The Top 5 Things TV Crime Shows Get Wrong — Allison Leotta Tells All!

For twelve years, Allison Leotta was a federal prosecutor in Washington, DC where she specialized in prosecuting sex crimes and domestic violence.  

She is the author of the acclaimed thrillers LAW OF ATTRACTION and DISCRETION.  She also blogs about what TV crime dramas get right and wrong.  Her blog, The Prime-Time Crime Review, was named one of the best legal blogs in America by the ABA.

I’ve always loved TV crime dramas, but ever since I began working as a federal sex-crimes prosecutor, I watch shows like Law & Order and CSI with a more jaded eye. The stories are still fun . . . but they get some facts so wrong, I end up laughing when I should be gasping. Here are the top five mistakes TV crime shows make:

1. You won’t get fingerprints off that gun.

Sorry, not gonna catch the killer that way. Usable prints are notoriously tough to get, and guns are the worst surface to get them from. A combination of conditions – dry skin, too much humidity, textured rubber or metal – conspire to wipe the gun clean, even if the shooter didn’t do it himself. When I use a fingerprint expert, it’s usually to educate the jury on why there aren’t prints on the gun.

2. Most rapists don’t lurk in bushes.

Rapes committed by strangers do happen, and get a lot of media coverage when they do, but usually a rapist is a man the victim knows intimately: an ex-boyfriend or stepfather; her doctor or minister; a teacher or coach; a professional colleague or the guy she invited home from a bar. I no longer worry about someone breaking in through my window – but I’m more cautious about who I’ll open the door for.

3. Prosecutors don’t wear stilettoes.

Female prosecutors on TV sashay to court in four-inch Manolos. But real prosecutors are on their feet all day and often lugging big boxes of exhibits, so comfy shoes are key. The seasoned female prosecutor wears mid-range heels: you look nice for the jury but won’t break a toe when you stand to object. Sometimes the walk to the courthouse is done in flip-flops, with a quick switcheroo right before the judge takes the bench.

4. Most victims aren’t beautiful young heiresses who secretly work as strippers.

But you already knew that.

5. The bad guy will never confess with his lawyer sitting right there.

You know the scene. In a dingy jailhouse meeting room, the prosecutor badgers the defendant until he sobbingly confesses: “Okay, I killed her! I had no choice!” Meanwhile, the defense attorney sits there looking mildly constipated. A real defense attorney is as likely to let his client be questioned by the prosecutors as a lobster is to throw himself into a pot of boiling water. Defense attorneys know the vast majority of their clients are guilty – and any time a defendant opens his mouth, he risks revealing that. As a writer, I understand why this scene is so popular – the prosecutor hero needs to find out what really happened, and only the killer can say for sure. But it’s pure fiction. (That said, I will always have a crush on Sam Waterston, the maestro of this scene on Law & Order.)

18 thoughts on “The Top 5 Things TV Crime Shows Get Wrong — Allison Leotta Tells All!

  1. Thank you for the tip about fingerprints on a gun. I wondered about that when I saw a show the other night where the officer picked the gun up barehanded lol. Now I know. I know so much of it is not really how it works but I do love to watch any way. I was trying to explain to my nephew that CSI really is more fiction than fact but he didn’t get it lol. Oh well. A female detective told me once that the way they dress the female on Cold Case Files is almost good.

    • You are right, Kathy, CSI blends a serious dose of fiction with their facts. I wish we *really* had all the technology they show on that show. Prosecutors often talk about the “CSI Effect” — the fact that juries expect so much forensic evidence in trials because TV shows raise these unrealistic expectations. One of the prosecutor’s big jobs these days is lowering expectations so they align with reality!

    • Thanks to Allison for a great blog and for dropping in this evening. Congrats on the new short story — and two thrilling thrillers! And about Sam, well, yeah. But he breaks one of MY top 5 rules regularly when he argues with the judges!

  2. So, all those shows where the crime scene people carefully pick up the gun with a pencil or handkerchief so they don’t smear any prints – wrong!? I’ve learned so much. Thank you.

  3. Let’s not forget the low neck tops the women lawyers wear under their sedate suit jackets on TV. They show enough cleavage to distract everyone in the courtroom. I doubt that happens in real court cases. Great post Allison.

  4. Wow, I just found this blog and I’m so glad! These are great tips. I’ve always wondered what’s real and what’s unrealistic with these shows. My husband is a firefighter, and watching fire scenes with him is an exercise in patience :/

    • Thanks, Julie! I think it’s hard for anyone with specialized knowledge to watch the liberties taken for the sake of drama — unless you can learn to laugh at it, as Allison obviously has!

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