The Reality of Forensics: 6 Myths Debunked

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Photo courtesy of care2.com.

Pop culture has a fascination with the world of forensic science. Whether it’s a television show, movie or novel. The public’s thirst for crime drama is unquenchable. And that’s because, crime has an inherent conflict on multiple levels, which equals great drama!

The problem is, much of what is portrayed on the screen is not accurate.

So, in honor of the women and men who dedicate their lives to forensics—here are 6 myths exposed.

#1           Crime Scenes

Myth:  A single forensics investigator collects and analyzes all the evidence from a crime scene.

Reality: Crime scene investigations are conducted by a team of forensic experts. Each investigator is well-versed in their particular discipline, and that’s what they focus on. It could be DNA analysis, ballistics, fingerprints or some other specialization.

So, in short—the proper processing of a crime scene requires several forensic experts. Both from a collection and analysis standpoint.

To that end, once the investigators collect all the evidence present at a crime scene, the evidence is sent off-site to a lab (or labs) for analysis. At that time, highly trained scientists dissect and analyze the evidence that pertains to their discipline. From beginning to end, the process is tedious and time-consuming.

#2           Crime Investigation

Myth: Detectives analyze crime scene evidence.

Reality: This is an interesting one. The answer is both yes—and no.  Of course, detectives piece together evidence as part of their investigation into criminal activity. But, they rarely (if ever) have a role in analyzing the actual evidence collected at crime scenes

At the crime scene, detectives are obviously present. But, as stated above, specific forensic personnel are present to collect the evidence.

Once the evidence has been collected, detectives work alongside the forensic investigators, who generally enter the process after the evidence has been sent to the lab for analysis. The detective relies on the expertise of the investigator to provide them with the salient details of the evidence analysis.

Basically, the detective handling the case defers the evidence work to the experts. And how about the detective’s role? Well, they only have the monumental task of putting together the intricate puzzle of the crime elements from opportunity to motive to evidence.

#3           Forensic Psychology

Myth: Forensic science and forensic psychology are one in the same.

Reality: Well, they both have forensic in their description. And they’re both based on science. So, they must the same.

Right?

No, not exactly.

It’s true that both spheres use science to solve crimes, but that’s where the similarities end. The main difference is this: forensics is a “hard science,” in that the conclusions are based on laboratory investigations of tangible items. Think blood, bullets and fingerprints. Whereas, forensic psychology is applying psychological knowledge to the context of a legal situation. Essentially, forensic psychologists use their education and experience, and apply that understanding to issues related to the law.

So, for instance, a forensic psychologist won’t use a microscope to make a concrete determination as to whose hair fibers were left a crime scene. But, they will use their expertise to help law enforcement understand the motive behind a killer charged with First Degree Murder.

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Photo courtesy of centreofexcellence.com.

 #4           Criminal Evidence

Myth: Every single crime scene is processed for evidence.

Reality: The fact is—processing crime scenes is an expensive and time-consuming endeavor. That’s why most crime scenes are not scoured for evidence. Law enforcement agencies have tight budgets, and limited resources. And sometimes, certain crimes do not make the cut for being processed.

Criminal justice agencies would love to process every single crime scene. Why wouldn’t they? More evidence would certainly bolster the investigation and eventual prosecution. However, due to the immense amount of resources exerted in the proper processing of crime scenes, many police departments either abbreviate the processing, or eliminate it altogether.

For example: large, urban police departments generally won’t process a burglary scene unless it meets a certain monetary threshold—like $5,000.

#5           Analysis of DNA

Myth: Modern DNA analysis can identify a person within minutes.

Reality: Even in ‘simple’ cases, DNA analysis takes at least several hours. And, at that point, the DNA processing is still not complete. In order for a thorough DNA analysis conclusion to be made, it generally takes 30 or more days.

So, although, the initial analysis could match someone within a few hours, such analysis is not going to be enough to convict someone.

The FBI’s Combined DNA Index System has over 8 million records, but the index does not store personal information. Thus, in order to confirm the identity of someone, the forensic investigator must scour a plethora of other databases, including convicted perps, missing persons and unsolved crimes. If that isn’t hard enough. The search has to be done sometimes at the local, state and federal levels.

#6           Criminal Profiling

Myth: A forensic psychologist exists only to conduct criminal profiling.

Reality: Criminal profiling is a fascinating, and deeply complex, discipline. But, it’s just one of many responsibilities of a forensic psychologist.

The myriad of items that forensic psychologists are tasked with include designing crime prevention programs for adults and juveniles. Advising police departments on cutting-edge criminal psychology theories, and the prevailing views on various mental illnesses. And consulting – on an array of psychological issues – with attorneys, judges and other criminal (and civil) court personnel.

Although pop culture often stretches the truth for dramatic purposes, many highly-regarded TV shows and movies use forensic consultants to ensure accuracy. In my opinion, the realism adds to the drama, as opposed to detracting from it.

Do you know of any more forensic science myths that should be demystified?

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About jchasenovelist

Published thriller author, criminologist, and blogger.
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6 Responses to The Reality of Forensics: 6 Myths Debunked

  1. Elaine Emmerick says:

    Hi Jennifer,
    I just read the article and it’s absolutely fascinating!

    Elaine

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Always my favorite part of most crime shows, cops show up, call detectives. A detective arrives, opens the trunk of the car where he has a field DNA lab that produces not just the result but an accurate up-to-date address for the suspect. Followed by a fifteen-minute murder trial and conviction. Of course, at one point the detective tells the defense attorney to shut up, and he does.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great points, Jen. I don’t watch the crime shows (except for real-life criminal stuff like The Apprentice 🙂 but I think what’s underappreciated by TV is detectives’ ability to process overall information. Not taking anything away from the forensic team but it’s the 50K foot view vs the 50 foot one. Also, most experienced detectives are human lie detectors. They sniff BS from a mile. They also have no personal agenda in the case except for doing their best to successfully conclude it within legal parameters while balancing a homelife, paying the mortgage, attending kids’ sports and trying to stay somewhat sane. As they say, it’s all pensionable service 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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