With dramatic deaths, sexy detectives and a nonstop twists and turns, it’s no wonder so many of us love a gritty crime drama.
But Dame Professor Sue Black, a forensic anthropologist, has rolled her eyes on many occasions during episodes of Line of Duty and Law & Order.
That’s because our favourite films and TV shows are filled with myths about the world of crime scene investigations.
These include the continued reliance on fingerprint analysis and police line-ups to identify a killer, or pronouncing a body’s time of death with extreme accuracy.
Our favourite films and TV shows are filled with myths about the world of crime scene investigations
Professor Black is one of a team of experts to debunk the myths in television and crime novels in this year’s Christmas Lectures from the Royal Institution.
With her help, MailOnline reveals the biggest inaccuracies portrayed in our favourite crime shows, from CSI to Dexter.
MYTH 1: Fingerprint analysis can reveal the killer
Viewers of the Christmas Lectures, broadcast on BBC Four and iPlayer next week, will learn that the fingerprints so beloved of Sherlock Holmes are now rarely used in court, having been superseded by DNA.
But someone’s DNA at a crime scene does not mean they are the killer, as DNA is easily transferred.
For example, someone who spoke loudly to the murderer in a busy room before the crime, covering them with tiny specks of saliva, would transfer their DNA to the murderer’s clothing, and potentially the scene of the killing.
Professor Black, 61, said: ‘DNA can be spread by someone sneezing or coughing, and can persist on clothing, being picked up in analysis which looks for mere nanograms of this genetic material.
‘Some people are super-shedders of DNA, and the DNA of an innocent person can easily be transferred to a crime scene, like that of the wife of a murderer who lives with them.’
the fingerprints so beloved of Sherlock Holmes are now rarely used in court, having been superseded by DNA. Pictured: Rupert Everett as Sherlock Holmes in BBC’s ‘Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking’
MYTH 2: Police line-ups are still used
The Christmas lectures will involve photofits of potential suspects based on descriptions by witnesses, as experts say police line-ups, so famous from films like The Usual Suspects, are no longer used.
The photo composites, created by a computer using descriptions about the suspect’s eyes, nose and mouth by witnesses, are unreliable because people’s memories of people they’ve seen once for a moment are imperfect.
Experts say police line-ups, so famous from films like The Usual Suspects, are no longer used
MYTH 3: You can tell someone’s exact age from their body
While crime dramas may describe exact ages, such as the death of a 50-year-old female, in reality dead bodies can really only be identified as a young adult (up until the age of about 25), a mature adult (up to around 45) and an ‘elderly adult’ (aged over 45).
That is based on clues like the collar bone, which keeps growing until someone reaches the age of 25, and skeletal degeneration in people from their mid-forties onwards.
Professor Black said: ‘An exact age is impossible to give because it depends on when people went into puberty and had a growth spurt and how long puberty lasted, and when it finished.’
In 2015, it was announced that scientists had developed a new test to predict a person’s age on the basis of blood or tooth samples, which could be used at the scene of the crime.
While crime dramas may describe exact ages, such as the death of a 50-year-old female, in reality dead bodies can really only be identified as a young adult, a mature adult or an elderly adult. Pictured: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
MYTH 4: Bodies reveal an accurate time of death
Professor Black told the Daily Mail that a major inaccuracy she sees on TV is when the investigators pronounce an exact time when someone died.
She said that experts can only make a rough estimation after taking the temperature of the body, to within a few hours at best.
They know the rough rate a body cools down, and its temperature reveals how close it has gotten to room temperature.
Experts can only make a rough estimation of the time of death after taking a body’s temperature, and this is to within a few hours at best. Pictured: Ryan Pilkington in ‘Line of Duty’
Professor Black, 61, said: ‘Once temperature is no longer available to judge the time of death, experts rely on bloating, discolouration of the skin and the onset of rigor mortis.
‘Decomposition can depend on whether a buried body is close to the surface, where the temperature is higher and more insects can get to it, or whether human remains are close to shrubbery, which animals use for cover, making the body parts more likely to be chewed by them.
‘It is just not possible to say someone died at 25 minutes past two, as sometimes happens in crime dramas.’
MYTH 5: Deaths are always dramatic
The major issue with television death according to Professor Black, is that it is often violent and portrayed with a sense of excitement.
In reality, most people die of illness in hospital, but we talk about this much less than murder.
The forensic anthropologist, and president of St John’s College, Oxford, said: ‘We don’t accept death as a part of life in the same way as we used to.
‘It is no longer the case that after granny dies, she lies out in the coffin in the living room and people gather round and reminisce about her life.
‘We do need to think and talk about death and what we want to happen at the end, and about telling people what they need to hear in their last minutes on Earth.’
The major issue with television death according to Professor Black, is that it is often portrayed with a sense of excitement. Pictured: Sherlock leaps to his apparent death in BBC’s ‘Sherlock’
In reality, most people die of illness in hospital, but we talk about this much less than murder. Pictured: Sherlock appears to be dead after falling from a building in BBC’s ‘Sherlock’
MYTH 6: Experts don’t get emotional
Whether it’s DI Steve Arnott coming across the latest victim of ‘H’ in Line of Duty, or Sherlock helping Watson from danger, many TV detectives do not show emotion.
However, experts reveal that this is not actually the case, and that many of those working in the aftermath of a crime or disaster are affected by what they see.
Brian McKenna, a retired Lieutenant and Crime Scene Investigator from Hazelwood Police Department in Missouri, USA, told Rasmussen University: ‘Many crime scenes are gruesome and potentially depressing.
‘Unlike those portrayed on television, violent deaths are very ugly. It isn’t pleasant, and some people can’t handle it.’
Experts reveal that many of those working in the aftermath of a crime or disaster are affected by what they see. Pictured: Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC’s ‘Sherlock’
In 2017, researchers from the University of Huddersfield looked into the response of police to the challenges of child and adult homicide.
Their surveys revealed that desensitisation to horrifying scenarios does not kick in for many officers in mainstream policing roles.
They also found that officers who had not been involved in a child homicide investigation for more than six months reported the cognitive and emotional effects to be greater than those who had conducted more recent investigations.
‘This is important as it suggests that a significant period of reflection is needed after the investigation has ended in order for investigators to realise the true extent of how their investigations have affected them,’ the authors wrote.
MYTH 7: Crime scenes are processed quickly
Episodes of crime dramas are often less than an hour in length, and therefore analysis of a crime scene has to be wrapped up quickly.
However, experts say that this is a huge exaggeration, and that the process can actually take hours.
Professor Black said: ‘These shows are primarily about entertainment, which is fine of course, but it means the story sometimes gets in the way of the science.
Episodes of crime dramas are often less than an hour in length, and therefore analysis of a crime scene has to be wrapped up quickly. Pictured: Line of Duty
Experts reveal crime scene analysis can actually take hours. Pictured: Line of Duty
‘It takes a long time to identify bodies, after making the crime scene safe, separating body parts, and removing contamination like aviation fuel from air crashes – so it isn’t all done in 45 minutes, like on television.’
Mr McKenna added: ‘I roll my eyes about the speed at which crime scene investigators [on TV] get results back from the lab.
‘It takes a very long time to process a lot of the evidence obtained, especially Hollywood’s most popular kind of evidence—DNA.’
He explained to Rasmussen University that processing DNA takes over 50 hours of lab work, equating to more than six working days.
MYTH 8: You only get one phone call after arrest
All crime fans have heard a grumpy officer growl ‘you only get one call’ to a newly arrested individual in a TV show or film.
In ‘The Dark Knight’, Heath Ledger’s Joker uses an allowed call to detonate a bomb that was implanted in the stomach of his accomplice.
In ‘The Dark Knight’, Heath Ledger’s Joker uses an allowed call to detonate a bomb that was implanted in the stomach of his accomplice (pictured)
But, according to Legal Reader, this is merely a Hollywood invention, as inmates in the states are allowed to make more than one phone call.
And in the UK, solicitor Jon Mail, who works with the Greater Manchester Police, told Manchester Evening News that an arrested person is not entitled to a phone call at all.
You are allowed to inform someone of your detention, but a sergeant will normally make this call on your behalf.
The Christmas Lectures from the Royal Institution, Secrets of Forensic Science with Dame Sue Black, will be broadcast on BBC Four and iPlayer on December 26, 27 and 28, at 8pm.
If you enjoyed this article, you might like…
Scientists have found that an AI can predict crime a week in advance with 90 per cent accuracy – but may also perpetuate racist bias.
Overly-dramatic anti-piracy campaigns – like the widely-mocked ‘you wouldn’t steal a car’ ad – may just encourage more piracy, study reveals.
And, a new analysis has ruled that Edward the Black Prince was more likely killed by malaria or inflammatory bowel disease than chronic dysentery – find out why.