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'CSI effect' cuts both ways

Experts say crime shows help law enforcement and criminals

By Ted Rowlands
CNN

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Barry Fisher, right, gives CNN's Ted Rowlands a tour of the L.A. County Sheriff's crime lab.

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LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- From the outside, the L.A. County crime lab looks like a drab, aging office building. But inside, the real life CSI unit looks like a larger, better-lighted version of what you see on TV.

It's full of scientists trying to solve crimes by analyzing everything from bullet fragments to blood samples. We're here to ask about the so-called "CSI effect," the notion that television shows like CSI taint juries and educate criminals, making the job of law enforcement officials more difficult.

Barry Fisher, director of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department crime lab, leads us on a tour. We start in the basement, where a group of crime scene investigators peer through microscopes at bullet fragments.

Fisher says shows like CSI may teach criminals how to cover up evidence, but he thinks investigators will stay one step ahead of them. (Watch how real criminals copy CSI techniques -- 3:39)

"We're not going out of business anytime soon," he says. "It is categorically impossible for someone to get rid of all of the evidence that someone leaves at a crime scene. They can try, but they are not going to succeed in covering it all up."

As we walk from room to room, we see a car bumper from a hit and run case and a suspect's shoe being compared against footprints at a crime scene. Each room has a different function: Fingerprints are in one area, blood and other fluids in another.

Across town, Ray Peavy runs the homicide unit for the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. He thinks criminals are watching crime shows and taking notes.

"Things like cigarette butts, coke cans, beer cans, a sweaty hat band or blood or semen, hairs, all those things that used to be left. Those things are no longer being left at crime scenes," Peavy says.

Police in Austintown, Ohio, say Jermaine McKinney, 26, used bleach to clean up the mess that was left after the killings of Rebecca Cliburn, 45, and her mother Wanda Rollyson, 70, in December. Police say he then burned the bodies to further remove evidence.

According to court papers, McKinney liked to watch "CSI" and other forensic science television shows. Police say he was arrested after he tried using one of the victim's credit cards.

Elizabeth Devine, co-executive director of "CSI Miami," used to work at L.A. County's lab. She left to work as a technical adviser for what was then "CSI Las Vegas." Devine downplays the impact of her television show, or any crime show for that matter, on the criminal justice system.

"It underestimates a little bit the intelligence of our audience, and the American people, to believe they can't tell the difference between a television drama and reality," says Devine.

L.A. County's Fisher thinks that if there is a "CSI effect" it has more to do with how crime shows portray his field than it does with any guidance they may give criminals.

"We are the beneficiaries of that effect, because we are getting some incredibly qualified people who apply for positions over here," he says.

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