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Making a case for a successful TV series
Forensic sleuthing comes to prime time on 'C.S.I.'
LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Here's the case, cyber-sleuths: Determine the No. 1-rated new drama on TV.
Clues: It's set in Las Vegas. The characters might be called lab rats. A hair fiber, bite mark or blood spatter help them do their job. Still in the dark? The answer: "C.S.I.," a show about the mysterious world of forensic science.
"C.S.I." -- an acronym for "crime scene investigators" -- has taken forensics out of the dark and brought it into the Hollywood limelight. The show, in which William Petersen and Marg Helgenberger play criminalists who use a bag of tricks, both high- and low-tech, to analyze evidence, has been a breakout hit for CBS. The drama has won its Friday time slot all seven nights this season so far.
A criminalist is defined as someone who uses forensic science to solve a crime -- a modern-day Sherlock Holmes. They are not criminologists, who study the nature of crime and criminals.
Instead, they are someone like Elizabeth Devine, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's chief criminalist. She's also a key adviser to "C.S.I."
Devine reads every script, making suggestions to make the series more authentic. "I'd suggest putting on rubber gloves in the morgue," she offered recently after checking out a script.
She occasionally does more than just read scripts, too. Devine's been known to get down on her hands and knees to recreate a crime scene investigation on the set.
Criminalists can be a rather cerebral clique of mystery solvers. Devine has a master's degree, and notes that all her colleagues at the sheriff's department have at least a bachelor's degree.
CNN recently entered Devine's lab and picked the brain of a criminalist.
CNN: Were you one of those children brimming with curiosity?
Elizabeth Devine: Absolutely. I always liked putting puzzles together. I've read every Agatha Christie mystery. I've always been interested in science, so I was premed at UCLA. I ... went into forensics, ... I never looked back. It's a fabulous job.
CNN: What character traits should the actors on "C.S.I." have to accurately portray criminalists?
Devine: I think we're all a little quirky. We get enjoyment out of finding something somebody may not have seen, or getting the truth from a very complicated case can be very rewarding. When you're at a crime scene and you see a key piece of evidence, it's an adrenaline rush. It's a lot of fun.
To make it real here (on "C.S.I") the characters need to show that they love what they do. You see so much of the underbelly of what society doesn't see, that if you don't love what you do, you'll go crazy.
CNN: What are some of the tricks of your trade?
Devine: Obviously, DNA analysis -- matching suspects' DNA -- has changed our job dramatically. Chemicals are helping us. There are a lot of different ways to develop things you can't see at a crime scene. We come in with special chemicals, and all of the sudden you can see a blood trail or a foot print or something. It's pretty neat.
CNN: Give us an example.
Devine: We have a chemical that, if you turn the lights out and spray it and there's blood there -- it's called Luminol -- it will luminesce. We have chemicals that, on painted walls ... will turn purple (displaying fingerprints). We have chemicals that we can test for semen or blood.
CNN: What other ways do you solve crimes?
Devine: Interesting stuff can be the physical matches -- this piece of car matches this piece of something that we found at a crime scene. We also examine and collect paint chips, hairs, fibers, shoe prints, tire tracks, blood spatters.
CNN: Any big cases you proved with a blood spatter or pattern?
Devine: There was high-profile case in L.A. where a man, Paul Carasi, killed his mother and the mother of his child in front of his child. The victim actually grasped his shirt with her bloody hand during his attack, reaching out and grabbing him.
I was able to prove that she grabbed him while he was stabbing her. I was also able to show that the female suspect involved in this held her (the victim's) feet down while her throat was being slashed.
CNN: Grade "CSI" on its potrayal of criminalists.
Devine: I'd give them an A for effort, but probably a B plus. They really want to make it real, but there are certain things in television, because you have to move the story along -- you have to kind a cheat. For instance, how long it takes to do a particuliar examination: We make them happen very fast on the show and that's probably not realistic. ...
CNN: Is there anything with which you disagree? You've suggested that the show's criminalists shouldn't interview suspects.
Devine: We don't do that. The detectives do that. They're specially trained. We are not trained in that. I have asked suspects questions, but they relate directly to evidence I was collecting.
But in some shows, (police) are always barking at the criminalist, "Tell that guy to get that done in the lab." We're always the grunts and the lab boys. So this ("C.S.I.") is our turn to be the stars, and I'm fine with that.
Big names come to the small screen
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