Readers have probably heard the line that the difference between truth and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.
Well, not always, if the word “sense” involves in some sense truth. Author Ron Franscell claims that what crime fiction connoisseurs believe about crime may not be accurate:
Between your gullibility, urban legends and Hollywood, you’ve swallowed a lot of, um, bull about crime, cops, and courts. You’ve consumed so much crapola that I’m surprised you aren’t on Ducky’s slab. But here are some fabrications, fables, and fairy tales about forensics and felonious foolishness (not to mention wrongful alliteration) that you’ve accepted as gospel since the first season of “Starsky and Hutch.”
MYTH #10: Serial killers run rampant
FACT: Every year, between 15,000 and 20,000 people are murdered in the US. Of those, only about 1% are committed by serial killers, according to FBI statistics. By comparison, four times as many murders are committed by spouses. The lesson is clear: You’re screwed if you marry a serial killer.
Myth #9: You have a right to one phone call
FACT: Not necessarily. You have certain constitutional rights when you’re arrested, but not a phone call. At last count, only 11 states grant an arrested suspect either a right to one phone call or to communicate with a lawyer or loved one upon booking. In other states, it’s a decision left to a city or county to set its own policies. And that goes for texting, too. And definitely for sexting.
Myth #8: Cops are laid back and indifferent—even glib—at horrible crime scenes
FACT: It makes for interesting TV when a detective or medical examiner blithely sips his Starbucks and wisecracks with his partner while surrounded by dismembered corpses. But cops are people, too. No matter how many bloody crime scenes they’ve worked, the horror of slaughtered people—especially kids—always affects them. Crime scenes are grisly, murders are ugly. No matter how many crime shows you’ve watched, nothing on TV can compare to the real thing. Good cops learn to compartmentalize the revulsion, but that doesn’t mean it has no effect. Think you’re tougher than all that? Take a whiff of a decomposing body and keep your lunch down. I dare you.
Myth #7: You might wake up in a bloody tub missing your kidneys
FACT: You’ve heard the story at a cocktail party, right? A friend of somebody’s cousin’s hairdresser got drunk in a crowded bar and met a hottie. Things get randy and they get a room. Then the guy wakes up in the hotel bathtub, immersed in icy water, with a note on the toilet: “We’ve taken your kidneys. Call 9-1-1 or die.” It’s an urban legend. It has never happened to anybody. A hoax. And everybody knows your heart is worth more in the global organ black market.
Moreover, according to Hannibal Lecter, your liver is tastier, particularly served with fava beans and a nice Chianti.
Myth #6: Cops have fabulous computers, databases, and fancy war rooms
FACT: No, they don’t. Maybe their computers are better than yours, but they still freeze up. Nobody has the glitzy, big-screen murder boards and super-databases where, with a few clicks, they can learn what toppings you had on your pizza last Friday. It’s a TV fantasy. Sorta like the quirky TV forensic chicks who can zoom in on surveillance video to see the species of bugs on a passing car’s windshield. Almost no law enforcement agency has the cash or tech savvy to do what you see on a typical prime-time cop show. Just imagine how Barney Fife’s life would be different today if Mayberry had an Abby Sciutto.
Myth #5: Criminal profilers catch bad guys
FACT: TV has really messed up crime-fighting. It treats profilers as half clairvoyant and half SWAT team. Profiling ain’t anywhere as glamorous or involved in busting bad guys as “Criminal Minds” would make you believe. Profilers never finger actual bad guys; profiling merely helps investigators narrow the pool of suspects—a little. It’s more like this: Some former psych majors who know something about criminology drop in to the squad room, deliver a list of traits their “unknown subject” (UnSub) probably exhibits, then leave. The real work is done by real cops with real guns.
Is profiling magical? Nope. Some recent studies show that Joe Blow is almost as good at it. Hey, a wisecracking, beer-drinking TV profiler named Joe Blow…
Myth #4: Medical examiners can tell pretty precisely when you died
FACT: Nope. “Time of death” is a best guess. We often see TV coroners and medical examiners doing some quickie liver poking, which results in a fairly precise determination of when the death happened. TV has only 47 minutes or so (with those annoying commercials) to solve a case, so the writers can’t waste precious seconds with science-y stuff. There’s just no time for the real ways to determine a body’s expiration, such as body temperature, rigor mortis, lividity, decomposition, stomach contents, cloudiness of the corneas, potassium levels in eyeballs, insect activity, and crime-scene artifacts.
Myth #3: DNA is precise and infallible
FACT: It’s pretty cool but reports of DNA’s effectiveness are greatly exaggerated by … wait for it … TV. The illusion is so complete that there’s something called the “CSI effect,” which causes a lot of jurors and judges in criminal trials to believe DNA is incontrovertible evidence of guilt (or that its absence is a major forensic and prosecutorial failure). Fact is, fewer than 1% of all major crimes like murder, rape, and assault are solved with DNA. Old-fashioned fingerprints actually provide slightly better evidence.
Myth #2: Lie detectors detect all lies.
FACT: Nope. Too many factors prevent polygraph examinations from being infallible. The questions, the skill of the examiner, even the quality of the machine all play a role. In fact, even if you know nothing about beating a lie-detector test, you have better than a 1-in-10 chance of passing when you’re lying your ass off.
Myth #1: Typing your PIN backwards at the ATM will summon the cops
FACT: Nope. Another urban legend. Think about it: if somebody’s holding a gun to your head, how likely are you to even remember your PIN frontwards, much less backwards? Even if your ATM alerted cops, the bad guy would likely be long gone with your money and you’d be dead before they arrived. And wouldn’t robbers get wise about all that fumbling around? Here’s a test: Thumb-type on your iPhone the last four digits of your Social Security number backwards … then text it to me.
Now that you’ve had your gullibility, urban legends and Hollywood beliefs shattered, I’ll add one: Journalism is boring to watch take place.