The Why Files The Why Files --

CSI: Crime Seen, Investigated

POSTED 14 JULY 2005 (Originally posted 1996)
Lost in Aruba
Amid the boiling media frenzy over young Natalee Holloway, disappeared in Aruba more than a month ago, we can't be the only ones fearing that the search might end at a corpse. We all know the grim scene: exhausted, anguished searchers. Grief-stricken parents. Questions to be answered.

investigator in yellow gloves opens bag at crime sceneHow did she die? When did she die?

Evidence collected at a crime scene helps catch criminals. Photo: NYPD

The reality may be grim, but it's spawned a fantastic fantasy. Once a corpse is found, after all, it's time to summon the glamour-sodden detectives and perky lab geeks of the forensic squad: CSI: Aruba.

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At a time of pain, grief and confusion, crime scene investigators offer the irrefutable word of science, applying the TV-tested formula for crime-lab success: grinding determination pockmarked with flashes of brilliance.

Wanna nail the perp? Match wits with the dark side? Hire brainy, buff young things. Get a graying boss -- one part street-savvy and one part senior-sexy -- to firmly guide the blow-dried newbies through the laboratory labyrinth, where lessons of the gas chromatograph morph into the lessons of life.

CSI is a place where science rules, where technology -- and the hunks -- always nab the villain.

Bones lay exposed in a dark wooded area.
When you find a body, you need to collect every bit of evidence. Don't forget the maggots! Photo: Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Calling CSI wanna-bes
CSI has started an improbable fad for forensics wannabes. According to the Why Files poll, 7 in 10 young Americans want to be forensic experts (the rest plan on a career chasing tornadoes).

Forensic science: The reality behind the TV-glitzDid you fall for that poll bizness? Just kidding. Seriously, we read the response to CSI in our email at The Why Files: endless variations on, "How can I get started in forensic science?" Lawrence Kobilinsky, associate provost of John Jay College of Criminal Justice and head of the Council of Forensic Science Education, sees a flowering of forensic-science education. "There are new programs cropping up all the time," he says. "I know about 90 new undergraduate programs, and there are some I don't know about. They are popping up overnight."

One last thing: Beyond flooding the market with gotta-be forensic investigators, Kobilinsky says the cavalcade of CSI shows is putting an unrealistic burden on the prosecution. "Juries now hold the prosecution to a higher standard, now that they are aware of this DNA evidence, all this fancy-shmancy technology they see on TV, that looks so sexy on TV." In most cases, he says, the physical evidence is far less conclusive. Enough preamble. Want some advice, Mac? Read the warning. Click the button.

The following graphic material may make the squeamish, well, a lot more squeamish. If reading about decomposing bodies and the flesh-eating insects that love them may cause you to hurl, skip ahead to our comforting coverage of the handwriting of serial killers. Otherwise, open your air-sickness bag ... let's dive into the study of flesh-eating insects. You are warned!

Need to know time of death? Ask these insects.


Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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