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

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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.