Wednesday, May 14, 2008

To CSI or not CSI...that's the question!

Recently, mystery/crime writer Patricia Cornwell donated a lot of money for the creation of a crime scene academy at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Why? See the excerpt of the article below that appeared in the newspaper, USA Today.

NEW YORK (AP) — Patricia Cornwell is donating $1 million to a top criminal justice college for a new academy to teach CSI techniques.
The best-selling novelist said she's taking action because she's appalled by what she's seen at crime scene investigations.
"I've seen cops walk through blood. I've seen them leave their own fingerprints on a window," Cornwell said in an interview Friday. "I've seen bloody clothing put in a plastic bag, instead of a paper bag, so it decomposes."
Her funding will help start the Crime Scene Academy at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, set to open this fall with training in DNA typing, fingerprint enhancement techniques, ballistics and forensic psychology

Later, Ms. Cornwell recanted her words and, more or less, apologized for the above quote. As writers of mystery/crime-related stories, articles, novels and books, we often get mired down in finding the facts. We do research and interview experts and sources in order to have authentic information in our works. In the case of works of fiction, truth may be even more important since we ask our readers to suspend their disbelief while reading our words and trust in us enough to let us lead them into our world. Few things can be as jarring to a reader than to find a miscue or incorrect information in the middle of an otherwise fully engaging story. I was once reading a great story( although the title and author momentarily escape me) in which the author describes how one of the characters screws a silencer onto the end of a revolver. Revolvers don't have silencers that can be screwed onto the end of their barrels and they wouldn't work if they did anyway. Truth in fiction is important, especially in crime drama.

But, getting back to the CSI thing... First off, I know a lot of cops (heck, I'm a former employee of the NYPD myself), and although Crime Scene Investigations are an extremely important part of any investigation, most cops know that the great majority of crimes are solved by their stoolies and street informers. I have watched cops and/or agents at crime scenes and have sometimes winced at the lack of respect for the crime scene. I have watched cops smoke at crime scenes, dropping ashes and spent cigarettes carelessly onto the ground or floor, cops move furniture, sit down, flush toilets, wipe their feet... I even once watched as an officer ate sunflower seeds and spit the shells onto the prone body of the perp! The truth is, although CSI makes for great television and even better writing, in real life it often takes a back seat to pounding the streets, knocking on doors, interviewing witnesses, or talking to informants. The CSI stuff, hairs, fibers, prints, etc. usually go into building a more solid case; something that can be presented to a D.A. and a judge. It can be used to elevate a case from purely circumstantial to indisputable, and certainly is crucial to getting a conviction... but the initial work, the grunt work, is what, most often than not, gets the bad guy or at least points the cops in the right direction. So Patricia Cornwell has nothing to apologize for... at least as far as I'm concerned.

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