The Fictionalization of Forensics
When I performed my first autopsy in the late 1980s, the closest point of reference many people had to the study of forensics was probably the popular TV show, “Quincy” (1986-93), which starred Jack Klugman as a forensic pathologist in Los Angeles. Even so, the existence of one former TV show that was quickly fading from popular culture memory was not enough for the masses to view my chosen profession as particularly interesting or topical. But that was then.
Today, based on the proliferation of TV shows devoted to the topic – like the “CSI” franchise, “Bones” and “NCIS” among the many – my title as a forensic pathologist with the South Bend Medical Foundation now solicits a considerably different reaction from those I meet than it would have 20 years ago.
While the attention such shows have cast upon our profession is somewhat flattering for all of us in the field, the recent exposure of forensic pathology in pop culture has created some common misconceptions among the general public. And while most of these misconceptions are basically harmless, they do become more than trivial when they spill over into a criminal courtroom. This is what we call the CSI Effect. This describes the expectations of jurors that evidence presented in an actual homicide trial should always be based on various high tech, scientific tests. Or, if the evidence isn’t perceived as high tech – as it is often portrayed on television – that somehow the police, prosecutors or forensic scientists didn’t do their job properly.
With the CSI Effect in mind, the following are three common areas where Hollywood frequently gets a little creative with the facts:
Quick Turnaround Times for Test Results
On TV, we all observe that you get autopsy and other test results back in less than an hour. However, actual turnaround times are not so short. Usually, not even close. For instance, getting toxicology tests back can range from a few days to a couple months depending on whether they involve a particularly unusual or complex test. The standard is at least a few days to a few weeks. DNA testing as well as histology testing – where we look at tissue samples under a microscope – can also require days to weeks to complete. The bottom line is that the final report in a forensic autopsy can typically take one to two months, or even longer, to complete – not one to two commercial breaks.
Establishing Time of Death
This is one area where Hollywood continues to perpetuate the myth that forensic pathologists can accurately determine the time of death down to the hour, sometimes even down to the minute. However, it’s usually just not possible. Obviously, writers do this because it makes for good drama on television. If you can find a body and go back three days to determine that the time of death was between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., that helps identify possible suspects or support alibis.
The reality is that, in most cases, there is no reliable test to establish time of death. We can use changes that occur to the body after death – like decomposition – to determine if death occurred closer to the time the deceased was last seen alive or when the body was found, but we cannot pinpoint it like they do on TV.
One truly scientific way of estimating a range for time of death is soliciting the assistance of a forensic entomologist if insects are found on the body. The entomologist can help us arrive at a relatively accurate determination based on their assessments. But, again, this simply allows us to get closer to a possible time of death; it may narrow it down to a span of a few days, but usually not a specific day – let alone the hour or minute.
Crime Scene Details and Sequence
This is a huge myth. The perception that we can reliably determine the sequence and details of events that led to a death is seldom possible.
For example, let’s say a body has two gunshot wounds, a stab wound and some abrasions on the knees and the backs of the hands. I’m typically not going to be able to testify that the abrasions on the backs of the hands resulted from fighting and that the injuries on the knees occurred when the victim fell to the floor. And that, then, they sustained the stab wound and were shot shortly afterwards.
In a vast majority of cases, I simply can’t determine the actual sequence of events. Now, I can be presented with possible scenarios, such as the prosecution or defense attorney asking me, “Could these injuries have happened this way, yes or no?” and I will give my opinion, but I cannot determine with certainty the actual sequence of events.
I can specify, for instance, some detailed information about gunshot wounds, such as this was a gunshot wound, and here is where the bullet entered and here is where it exited the body. But I can’t usually say, for example, this bullet wound occurred first, followed by this one, and then this one. If I see a bruise, I can’t say if it happened an hour or seven hours before death and is unrelated to the events that caused death.
With all this said, I do know that many of these forensic crime dramas have medical consultants involved on the set. So, I don’t doubt that they are at least making an attempt to get the facts correct as best they can.
At least as long as those facts don’t come at the expense of a compelling storyline or really great ending!