U.S. News & World Report has taken its turn at the “C.S.I. Effect” story in a cover article. “Jurors are smarter, and understaffed government crime labs are using the trend to seek more funding,” says the magazine. After seeing crimes solved by forensic evidence in an hour on television, many people are disappointed at the real world of law and order. Jurors increasingly expect forensic evidence in every case, and they expect it to be conclusive. Juries expect cases “to be a lot more interesting and a lot more dynamic,” says Barbara LaWall, county prosecutor in Tucson, Ariz. “It puzzles the heck out of them when it’s not.”
In real life, says Joseph Peterson of the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Illinois-Chicago, DNA is rarely culled from crime scenes and analyzed. Crime scenes today are much like they were in the 1970s, Peterson says, when his studies found that fingerprints and tool marks were the most common types of evidence left. Like crime scenes, many crime labs haven’t changed much. Many are still understaffed, and they often don’t receive all of the relevant physical evidence from the crime scene, either because police investigators don’t know what they’re looking for or because they figure–possibly wrongly–that the case is strong enough without it. U.S. News says that a crime lab’s bread and butter is testing drugs found at crime scenes, doing toxicology screens, and comparing fingerprints. DNA matches are way down the list; they are time consuming and expensive. A Cape Cod trash hauler gave police a DNA sample in March 2004. The lab was backlogged. Last week, after it was finally analyzed, he was arrested for the 2002 murder of fashion writer Crista Worthington.