectures with her quirky sense of humor.

“When you’re going to the crime scene ... take a known blood sample with you so that we’ll always be able to use that for comparison,” she calls out during a recent class as her students test a series of samples for hemoglobin. “Now, if that means having to stab your captain in order to get the blood, just make sure you ask nicely before you do it.”

Hands-on work also keeps the classes fun, Miller said. She uses foam rubber dummies, toy guns and pig blood to create mock crime scenes. Students learn blood stain pattern analysis, fingerprinting techniques and study crime scene photos from some of the cases Miller has worked on.

Her techniques seem to be working. One of her students and an aspiring CSI, Kevin Rawls, said while the job isn’t quite what he expected and a lot different from what it’s like on his favorite show, “CSI: Miami,” it still looks like a lot of fun.

And even though the shows may not be perfect, Miller said they’ve had one unexpected benefit:

“I actually got to say, ‘Hey mom! I’m cool now!”’