Law & Disorder: Crime-scene investigation class sets CSI junkie straight

In the criminal television system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups — those who are indifferent to crime shows and those who are addicted to them. This is my story.

Some people don't remember how they first got hooked, but I do. After some "minor" oral surgery, I had a gum full of black sutures and a brain full of gauze. I couldn't work, I couldn't eat, and with the pain medication my dentist gave me, I couldn't even focus on a book. The only thing I could do was watch TV. For three solid days.

The first day, I surfed relentlessly, but then, somewhere between CNN and AMC, a world-weary face caught my eye. I heard a wisecrack about lawyers. A reference to skin under somebody's fingernails. I recognized Mr. Big from "Sex and the City" and later, that cute doctor from "Ally McBeal." This "Law & Order" show looks sort of interesting, I thought, hardly realizing I had just taken a bite from a very powerful apple.

"Home alone's a movie, not an alibi, punk!" Det. Lennie Briscoe would bark, slapping a pair of bracelets onto a suspect. "This man died of lead poisoning," his partner, Ed Green, would quip, looking up from a splayed gunshot victim.

The show had everything — violent crimes, forensic magic, twisty plots, legal leg wrestling. Most important of all, it had lingo. LUDs were phone records, COD meant cause of death. I discovered a whole new language of acronyms and abbreviations — vics, perps, floaters, skels, R&R, B&E, OTB, DOA. After a while, I even developed a deep understanding of how the legal system worked.

Some evenings, I'd do a little "L&O: Special Victims Unit"; others, I'd indulge in a bit of "L&O: Criminal Intent" (known simply as Sideways Head Guy among my fellow crime-show buffs). Next came "Boomtown," "Crossing Jordan," "NYPD Blue," "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."

After three months, I started to see the world as two separate groups: perps and vics. I began referring to King County Jail as Rikers and thought of my caller ID as my own personal LUDs. I accused my sister of hearsay when she repeated a conversation she'd had with her boss and stopped an otherwise pleasant dinner party by noting the host was making hesitation cuts on the roast.

People began to notice that my crime-show addiction was getting a little out of hand. And they were right. It was time to take action.

Scene: the classroom

I found the class in the Discover U catalog, tucked between "Write Your Own Will" and "Rowing for Beginners." Learn how scientific investigation solves crimes, the description read. Discover how DNA has changed the face of investigations.

Why spend my life watching make-believe crime shows when I could learn about the real thing from Seattle's own detectives? A week later, I was sitting in a basement classroom waiting for the two-hour "CSI" special to start.

Two women perched on a long table at the front of the classroom, veterans of the local law-enforcement scene, according to the crime-scene-yellow fliers scattered over the tables. One looked a little like "SVU's" Olivia, only with long hair and jewelry. The other seemed a cross between Grace Kelly and "Police Woman" Pepper Anderson.

They chitchatted quietly as people took their seats. After a moment, I realized they were talking about stabbings and drownings and molestations as casually as the two women next to me discussed Chinese cooking.

I started to wonder if I had really thought this "CSI" thing through, particularly since I have a tendency to faint at the sight of blood — not to mention severed hands and desiccated eyeballs. And then, I had no time to wonder about anything. School was in session.

Each of the 15 women and the two men introduced themselves and talked a little about why they had enrolled. I was grateful to find a few crime-show fans in the mix, including one grandmother (taking the class with her daughter and granddaughter) who had "always really liked that 'Quincy' show."

As soon as the introductions were over, though, things began to go south.

"Just to warn you, some of the pictures we're going to show are going to be pretty graphic," Olivia said, powering up her computer. "If you don't like the sight of blood, it may be a problem for you."

I looked around at the other students. Everyone sat in rapt attention; not even the grandmother looked squeamish. I swallowed hard and sank down in my seat.

The 911 calls started shortly thereafter. I listened to a hysterical man relay the details of a shooting in his neighborhood. The shooting had involved a small child.

I shifted in my seat. The man's voice had been haggard, desperate. It seemed so much more real, so much less articulate, than what I'd heard on TV. Then Olivia and Pepper were discussing auto-erotic suicide. From there, they deftly moved on to a murderous rampage that had happened in North Seattle in 1999, reciting details about fatal car accidents, bludgeoned neighbors, injured officers.

Then it was on to crime-scene containment, then separating witnesses so they wouldn't "contaminate each other's statements." Then fingerprinting, then polygraphs, then canvassing, then the collection of evidence.

Somewhere in there, the slide show began, but by then, it was all starting to blur.

There was bloody carpeting. Gruesome red fingerprints. A woman's pulpy face. I heard about a crime scene with "bloody handprints all the way to the neighbors' " and listened to Pepper reminisce about a case involving some guy who had "hatcheted up his wife on one of the islands." I learned that three cigarette butts outside a person's apartment could indicate a stalking situation. That you were far more likely to get a fingerprint off a dead body than a live one. That Harborview does the best rape exams. That you should always, always, trust your gut.

By then, my gut was starting to tell me that I was in over my head.

I had come here fascinated by a make-believe world of glamour-puss cops and twisting plots, but these women were immersed in the real thing — blood, gore, hatred, grief — all the ugliness, all the banality, all the pain and stupidity and ill-wrought passion that life could possibly muster. Their work wasn't about entertainment. It was about investigating an endless string of hideous crimes that happened daily to wives, husbands, neighbors, children.

The crimes didn't necessarily make sense, or contain intriguing ethical conflicts, or serve to inspire a series of rough and tumble wisecracks. And the crimes were never, ever, neatly wrapped up in 52 minutes plus commercials.

I hung my head, ashamed of myself. Also, they were starting to show those icky pictures again.

Scene: back home

"CSI" was on when I got home, a white-smocked medical examiner waxing poetic about the necrotizing effects of certain snake venoms. I listened for a moment and then did the unthinkable.

I turned the television off.

The thrill was gone. My addiction to Crime TV had dissipated into nothingness, like a minuscule blood sample in a busy DNA lab.

"CSI," "Law & Order," "NYPD Blue" — they were all about a fantasy world of crime and detection. But I was through with the fantasy. From now on, I was all about reality.

I glanced down at the remote control, a niggling thought bouncing around in the back of my brain. I picked the remote back up, the idea blossoming like an unfolding parachute.

Reality TV. It had an interesting ring to it.

Diane Mapes: