A Forensics Expert Explains Just How Far Removed CSI Is From Reality

Illustration for article titled A Forensics Expert Explains Just How Far Removed CSI Is From Reality

Stand back behind the yellow tape, everyone! The CSI techs are on their way and they are coming to science—and it’s driving the real forensics experts crazy.


Dawnie Steadman is a forensic anthropologist and the director of the University of Tennesee’s “body farm”—the facility where they do the research that enables a crime tech to come up with answers to questions ranging from how long a body has been someplace to just who it might be. She joined us today to answer your questions about body farms, forensics, and just what CSI was doing to people’s perceptions of forensics in real life:

I think the CSI effect is real, probably more-so in some trials than others. Juries of course want to be sure of the findings so they can provide a proper verdict. Therefore, they may be disappointed if DNA evidence isn’t provided as evidence of an identification as they feel that is fool-proof, but hopefully the experts that are put on the stand can explain the science sufficiently to the juries to persuade them that an identification is reliable.

Of course, just because CSI-style antics aren’t taking place doesn’t mean that there’s not some pretty subtle clues that they’ve learned how to pick up on:

There are actually a number of clues that help us locate a body if we can understand the interaction between a decomposing body and its environment. For instance, when a body decomposes, and especially when there is maggot activity, the tissues liquify and pool around the body. This “decomposition pool” kills any vegetation and stains the soil dark brown or black. So even if a body has been moved, we can see where the body decomposed by the dead grass and discolored soil. Another visual sign is in burials the soil inside the grave is looser than the soil outside of the grave because it was disturbed to dig the grave. Thus, as time goes on, the soil inside the grave begins to settle and may create a depression that is a visual cue of where the grave is when you do a search.

You can read Steadman’s full interview—including an answer on why Law & Order is preferable to Bonesright here.


As someone who has served on a few recent juries, unfortunately YES the “CSI effect” is absolutely real. If there is no video, DNA or vidoes of DNA, many jurors immediately assume “not evidence/no proof”

Witness testimony is almost universally judged by these idiots based on how likable or attractive someone is. And even if they “like” the witness, they will often snark on outfits and such.

My last jury, I had to take over because the “foreperson” was allowing the discussions to go all over the place.

I insisted everyone look at the evidence presented, and then comment on the evidence and stop speculating and “wishing” for non-evidence that didn’t exist. Afterwards we finally hit a verdict, and multiple people thanked me after the trial, the rationale being that if I hadn’t taken over we would have been 2-3 weeks delibs on a fucking DUI trial.

The restraining order violation case a few years back I was on started off particularly derpy as the “foreperson” (randomly elected by seat number) thought the most important thing to discuss was “I THINK HE STILL LOVES HER!”. ughh.