New Crime Shows Educate Criminals

A FEW DECADES BACK, when a medical examiner named Quincy ruled prime time and science was becoming a detective's best friend, burglars learned a useful trick. Before rifling someone's household possessions, they'd grab a pair of socks from a bedroom drawer and pull them over their hands.

New Crime Shows Educate Criminals

A FEW DECADES BACK, when a medical examiner named Quincy ruled prime time and science was becoming a detective's best friend, burglars learned a useful trick. Before rifling someone's household possessions, they'd grab a pair of socks from a bedroom drawer and pull them over their hands. The idea was to obscure their fingerprints, but this crude manoeuvre offered a measure of convenience, too. When the heist was done, the thieves could simply peel off the victim's socks, leave them on the floor, and split.

Robbers still use the technique - with a critical difference. "Now they take the socks with them," says Insp. Paula Dionne, in charge of forensic identification services for the RCMP. Schooled by contemporary television shows like CSI, Da Vinci's Inquest and Law & Order, the bad guys are now ultra-careful not to shed hangnails, body hair or anything else the likes of CSI's Gil Grissom might nab with his forceps. This use by low-level miscreants of information obtained with the flick of a remote control may be futile. "Everybody leaves their trademark at a crime scene," Dionne declares. But it says a lot about the reach of today's justice-based television. These days, we are all learning from crime drama.

'Twas not always thus. While shows like Martin Kane, Private Eye and Dragnet drew big audiences back in television's infancy, technical accuracy was not exactly their strong suit. The secrets of blood-stain analysis and interrogation techniques took a back seat to the rather pedestrian storytelling methods thought necessary for mass consumption. Quincy can take credit for bringing forensic science to the small screen, but that show offered nothing akin to the moral and technical complexity of today's hit dramas. For that, you had to read a book, or go to the movies.

The latest crop of shows are quickly laying waste to perceptions of television as a vehicle of dumbed-down escapism. Striving for verisimilitude and driven to reach educated, wealthy audiences, producers of shows like Da Vinci and CSI routinely dial up coroners, pathologists and forensic anthropologists to keep abreast of cutting-edge investigative techniques (Insp. Dionne, among others, has been consulted). At the same time, writers for some of the more cerebral courtroom dramas are all but required to tie their stories to pressing social issues of the day - drug abuse, illegal immigration, terrorism or capital punishment.

As a result, say observers, prime time drama may be doing a better job of educating the public about justice issues than the news media. In a recent study of Law & Order episodes dealing with the so-called insanity plea, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania credited the program with "moving beyond limited and stereotypical depictions of mental illness" to raise pressing questions about personal responsibility or flaws in the legal system. "We believe these programs have the potential to engage the audience in a range of important social and political issues," wrote Rachel Gans-Boriskin, the paper's lead author. Other studies have declared the rise of "faction" - fiction that draws on factual stories - which they see as an answer to the oft-decried "infotainment" seen in modern news.

Fictional television has always held the potential to be more challenging, says Murray Pomerance, a media expert at Toronto's Ryerson University. "The bread and butter of the dramatic 60-minute television program is the nuanced experience of everyday life as felt by the characters." What's changed, he says, is the viewers' level of sophistication. These shows "have another audience, an educated audience, whom they're aiming at in many different ways. One way is raising the level of writing."

That doesn't mean the programs have a universally positive influence. Joe Bellows, a prominent Crown prosecutor in Vancouver, says he's noticed a bias among jurors toward scientific proof, versus witness accounts, since CSI and Da Vinci began airing. "There's a concern among prosecutors that you now have to explain a negative if there's no forensic evidence," says Bellows. "Sometimes it's actually necessary to lead evidence through Crown witnesses to show in a particular case it wasn't possible to conduct that sort of forensic examination." Dr. James Young, a former chief coroner of Ontario, worries that TV shows overstate the reliability of certain forensic techniques, causing viewers to think of those methods as bulletproof. "There's a continuum," he says. "Some of this evidence is more subjective, some more objective. Interpretation of hair and fibre, for example, can be a lot more subjective. In some cases it's more an investigative lead than something that should be relied on to convict somebody."

So loudly are prosecutors and judges complaining that a group of researchers at Saint Mary's University in Halifax is now monitoring what's been described as "the CSI effect," in which juries render not-guilty verdicts if they don't see forensic evidence. Meanwhile, more troubling reports have surfaced suggesting criminals are applying knowledge gained from TV shows to cover their tracks. Car thieves in Britain have reportedly learned to grab ashtrays from outdoor bins and dump them in the cabs of stolen autos before they abandon them, thus creating a pool of alternative suspects. Some rapists, says Bellows, now use condoms to avoid leaving genetic material behind (one in the U.S. forced his victim to shower after the attack to wash off evidence).

Most of the shows have picked up on these concerns, and some are actually weaving them into their plots. "I try to find the small details that would stump an investigation - what would stop it dead and why," says Chris Haddock, creator of Da Vinci's Inquest and the show's latest incarnation, Da Vinci's City Hall. "Yes, there may be an uptick in public knowledge, and that's great in terms of social issues and legal rights. But I think it's a dangerous shift to start thinking of science as our saviour. We've seen too many nightmare cases where that just wasn't so."

In particular, Haddock tries to avoid the kinds of easy solutions that, for all their technical content, shows like CSI still rely on. When lab results miraculously appear within hours, or characters mobilize battalions of forensic professionals to expose the lying bad guy, he can't help laughing. "In reality, there are political decisions made along the way at many crime scenes," Haddock says. "Like spending on overtime for investigators. Or whether to spend thousands on lab tests. Political decisions trump science all the time, and I think that's part of the fraud that's been perpetrated - this idea that science is democratically applied."

His distaste for oversimplification is far from risk-free. We're still conditioned for happy outcomes, or at least tidy ones. But today's TV audience is teaching producers to have some faith, just as some inspired shows are overthrowing what couch potatoes have come to expect. Sit in front of that box long enough, it turns out, and you just might learn something.

Maclean's November 7, 2005