TV

Netflix crime forensics are best served with a dollop of artistic license

It would be intensely boring if we had to sit for hours on the sofa waiting for a DNA result to come back from the lab

"Fictitious murder case records with gun, bullet, dental x-rays, autopsy, blank photos and gloves."

In the mid 1980s, when I was starting to think about what I wanted to do when I grew up, the BBC ran a series of documentaries called Indelible Evidence, where real-life cases were dramatised and we learned how science could solve crime. This was the CSI of its day and after seven episodes I knew I wanted to be a forensic scientist.

Forensic science is as captivating to me now as it was then, though I now know telly forensics is not the same as real-life forensics. But telly forensics is everywhere.

If you switch on the television today you can watch, stream or download thousands of crime dramas, immerse yourself in a murder investigation or swap pyjamas for a white suit and ‘walk’ into a blood-spattered crime scene looking for clues.

I could never have predicted that by the time Dexter came along I would be a blood-spatter analyst myself having been trained by Miami-Dade Police. I love Netflix Dexter. No, I adore Dexter. I am his No. 1 fan but I admit that when there are multi-coloured lasers darting across the screen, or Dexter ponders a single blood drop and goes on to recreate the entire attack, my head tips back on its shoulders.

It would be intensely boring if we had to sit for hours on the sofa waiting for a DNA result to come back from the lab

My professional opinion is that telly forensics is best served with a dollop of artistic licence. I love my job but Scandi-slow TV it would not make. It would be intensely boring if we had to sit for hours on the sofa waiting for a DNA result to come back from the lab, or found that when it did the result wasn’t worth waiting for. Why show the size of a real-life crime scene team when Nikki Alexander in Silent Witness can do it all.

I once had the great treat to be invited onto the set of Silent Witness as an advisor and experienced first-hand the way in which the reality of science is interpreted for the good of drama. I was carefully placing individual droplets of theatrical blood in the scene, to accurately represent a spray pattern that would eventually gush from the neck of the victim, when the set director handed me a garden pressure sprayer. It was filled with a red liquid. We pumped it up to max and pulled the trigger. A catastrophic wave of blood landed on the wall. The result was spectacular.

Forensic science can help solve crime and, just as importantly, eliminate the innocent. Used properly it has the potential to hand the jury a spy-camera, to see events as the crime unfolded. But we ought to know about the limitations of forensic science just as much as its strengths and that’s probably where TV shows fail us. It’s probably not good telly to include scenes about the tests that don’t work, or the inconclusive results. But, it is important to know that if you find DNA that matches someone on a weapon, for example, it doesn’t mean that they handled it; your DNA could be found in a crime scene that you’ve never even entered. We need to know this because it’s just as fascinating and important.

I am incredibly lucky to have worked with some of the most astonishing people. This includes Inside Justice where I sit alongside a team of talented and experienced individuals, each with their own specialism, to review cases that are brought to the attention of the charity. We painstakingly look back on what was done at the time and think about what opportunities might exist now. You only have to look at the cases on their website to see that their work has led to some quite extraordinary outcomes. Working with Inside Justice has also given me the opportunity to join Crime Live events, which give the audience the chance to play Dexter from their seats. And the audience have been giving me tips on what shows I should be adding to my watchlist. The last recommendation was Netflix ‘MindHunter’ – which I binge-watched immediately!

Jo Millington is a Forensic Scientist with Millington Hingley Ltd and a member of the Advisory Panel at Inside Justice.

Crime Live London is on Thursday 10th May 2pm or 7pm. Tickets for Crime Live can be purchased here. 

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