If you watch crime shows, you’ve seen it a zillion times. A crime happens. The attractively dressed detectives gather evidence (or at least stand around looking good while someone else does). The evidence goes to the lab. Minutes later, the lab has an answer. And zap! the bad guy’s in custody, soon to be followed by a conviction. Roll credits.
Makes for a good story, but that’s not how things really work. Several truth nuggets about this scenario:
- Over 80% of arrests are made by uniformed officers, not detectives.
- Real detectives are generally not as pretty as the ones on TV, and they definitely don’t dress as well.
- A large percentage of crimes have little or no physical evidence—so there’s nothing to send to the lab. Or if there is any physical evidence, it’s of little value. When I was in college, I got robbed at gunpoint in the deli where I worked. The cops dusted the counter for prints, but dozens of people had touched that counter since I last wiped it. The chances of getting quality prints of the perp were about zero.
- Labs are backlogged. Sometimes for years. Even in an important, high-profile case, it will take many months before lab results are in.
- Scientific testing is not infallible. Lots of things can go wrong. Evidence can be mishandled. The lab tech may be unqualified or inept; there have even been cases where they deliberately falsified evidence. The science itself may not be as reliable or as valid as we assume. Even such a seemingly simple scientific technique as fingerprint analysis has been questioned.
I think all these truth nuggets can be exploited to craft a story that’s fresh and cliche-free. They create a host of plot possibilities. So use them!