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Real forensic scientists shake their heads at TV ‘CSI’ counterparts

SHARE Real forensic scientists shake their heads at TV ‘CSI’ counterparts
We don’t go driving around in new Hummers and cruise the beaches in Miami.

SALT LAKE CITY — Sorenson Forensics Executive Director Tim Kupferschmid will turn on the TV every once in a while and watch crime shows with forensic labs, like "CSI."

But it's not because he expects he'll be inspired with a great new idea or watch something realistic.

"I watch them for the entertainment value," he said. "A lot of these things just don't happen in the real world. You don't identify DNA and then get a driver's license pop up (on a computer) and a GPS coordinate leading you to that person."

But because of popularity of shows like "CSI," Kupferschmid said he is asked by members of the public constantly about things that don't happen in real life.

"They find out what I do and say, 'That's so cool,' and they think it's so glamorous," he said.

The reality is being a forensic scientist can be very tedious and involve long hours of work.

Because of the many misconceptions about forensic scientists and DNA laboratories, Kupferschmid compiled a list of the Top 10 TV Crime Lab Myths. Topping the list is the idea that DNA can be gathered, tested and the results returned in a matter of hours.

"When they do their lab analysis, it seems instantaneous," Kupferschmid said.

In reality, the turnaround for analysis on a DNA case is two to five days. And that's if there isn't already a backlog in cases. But crime labs across the country are faced with huge backlogs, he said. Some labs have a 30- to 60-day waiting period before a case will even be looked at. For cases that aren't high profile or don't involve crimes against a person, the waiting list at some labs in the U.S. can be years, he said.

Another CSI myth is that the person who conducts the lab work also interrogates suspects, makes arrests and does police work.

"We don't go driving around in new Hummers and cruise the beaches in Miami," Kupferschmid said of his real life job.

Very rarely do you find forensic scientists today who are also certified law enforcers, he said.

"You wouldn't send someone to the police academy and then stick them in a lab. It would be a waste of their training. Just like you wouldn't send someone to be a scientist and then put them on the street for patrol," he said.

Another misconception: forensic scientists don't keep track of all their cases once they finish testing evidence.

"We do so many cases, we just can't possibly follow them all. We may follow some of them. Very rarely do we find out the final disposition of the case," Kupferschmid said.

Because only about 10 percent of the cases Salt Lake-based Sorenson Forensics handles come from Utah, Kupferschmid said most of the time his scientists have no idea if the case they're working on is high profile. In Utah, several cases handled by Sorenson have received a lot of attention because they helped solve cold cases.

Sorenson Forensics opened in 2006 and geared itself toward helping the law enforcement community by providing casework services for federal, state and local crime laboratories. The company made a mark immediately by solving several cold case homicides in Utah.

Interest in forensic science has exploded over the past several years as fast as the technology itself. Kupferschmid said the "CSI effect" is evident in today's courtrooms where some jurors have developed unrealistic expectations about how extensive and decisive forensic science truly is.

But on the flip side, the "CSI effect" has also resulted in many more people wanting to become forensic scientists.

"It's good for society to be aware of DNA. Before the OJ (Simpson) case, no one knew what DNA was. Now, it's part of normal conversation everyone has. As a whole, our public is much more aware of what we do," he said.

So if not for the glamor and excitement, why does Kupferschmid — an internationally recognized scientist with 20 years of forensic DNA experience — and other forensic scientists like him continue to do what they do?

"The pride aspect. We're doing something that has an immediate effect on people's lives every day," he said.

One other "CSI" myth Kupferschmid said isn't true are those scenes on TV where the forensic scientist is eating and drinking next to his work and joking around with colleagues.

“There’s no eating or drinking while conducting tests, and it’s hard to converse through a surgical mask," he said.

Top 10 TV crime lab myths

1. Crime labs can gather, prepare, test and have results from DNA and other forensic tests within a few hours.

2. A suspect will sit in an interrogation room wearing the same clothes he wore during the crime — and conclusive test results arrive just as you sit down to question him.

3. Crime scene investigators follow cases from start to finish and conclude investigations within a few days.

4. Crime scene investigators are directly involved with the investigation, raids and arrests.

5. Crime scene investigators can get DNA evidence from any surface.

6. DNA analyses provide two results: Yes, he did it, or no, he didn’t do it.

7. Crime scene investigators cannot only pull up DNA, but they can tell whether it came from tears, saliva, and sweat or cremated remains.

8. Everyone is in a DNA database.

9. When a DNA match is indicated, crime lab computers flash big red letters declaring a “99 percent match,” and a driver’s license photo for good measure.

10. Crime scene investigators conduct DNA testing while munching snacks or joking with colleagues.

E-mail: preavy@desnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam