Every night on TV portrayals of crime can be seen in everything from police dramas to news programmes and true-life crime documentaries.
Blurring the lines between fiction and reality, many crime dramas highlight the ability of forensic evidence, such as fingerprints and DNA, to provide evidence of innocence or guilt.
On global hit series NCIS, actor Pauley Perrette portrays forensic scientist Abby Sciuto, making her one of prime time’s most popular performers.
A few years ago, a headline declared, “Abby Sciuto Has Inspired a Whole Generation of Women to Dominate Forensic Science.” The Abby character is a forensics superstar. She achieved honours in college; triple majored in sociology, criminal science, and psychology; and also studied criminal science.
She is also fluent in sign language and is a skilled computer hacker.
If she existed, she might be the most overqualified forensic scientist in history.
Today, devotees of blood-spatter patterns and advanced DNA analysis have no shortage of programs to watch.
In addition to NCIS and its spin-offs, the series CSI, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Criminal Minds, Castle and Bones regularly showcase the triumph of lab work over the villainy of criminals.
Together, TV’s crime labs hammer home one message: the science of forensics has become so advanced that even the most diabolical criminals will inevitably be brought to justice.
If only their real-life counterparts were as effective.
Even as TV viewers see their favourite investigators succeed every week, a crisis is unfolding in the US’s real crime labs, which are often held up as world leaders in cutting-edge science.
Inadequately screened personnel, poor training, lax oversight, under-funding and massive backlogs: the evidence of forensics’ sorry state has mounted.
In one outrageous example, an estimated 400,000 rape kits have been administered but remain untested in the US because of budgetary constraints.
Some kits are so old that even if a perpetrator is identified, prosecution is impossible because the period of time specified in the statute of limitations has elapsed.
And then there’s criminal activity, which has been the cause of many of the recent failures in labs across the US.
In the past two years alone: Investigators discovered that tampering with and theft of drug evidence – heroin, cocaine, marijuana, and OxyContin – was rampant in the Delaware state crime lab from 2010 to February 2014, throwing 200 pending prosecutions and thousands of convictions into doubt.
A Houston, Texas, police department inquiry revealed that a technician altered evidence and failed to follow proper procedures, so DNA samples in some 185 cases, including 51 murders, will be reanalysed.
An analyst at a Santa Clara County, California, lab used the wrong chemical to conduct methamphetamine tests.
The blood samples from 2500 arrestees had to be retested, and seven false positives were found.
A state crime lab chemist in Massachusetts, was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for stealing drug evidence and tampering with samples to hide her theft.
A damning report found an incompetent New York technician, who mislabelled samples and overlooked and misplaced important DNA evidence in rape cases, was employed by her lab for more than nine years even though numerous superiors knew of her “myriad failures”.
But despite these disasters, the public’s faith in crime labs – due in part to Hollywood’s heroic portrayals – is greater than ever.
Jim Fisher, a former FBI agent and the author of Forensics Under Fire, and others call it the “CSI effect”.
He explains that the public has this idea about forensics from what it sees on TV that simply does not correspond with reality.
Even when practiced by well-trained technicians, forensics can be an inexact science.
And in the hands of unethical or sloppy analysts, forensics can be misused to catastrophic effect – bad lab work can undo criminal cases that required months of labour by police departments and district attorneys’ offices, place the innocent behind bars, and spring the guilty from prison.
To understand the havoc wreaked by the crime-lab crisis, here’s a look at two notable scandals in the US.