On TV programs like CSI, all it takes is one sip from a soda can for detectives to swab, tag, and bust a guilty criminal with DNA certainty. But is real life technology advanced enough to perform such a feat?
Well, experts say both yes and no.
In the show, detectives are able to test any sample size, anywhere, anytime. Results are brought back almost immediately and detectives are able to make an arrest in a day or two.
So, is this scenario realistic?
“I will give the CSI show some credit in that they have done their research to see the type of technology that’s out there,” said Amanda Thompson, a DNA analyst and special agent for the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation.
When DNA testing technology was announced in the 1980s, scientists needed a large, uncontaminated sample in order to get accurate results. One small contaminate and the sample could be compromised forever.
Of course, a lot has changed since the 1908s.
Nowadays, DNA testing technology is so sensitive that it can gather accurate results from one nanogram of DNA; that means scientists can gather an accurate DNA profile based on the last person to touch a table or put their hand in a bag of chips.
This Touch DNA technique has been used in real life trial situations and even brought one North Carolina man up on charges for murder.
1 Point, CSI.
But unlike the TV show, “It takes us on average a couple weeks [to get results] versus the 30 minutes depicted in the television show,” says Thompson. Although a couple of weeks may seem like a long time to obtain results, the technology has improved since the 1980s when it took a few months to get results.
But if such sensitive DNA technology exists, why is it still inaccessible to many crime labs and police detectives solely for budgetary reasons?
North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper asked himself a similar question when he came into office in 2001. When Cooper found out that there were thousands of untested rape kits sitting in crime labs with no suspects throughout the state, he made a push for wider use of the technology.
“I was just furious. I could not believe that the state had not invested enough money into DNA in order to test those no-suspect rape kits,” Cooper said.
Shows like CSI have brought DNA testing and technology to the forefront of the American ideal of what the country’s Law and Order and legal system should look like.
Besides just a general obsession with crime and crime prevention, perhaps this kink has stronger implications in terms of technology. Perhaps these programs are helping to put DNA technology at the forefront, therefore making it a priority for real-life CSIs and budgetary stake holders.
Since Cooper took office, he has since upped the number of employees in the state crime lab from 5 to 40 DNA analysts over a 9-year span.
“Today, all of those rape kits have been cleared from those local law enforcement shelves and we’ve been able to put many rapists and murderers behind bars, using DNA,” he said.
Cooper brought up an interesting point when he said, “Forensic science and technology rank very high on our list of priorities. We have to keep improving our technology to stay a step ahead of the criminals.”
Although more money and resources is put into DNA testing and the growth of the technology, criminals are also adapting to the changing atmosphere.
What once seemed like only a future technology fit only for Hollywood (and CSI) is now part of the American legal system’s patchwork. Crime labs are given more resources, with a stronger emphasis on the technology within trials and the law in general.
That said, could shows like CSI and Law and Order be partly responsible?
I’d certainly like to think so.