Friday, March 25, 2011


by Earl Staggs

I watch a lot of true crime shows on TV. A&E has several of them, as do several other cable networks. CBS has an hour show on Friday and Sunday evenings called “48 Hours Mystery.” NBC does one called “Dateline,” although they often preempt true crime for the latest celebrity scandal. These shows offer, in documentary form, true crime cases filmed in the locations where they happened with many of the real people involved in the crime. You see how the crime (most often, a murder) occurred and follow the investigative steps taken to solve it.

I find it interesting how crimes are solved these days. My favorites are when an old (or “cold”) case is solved after years have gone by. In many of the cold cases being solved these days, the crime occurred either before DNA testing was available or when it was in its infancy. A lot of them are reexamined using modern DNA techniques and innocent men and women are being freed and the guilty are caught. I love it when that happens.

On scripted crime-solving shows such as CSI, NCIS, Law and Order and so many others, crimes are solved by following the book, so to speak. Police officers do all the things they’re supposed to do in their investigative steps. Crime scenes are taped off, technicians scour the place for fingerprints, footprints, DNA, hair and skin samples, and witnesses are interviewed and interrogated. That’s how it’s supposed to be done.

In true crime situations, unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen that way. Law enforcement officers are people, and people make mistakes and omissions. Not every city and town has the resources for the minute scrutiny we see on scripted cop shows. As a result, mistakes are made, evidence is missed or lost, and the guilty don’t always get caught.

In one cold case show I saw recently, the original investigation was seriously flawed. It happened in a small town and involved a police force not accustomed or equipped to handle a murder case properly. The crime scene was contaminated when everyone in the neighborhood and every police officer in the area tramped through it out of curiosity. Valuable evidence was ignored. Available fingerprints and DNA evidence went unnoticed. Fortunately, when a cold case squad reopened the case, they found an article of clothing in the evidence box with the killer’s DNA and tracked down a murderer who thought he had gotten away with it.

We writers may feel we have to make certain our characters, particularly police officers, follow procedures to the letter. If we don’t, someone may call us on it. “That could not happen,” they may say, “because investigative procedure requires. . . .” Or, “The District Attorney would never make a mistake like that.”

The fact is, we may choose to write about real life, and in real life crime cases, mistakes, omissions, and errors in judgment do happen. They happen especially in small towns with limited experience and budget limitations.

It’s too bad real life crime is not scripted like the TV shows. More cases would be solved.


Shane Cashion said...

So true. Many of my friends are policeman and detectives. Not only are mistakes made, but what else is interesting, is what cases get the full attention of the dept and its resources. Where I live we've had 21 murders in 14 days. I can promise you each of those crimes will not be "worked up" like you see on crime shows. That's why I actually prefer the "reality" - based shows to the Law and Order type

Bill Kirton said...

I have an interesting (well, to me anyway) aside on this. At present, I'm creating a CSI Aberdeen plot for a charity evening in which attendees have to solve a murder. Part of the evening is given over to them doing actual experiments (testing powders, fibre samples, footprints, tool marks on a door, comparing DNA samples, etc.) I've been given the types of experiments and must build the plot from that (just as the police do) but it's SO different from starting with a bunch of characters and letting their motives emerge and produce the clues. It's much harder than writing a story from scratch.