Crime shows have fallen in love with forensics in recent years. Not just standby crime shows like Law & Order and CSI, but all types of crime drama make liberal use of DNA testing and substance analysis to catch their bad guys. It appears that Hollywood’s forensic science colleges teach their graduates a custom curriculum that is only applicable for a three-walled lab littered with a forest of light trees and multiple cameras surrounding its scientists. While there are some truths to its dramatic depiction, there are significant forensic science investigation differences that are simply not applicable to real life. Here is a list of major differences.
1. Time Lapse: Hollywood science has to finish the job in a couple hours, max. In reality, DNA testing and similar lab projects take weeks to produce any results. One reason is the enormous backlog lab technicians have to fight through. Tests wait by the hundreds for completion.
2. Packing Heat: Cop shows love the action, so analysts and forensic experts often hit the beat with gun and badge in tow, pound on both doors and pavement. In real life, except for the crime scene analysts tend to stay in the lab. They are rarely sworn officers carrying guns, and do not interrogate suspects.
3. Paperwork: Forensic science requires a long, long trail of paperwork confirming and double-checking all evidence so it will hold up in court. Because this paperwork is time-consuming, complex, and very, very monotonous, crime shows typically pretend it just doesn’t happen.
4. Fingerprint Probability: Fingerprint databases on crime shows pop up with perfect matches all the time. In real life, collecting fingerprints is tricky business, and even the best techniques result in a probability of confirmation, often with dozens of possible matches and the potential for human error. Often prints are not in databases at all, making them dead-ends in real life cases.
5. Showy Corpses: Autopsy scenes are a gruesome favorite of Hollywood, but true morgue masters note several key differences. A real corpse often has (depending on death) a face swollen beyond recognizability, gray skin, wide purple blotches called livor mortis, and other marked disfigurements. In other words, Hollywood likes its corpses too pretty.
6. Team Labor: In most cop shows, a team of at least four or five teams up to tackle one case. In real life, teams have to work several different cases at once, with different people serving in several positions at the same time, juggling multiple cases. They don’t have time to run off and build experiments or test gunfire. Instead, entirely separate departments are in charge of ballistics testing, poison investigation, and biological examination.