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Forensics 'Geeks' Are Cool Now

Science: The CBS hit 'CSI' has turned crime scene investigators into instant celebrities. Colleges rush to cash in.

September 15, 2002|RYAN PEARSON | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

LAS VEGAS — The macabre curiosity that prompted Rebecca Leonard to scoop squashed frogs from roadways as a youngster had always baffled and disgusted her friends.

"They always thought I was weird, you know," she said. "They didn't want to talk about it. I was always trying to justify it to them."

Today, she doesn't have to; they're brimming with questions.

For the most part, she can credit CBS' surprising hit series "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," a slick TV show set in Las Vegas that transformed the grisly minutiae of forensics into a who-done-it drama starring handsome scientists and cutting-edge technology.

Like thousands of others once considered "police nerds," the 32-year-old Leonard, a forensic science intern with the Sheriff's Department crime lab in Marin County, has become an instant celebrity of sorts.

"All of a sudden, it's really cool, what I do. It's like this glamorous thing," she said. "All my friends are asking all these questions: 'What was the crime scene like? Did you analyze the DNA?' "

Crime scene investigators and police forensic experts have emerged from the proverbial basement lab in recent years, propelled by the show, Sept. 11 recovery identification efforts and their own proficiency at solving older crimes through new technology.

Colleges are rushing to cash in, and forensic-science education is hotter than any other crime-related field.

More than 1,500 forensic-identification scientists from throughout the nation and 27 countries took time at the start of a recent Las Vegas convention to indulge in their newfound celebrity.

Anthony Zuiker, creator of "CSI" and its fall spinoff set in Miami, peppered his convention keynote speech with references to Hollywood producers and actors. He even previewed his acceptance speech should the show, which consistently tops Nielsen TV ratings, win any of the six Emmys for which it is nominated.

His words were well received by the distinctly non-Hollywood crowd -- a mix of former beat cops in dark business suits, the pale and sometimes disheveled back-room scientists and about 100 students like Leonard.

Those assembled said the best thing about Zuiker's show and Patricia Cornwell's crime novels -- including "The Last Precinct" and "Body of Evidence" -- is the opportunity it gives them to talk shop without feeling like death-obsessed mad scientists.

"I always felt like such a freak. But now my friends are asking if I've read the latest Cornwell book, and was it true to life," Leonard said.

Interest in forensic science before "CSI" grew through medical-examiner fiction and the 1976-83 TV drama "Quincy." Highly publicized court cases, most famously the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial, kept the field in the public eye.

In 1996, the Discovery Channel launched "The New Detectives," a series that reenacts real forensic-science investigations. It is now the second most watched show on the channel and served as the creative spark for "CSI."

Then came Sept. 11, shifting the focus for the public and the police from crime to recovery. The same techniques used by crime-scene investigators to find clues were put to work identifying victims of the terrorist attacks.

Crime-scene investigator John Cantone of the New York Police Department said it was one of the first times his team had focused only on identifying victims.

"We already knew what happened," Cantone said. "We just needed to identify. And we quickly got really good at it."

Although their new high profile is flattering, some forensic analysts say it also has made their jobs more difficult.

Ron Smith, retired as regional director of the Mississippi Crime Lab, said jurors inundated with crime-scene TV fiction and movies expect more from expert testimony.

"It's caused us to be better at articulating that information to people that really don't know what we do, but think they do," the forensics consultant and trainer said. Cantone said the increased use of lasers, DNA testing and fiber analysis -- and their coverage on TV -- has placed unrealistic expectations on forensic scientists.

"We go out into the community and they think that things can be done very quickly," he said.

Vendors at the Las Vegas convention tempted budget-crunched scientists with products ranging from high-tech LED forensic light systems to classic brown paper evidence bags.

In between the latest face-recognition software and a portable automated fingerprint scanner, a Swedish scientist hawked a prototype black liquid designed specifically to lift fingerprints from the sticky side of tape.

Although most crime scene investigators make do with limited budgets and only several select "toys," the use of technology has been key to their recent heightened productivity -- and status.

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