Binge-worthy Watch: ‘Forensic Files’ brings reality to TV

One thing that used to bother me about “Law & Order” in its many incarnations is that the women were just too good looking. Then there’s that so-called CSI effect where people are inclined to believe police should be able to resolve to many things that remain unsolved. As a counter balance, “Forensic Files” which is available on HuluPlus is a refreshing dose of reality.

This American documentary series began on TLC in 1996 as “Medical Detectives” and has also gone under the tile of “Mystery Detectives” and on the British Channel Five, “Murder Detectives.” The show which looks at how forensic science helped solve violent crimes, supposed accidents and a sudden rash if illnesses is narrated by Peter Thomas. During the half-hour, there are re-enactments, interviews with victims, witnesses, suspects, prosecutors, defense attorneys and investigators (police officers, detectives, medical examiners and pathologists).  Each episode takes a particular case, some famous, mostly ones in modern times although some historical cases are also investigated. The case if followed from the beginning until there is some kind of legal resolution.

To protect the innocent, in some cases the names of the victims and the victims’ families have been changed, making the changing of some evidence necessary (re-created). If the family has given consent, then the real name can be used. Re-enactments of actors who look similar to the people concerned were found through open casting calls.

Well-known forensic analyst appear on the show. We see cases that are legal landmarks, particularly in the first season. The first episode, “The Disappearance of Helle Crafts,” is the first time a person was convicted of murder without a body. In “Planted Evidence,” plant DNA is used for the first time in the U.S. to convict a man of murder. The first time DNA profiling was used in a serial murder case in “Southside Strangler” frees a man who spent two years in prison.

The infamous case of “Legionnaires’ Disease” takes the audience back to the Philadelphia Convention. The case resulted in 29 deaths and one researcher seems to have found the cause. When residents of an area in South Dakota all have high levels of thyroid hormones, except in vegetarians, the investigation leads to a change in how meat butchering policies. Another case, looks a boy who almost died because of  E-coli in a hamburger and how he was saved.

Other cases such as The Norfolk Four, the Lindbergh kidnapping and President John F. Kennedy’s assassination are also covered. In the case of The Norfolk Four, four men were convicted of rape and murder based mostly on confession that were coerced. The Innocence Project took on this case

During Season 2, there are interesting cases where environmental concerns are brought forward.  A “Killer Fog” is determined to be caused by a paper plant. Fungus in the home is determined to cause respiratory problems in infants (“Fatal Fungus”). Parasites in the water cause a massive outbreak in illness in Milwaukee (“Deadly Parasites”).

There’s also the Excedrin murder where traces of a pet store chemical leads the authorities to a woman who wanted to poison her husband and make it look like an accident in “Something Fishy.” On the flip side, a brilliant Mensan plans a murder and tried to frame his neighbor in “Bitter Potion.” Of course, there are the episodes where tiny details or trace evidence results in a conviction such as “The Common Thread” or “Charred Remains.”

Season 3 features an episode on the so-called Mad Cow Disease “Foreign Body.”  The I-5 serial killer’s investigation is also a highlight (“Knot for Everyone”). In another episode, a woman is jailed for the murder of her child (“Deadly Formula”) but science proves her innocent.

During Season 4, the Odwalla apple juice case is examined in  “Core Evidence.” Hypnosis is used to uncover a key bit of evidence (“Ties that Bind”). Bite marks identify a killer in “Body of Evidence.” A young couple dies due to a virus carried by mice in “With Every Breath.” In a true story of childhood repressed memory, a woman helps convict the murderer of her mother 30 years later (“Haunting Vision”).

In Season 5, a man finds a heavy barrel with a decomposing body and the police solve a murder that occurred 30 years prior to the grisly discovery in “A Voice from Beyond.” A former Nazi is recognized and deported from the U.S. in “Unholy Vows.”  A hit-and-run driver is convicted in the first case where video in a courtroom withstood an appeal in the death of six-year-old Nicole Rae Walker, “Journey to Justice.” In another case, a college student funds her studies by being a high-priced call girl and that ultimately leads to her death in “Deadly Knowledge.”

Season 6 features the heartbreaking case of six-year-old Cassie Hansen who was kidnapped from a church and murdered in “Church Disappearance.”  A South African physician uses his medical knowledge to beat a DNA test after he rapes a patient and his stepdaughter in “Bad Blood.” In an amazing tale of love and persistence, a young man goes to law school and eventually is able to free his mother who was convicted of the murder of his father and her husband in “Where the Blood Drops.”

Season 7 has “Reel Danger,” where an investigation into an attack on two boys near a pond uses diatom evidence to place three suspects at the crime scene. In “Purr-fect Match,” for the first time animal DNA helps solver a murder. In two cases, body parts are found–the torso of a woman in “Scout’s Honor” and a leg in “A Leg to Stand On” but the authorities are able to identify the victims and find the murderers. “Frozen in Time” involved a Newport Beach, CA. resident who was later found–frozen inside a truck “Frozen in Time.” There’s another warning against environmental problems in “Breaking the Mold.” For people in the Washington, D.C. area, “The Sniper’s Trail” looks at the Beltway sniper attacks.

Season 8 shows that dogs can also help solve murder in “Hair of the Dog.” The cause of the deadly 1993 Amtrak Railroad crash in which 47 people were killed is investigated in “Visibility Zero.” Computer technology recreates the fire at London’s Kings Cross Underground Station in which 30 people were killed.

In Season 9, twenty years after a woman disappears volunteer forensic scientists are able to solve the murder of a young woman in “No Corpus Delicti.” The seven-year bank robbing spree ends when police finally figure out how to identify the threesome in “Cloak of Deceit.” This season included the San Diego case, “Badge of Betrayal” and the Pasadena/Los Angeles arson case “Point of Origin.”

Season 10 begins with a nationally known fire investigator solving a murder mystery in “Trial by Fire.” If you love cold cases, “Marked for Life” shows how 50 years can make a difference in solving a crime. In “Headquarters,” the police are able to identify a dead person from a reconstruction of her face using only her skull. “Shear Luck” shows that the puzzle of a cut up computer disk could be solved. “Tight-fitting Genes” show that behavioral profiles arne’t always right, but DNA doesn’t lie.

During Season 11, the most noteworthy cases are “Bitter Brew,” the kidnapping Coors Brewing company’s chairman Adolph Coors; the resolution of a 30-year-old murder case involving a millionaire and his family in “Two in a Million,” the investigation into the 1991 bombings in Grand Junction, Colorado in “Small Town Terror,” and the sad tale of a person who knew she was going to be murdered, but left clues in “Murder, She Wrote.”

In Season 12, NASA gets involved in “Sharper Image.” If nothing else, future murderers will learn to vary their murder methods because although they might get away with it once, the second time isn’t always a charm as in “Cold Hearted” and “Insignificant Others.” Dogs are the best witnesses in “Dog Day Afternoon.” Two people prove their love in two different cases: “Brotherly Love” and “All Butt Certain.”

Season 13 finds another case where hypnosis proved handy in “House Hunting.” A psychic helps police fine the body of a missing girl in “Seedy Intentions.” A corpse found in 2005 was apparently dead in a building since the 1930s in “Dollars and Sense.” Then there’s the rich kid who hired his roomie to murder his parents in “Family Interrupted.” Then there’s another close to home murder in “Runaway Love” where a young woman murders her mother and dumps her in the Newport Bay.

In Season 14, the Last Call Killer is caught after ten years in “Touch of Evil.” The solution of one murder in 2004 leads to another solving of another murder committed in 2004 (“Seeing Red”). Your mother probably told you that you should choose your friends wisely and the case “Social Circle” proves that point.

What makes this series exceptional is balanced coverage, the care taken in finding actors who resemble the key players, the number of cases that cover a wide geographical area and because in one episode the investigator says he came upon one solution after watching the show. Several cases involved areas that I had lived in such as the case of John Leonard Orr, a former fire captain and arson investigator who was convicted of serial arson that caused millions of dollars in damages and killed four people.  The Season 9 episode, “Point of Origin,”  begins with the 1984 South Pasadena fire at a hardware store. Of the four deaths from that fire, one was a two-year-old child.

“Badge of Betrayal” takes place in San Diego. The body of a young woman is found under a bridge. A tiny fiber leads the investigators to the killer. It makes you wonder just who can you trust. During that time period, I was driving, sometimes alone in those areas.

All 14 Seasons (400 30-minute episodes) of “Forensic Files” are available on HuluPlus and on other online websites.



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