Note: Wrote this for the AV Club but it ended up not getting used for… reasons. It’s an infuriating segment and a funny skit with a lot of people I like.
On Sunday’s Last Week Tonight, John Oliver and the rest of his crack, Emmy-winning team of comedy investigators did their usual in-depth piece on an important issue that makes you want to scream and throw things once you learn what they know. This week, their topic was all that snazzy, iron-clad forensic analysis we see on literally every third channel we turn to, day or night. You know, the computer 3-D models, the brilliant, socially dysfunctional (but in a fun way) science geeks with preternatural insight, and lots and lots of that neat spray stuff that makes blood glow in the dark. Well, as Oliver presents it in his signature meticulously funny fashion, the satisfyingly crowd-pleasing cop science of your average, super cool TV procedural is, in actuality, startlingly prone to convicting the wrong B-list guest star each week.
Oliver shows how old CSI standbys like bite mark reconstruction are routinely used in courts even though the field’s most-heralded proponent now repudiates his own work in a technique independent scientists say “does not meet scientific standards.” He introduces us to a man named Santae Tribble, freed from prison after 26 years once someone finally got around to testing the stray hairs that FBI experts used to convicted him of murder, only to find that not only were none of them his, several belonged to a freaking dog. Or the Innocence Project’s assertion that a staggering number of overturned convictions (including those of at least nine people that have been executed) are based on forensic evidence that has been proven to be flawed to the point of being useless. Again, Last Week Tonight will make you throw stuff.
Perhaps reasoning that, since TV has biased jurors, attorneys, and even judges in favor of the infallibility of unreliable forensic testing, only TV can fix it, Oliver called in some famous friends. Featuring Josh Charles as a David Caruso-esque, sunglasses-sporting, crime-scene-bon-mot-spouting forensic investigator, CSI: Crime Scene Idiot showed just how the cult of the slick television blood-swabber is about as realistic to actual police and lab work as Sherlock’s mind palace. Charles plays a hilariously smarmy douchebag as only he can, while more principled and scientifically rigorous colleagues Samira Wiley, Robert John Burke, Josh Lucas, and Shannon Woodward all roll their eyes and lecture him on proper procedures, the meaningless of the oft-employed phrase “a reasonable degree of scientific certainty,” and the fact that they, as forensic scientists, don’t actually work for the police. (You know, as opposed to his team of “experts,” including an old-timey prospector, two toddlers in trench coats, and a crime-sniffing pony.) Now if only this show would get picked up for 23 episodes by CBS, the word might filter down that accused people’s fates deserve a lot more deliberation that what jurors and law enforcement types see on television. Especially since a program intended to advise the DOJ about these issues was recently discontinued by Attorney General and “xenophobic Boss Baby” (according to Oliver), Jeff Sessions. Commence throwing things.