“Splitting Fibers”

When I first became interested in forensics, I loved to watch the Discovery Channel and Learning Channel shows about real-life crimes and the evidence and techniques that were used to solve them. I can only assume that these shows are created by PBS-type production companies rather than by the Hollywood studios that generate crime dramas. Still, I address them here because the documentary style shows can be just as misleading as Hollywood dramas.

This misrepresentation is the main reason I’ve gotten away from watching even the more factually based shows. I suppose part of my disdain for them comes from playing my part in the investigative process day in and day out. Most of these shows contain a synopsis of anywhere from one to three cases packaging months or years of investigative work into a segment no longer than a “Spongebob Squarepants” cartoon. As such, these segments are typically only able to focus on one particular aspect of a case and ignore the bulk of the investigation.

An example would be a case in which a suspect was identified because a single fiber found on the victim matched a rare imported rug that was recovered from the suspect’s home. Granted, this particular piece of evidence may have been the element of the case that ultimately solidified the guilt of the suspect. In my opinion, many shows give the impression that the entire case was based on the importance of one piece of evidence and the comparative analysis of one fiber expert.

In actuality, dozens of people and hundreds of articles of evidence have played a part in any given case. The example given above gives due credit to the fiber expert’s work, but completely ignores the very likely possibility that some other person was proficient enough in their role to have discovered the fiber on the victim and collected it in the first place.

Editorial Comments:

–I’m hesitant to say that it isn’t possible for one piece of evidence in a case to outweigh all the rest. Doing so would completely ignore the exculpating effect of O.J. Simpson “struggling” to put on a pair of gloves in the minds of jurors when it came time for them to evaluate actual evidence.
–I’m not trying to discount the role of the fiber expert. As a matter of fact, I admire their ability to do what they do.


3 Responses to ““Splitting Fibers””

  1. 1 Terri Poposky
    March 1, 2005 at 12:46 pm

    “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” Yes, I remember that. I think the prosecution should have allowed a person to put on his own glove with ease, and then again with a “struggle”. I tried this myself and I think I did a pretty convincing job of making it look as though my own glove did not fit. As for the TV documentaries, I understand that they have time limitations that they have to work with, but perhaps it would be a good idea for them to reveal how long it took to solve the case, how many people were involved, how many pieces of evidence were admitted, etc. They could even make a chart to display this data at the end of every episode. At least it would be an attempt to give the viewers a more accurate impression of what really goes on. I watch these shows sometimes, and I read books by John Douglas and other profilers, but I am still aware that there can never be anything like actually DOING. Although I am not involved in crime scene analysis (I test drinking water), I am a chemist. Sometimes I chuckle while watching these shows because when they submit a sample to the laboratory for analysis, they make it look like they just pour something into a machine, and a perfectly accurate analysis of all the contents comes out of the printer 5 seconds later. Ha!

  2. 2 Lori
    March 3, 2005 at 9:28 am

    “It was Miss Scarlet – in the study with the rare,unique Persian rug” I love how tidy the shows wrap everything up – the logic just seems to flow towards the obvious guilty person although there is usually a twist – some emotionally guarded person with a secret to hide (that has nothing to do with the case) and the next thing you know – BAM! – the case is solved. Puh-lease – can we have a little more reality here? Unfortunately, many people believe the shows are what really happens inthe field and are clueless to the many different roles that forensics actually requires. Then again, I am probably the “odd” one of the population – growing up as the child of two police officers- I wasn’t sheltered to the realities of crime scenes – and, as a chemist now, I know that instruments don’t magically give you the answers when you put a vial in it. At least I feel as though I am the odd one – when we watch the shows and I start laughing during certain scenes while my family is intently watching and looking at me like I am strange.

  3. March 4, 2005 at 6:54 pm

    Just curious…..do you watch Autopsy on HBO? I love that show…

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