By Michelle E. Dunn
The popularity of real-crime and forensic investigation shows has turned many fans into armchair investigators.
As a result, some police and prosecutors have become leery of the “CSI Effect” – that jurors who watch these shows expect impossibly fast investigations, mountains
of forensic evidence, and “smoking guns” pointing to suspects.
But “real-crime” shows such as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and others aren’t portraying the real world, according to the university’s experts,
Dr. Rafael Rojas Jr., who worked for 30 years in law enforcement (with police, corrections and the Brooklyn, N.Y., District Attorney’s Office), and Dr. Peter Frost, a psychologist who conducts research on forensic issues.
The shows are “about 90 percent Hollywood,” Rojas said. “The more people watch the TV series, the more people accept it as truth. You see them on ‘CSI’ investigating a homicide, and within the hour they solve the crime. The reality is you may be able to solve a crime in a couple of days, depending on the intensity of the circumstances of the crime itself. Or it may take months or years, and there are others that take 20 years.
“I feel insulted because they’re portraying things that are not real and people are buying it,” he added. “This is show business.”
The Extra Mile asked Rojas and Frost to dispel some of the myths.
Myth: Criminal profiling is a proven, successful strategy for identifying suspects.
“The success of criminal profiling in identifying the type of person who committed a crime has been hit or miss and unproven at best,” Frost said.
An FBI agent successfully profiled the Unabomber, for example. But the prediction that a lone, white, employed male in his 30s was the sniper terrorizing Virginia and Washington, D.C., in 2002 was way off, Frost said. The crimes were actually committed by two unemployed, African-American homeless men, one 17 and the other 41.
“For every profile that has been correct, I can probably point out one that was not,” Frost said.
Myth: “The truth” can be discovered easily through hypnosis, or hypnosis can be used to persuade someone to commit a crime.
There have been cases where hypnosis has helped witnesses remember details of a crime, Frost said. For example, in 1976, 26 children and their bus driver were kidnapped and buried in a quarry. They dug themselves out. One victim, only under hypnosis, recalled the kidnappers’ license plate number, and the kidnappers were found, arrested and eventually convicted.
But hypnosis has also been shown to increase false memories, Frost added, pointing to a series of lawsuits in the 1980s involving alleged victims of sexual abuse who charged their therapists with inducing false memories during hypnosis.
“You might have somebody that can remember something they wouldn’t otherwise remember, but I haven’t seen too many cases where it’s worked that well,” Frost said. “We see it in therapy where people ... found out later they had a false memory even though they were convinced they retrieved a genuine memory through hypnosis.”
One TV show depicted someone who was prompted to commit theft through hypnosis. Such a scenario is doubtful, Frost said.
“It’s not likely you could get people to do things they would find morally objectionable,” Frost said. “You have to be able to concentrate on what I suggest and willfully be able to do it; otherwise the hypnosis won’t work. It’s just focused concentration. It doesn’t require a trance or altered consciousness.”
Myth: Eyewitness testimony is completely reliable.
“Nothing sways a jury like a confident witness,” Frost said. “It’s common for people to think that memory is like a flash drive or a computer when, in fact, memory is fallible.”
Frost and his students have conducted research about false memory and found it isn’t difficult to get “witnesses” to believe something happened that didn’t.
“It’s easier than I originally thought to get people to think they have a memory when they really don’t,” Frost said. “It’s the thing that disturbs me most about my research.
“Memory can be decent, but you need corroboration,” he said.
Myth: Everything at a crime scene is evidence.
Any place where a crime was committed likely had “a lot of junk” there before the crime took place, so items found there may have nothing to do with the crime, Rojas said.
“When a crime is committed, they don’t say ‘Wait a minute, let me clean this place up first,’” Rojas said. “It can take weeks to see if there is any piece of evidence related to the crime.”
Rojas likens a crime scene to a big puzzle, with the investigator trying to put together one piece at a time.
“There is an unrealistic expectation that crime scenes yield a lot of evidence that can be analyzed by a foolproof forensic science technique. There’s no such thing as a foolproof forensic technique,” he said. “Forensic science cannot successfully validate everything. All these techniques are manipulated by the human factor. We can make a mistake.”