What depresses me about Law & Order, CSI, Without a Trace, Cold Case File, and all similar police and investigatory shows on television is not that they expeditiously solve crimes every week through meticulous sleuthing. It's that real law enforcement, crime labs, and investigatory agencies virtually never get things right.
The Washington D.C. police will reportedly soon announce the arrest of someone for the 2001 murder of Chandra Levy. The suspect they are expected to name has been in federal prisons for the last eight years, since pleading guilty to assaulting two women in a park near where the 24-year-old California woman's body was found. The assaults he admitted to were in the same time frame as the murder. Oh, did I mention, an informant first came forward identifying this man in September, 2001, seven-and-a-half years ago?
Prior to their fabulous - if somewhat belated - discovery, the police made mistake after mistake - a keystone cop routine familiar to anyone who watches the way real police, rather than their fictional TV counterparts, operate around the country.
In the Levy case, the police neglected to collect tapes from the numerous security cameras around her apartment building until they self-erased after seven days. Notified by Chandra's father on May 6 that she had been out of touch for five days, they went to her apartment that and the following days without pulling the tapes. Wouldn't just about anybody who has watched a crime show on television have figured out to do that? Not the D.C. police. Such a tape would identify both the time she left her apartment, and likely that she was wearing jogging clothes, thus pointing cops in the right direction.
The police did examine her computer, and discovered she had accessed a page including the address of the Klingle Mansion at Rock Creek Park. This discovery, however, was delayed a month since a police sergeant had corrupted the computer's search history, which technicians had to reconstruct. Wouldn't you think the police would have a procedure in place for handling information on computers? They do on Law & Order.
The police spent days searching the mansion on the assumption Chandra had an assignation there. They simply couldn't get beyond Levy's affair with Congressman Gary Condit, although there was no evidence linking him to the murder. (His Congressional career was, nonetheless, DOA that day also.)
Somehow, they didn't consider that the page with the mansion's address also included information about the park's trails - and that Chandra had clicked to a park trail map on a beautiful spring day.
Some three months after her disappearance, when the man now accused of the crime had already been apprehended for his assaults, the police finally brought a team of police cadets to systematically search the park. Well, sort of. The Chief of D.C. Police ordered that the cadets search within 100 yards of the trails in Rock Creek. Instead, the commanding officer at the site inexplicably had them search within 100 yards of the roads crossing the park.
Ten months later, more than a year after the killing, Chandra's body was found lying within a hundred yards of one of these trails, surrounded by articles of clothing. But, by then, the forensic evidence that would have identified the killer was gone.
All of these errors - and more - were identified in a 2008 12-part series by the Washington Post. The early mistakes, oversights, and just plain stupidity of the cops meant that the case wouldn't be solved for nearly a decade. The Post series, moreover, decisively identified, well before the police and prosecutors recently did, the current suspect in the crime. Well, why not - he had been connected to the murder even before Chandra Levy's body was discovered.
Does overlooking Chandra's corpse in a park remind you of anything? The body of three-year-old Caylee Anthony was found last December in a wooded area about a half-mile from her Florida hone six months after she went missing. Her mother, Casey, had already been charged with the girl's murder based on her nonsensical stories about her daughter's disappearance, and the area where the body was found was a logical disposal spot.
These woods had already been searched by investigators, who hadn't discovered the body although it was lying on the ground in a plastic bag. The remains of the small girl were finally identified by a utility worker. Actually, the same meter reader had called the police after spotting the bag in August, and the Orange County Sheriff's Office (OCSO) claimed it sent an officer to search the site, with no result. The meter reader finally returned in December to find the body again and lead police to it.
The OCSO press conference at the time explaining the sequence of events and background to the discovery of Caylee's body left everyone confused. It seemed mainly geared towards exculpating the OCSO's failure to find the body. You know those press conferences? Those self-congratulatory seances where police officials use a lot of words to say they don't really know/can't say anything "at this time."
Speaking of which, do you still wonder what happened to 23-year-old Stacy Peterson, fourth wife of that sneering ex-cop, Drew - the wife he claims ran away with another guy in October 2007 never to contact her family or her 4 and 6-year-old kids again? You know Drew - the guy whose previous wife died mysteriously in a bathtub?
And, CSI fans - did you see the report this month by America's most prestigious scientific body, the National Academy of Sciences, regarding crime labs around the country? Virtually every test they perform - "including fingerprinting, firearms identification and analysis of bite marks, blood spatter, hair and handwriting" - lack a firm scientific basis. And even if they do have some grounding in reality, most are conducted sloppily by non-scientifically trained personnel.
Of course, DNA evidence is scientifically reliable. But did you catch that 2005 investigation of the highly regarded Virginia crime lab? As reported in the NY Times:
Television viewers relishing crime-show denouements based on airtight DNA evidence had best get a grip on reality: DNA is only as reliable as the humans testing it. Virginia's once highly touted crime lab has starkly demonstrated this in an error-ridden death-row case that was propped up repeatedly by botched DNA studies from the state's supposed experts.
By the way, don't think the D.C. cops were so inept that they missed the connection between Chandra Levy's deadly attack and similar crimes admitted to by Ingmar Guandique, the man in prison, that were committed at the same time and place. After all, he admitted encountering Levy in the park during his original July 2, 2001 interrogation by a U.S. Park officer. Unfortunately, the park cop neglected to mention this tidbit to the D.C. police, and they never learned it on their own.
However, in September of that year, an informant in the D.C. jail where Guandique was being held told police that he had admitted killing Chandra. But Guandique denied committing the murder to the police. In February 2002, the U.S. attorney's office administered a polygraph test to Guandique - you know the ones that are too unreliable to be used in court, but which Maury swears by? The result was indecisive, leading police and federal authorities to discount Guandique as a suspect, until now. Do you think the police would re-investigate Rock Creek Park near the scenes of the attacks this man had admitted to, where Chandra's body still lay undiscovered? They didn't, but it's great to know they would have on all of those television shows!
Nonetheless, D.C. police continued their investigation of Guandique - albeit haphazardly. One of the women who Guandique had attacked was struck by the similarities in the crimes (including the proximity of the locales). She "couldn't understand why the police detectives investigating Chandra's disappearance never interviewed her about Guandique. She talked to reporters, and Guandique's name surfaced publicly for the first time May 23, 2002.
"When reporters questioned D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, he downplayed Guandique as a suspect. 'The press is making too big a deal of it,' Ramsey said." In other words, unlike on television, where the police and investigators break through all sorts of obstacles to uncover the true source of a crime, in real life, the police and prosecutors ignore and reject people with real information who urgently try to flag the culprit for them.
All right, get back to your TV - why depress yourself? Just pray you never have to rely on police to solve a serious crime that befalls you or a loved one.