Long before two unidentified bodies washed onto the shore of the San Francisco Bay early last week, most of America knew Laci Peterson's story. For months, the news that a pregnant woman had been snatched on Christmas Eve from her close-knit town in California's Central Valley evoked compassion. Later, the decision by police to troll her husband's fishing spot generated suspicion.
Yet when a local official stepped before a throng of reporters last week to speak of the two bodies - suspected and later confirmed to be Peterson and her unborn son - another reaction emerged: fascination.
The questions came rapid fire: Why was it taking so long to analyze the DNA? How decomposed were the bodies? Why weren't dental records being used?
To some observers, it was more than journalistic thoroughness. It was a glimpse into America's new and growing obsession with the most minute - and often the most disturbing - procedures of high-profile criminal investigations. Call it the "CSI" effect.
Since the days of Arthur Conan Doyle, people have tried to piece together clues from major investigations - with the media's help. But criminal-justice experts suggest that Americans, lathered by the O.J. Simpson trial and TV shows like "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," are more engrossed than ever by the forensics and autopsies involved in crime solving.
The curiosity has made forensics one of the most sought-after subjects in colleges, high schools, and even middle schools, and it is heightening interest in cases like the Peterson disappearance.
"At this point in history, the public carries stories a lot further than they did in the past," says Ronald Singer, president-elect of the American Association of Forensic Scientists (AAFS). "Now, people want to know all the details; they want to know about the DNA."
At San Jose State University in California, student demand is leading the criminal-justice department to hire its first forensics professor. At California State University in Sacramento, department chair William Vizzard calls the increased interest at his school "sudden" and "incredible" - especially among women.
Indeed, one recent survey by student lender Sallie Mae suggests that forensic science is the fastest-growing major on many college campuses. And for the first time, the AAFS sponsored conferences last year on how to teach forensics - a response to repeated inquiries from middle-school and high-school teachers.
The boom began, most agree, after the O.J. Simpson trial. "It was the first time I know of that a trial of huge national interest involved the use of crime-scene investigation techniques and DNA," says Dr. Singer.
But many agree the interest in forensics has deeper roots. Americans, after all, have long been fascinated by mysteries ranging from the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby to the Kennedy assassination. Now, as new techniques and more sophisticated technology allow scientists to unravel cases that previously would have been unsolvable, forensics is taking an almost mythic place in the American imagination.
"This is the Sherlock Holmes side of crimes," says Dr. Vizzard. "What we've seen develop is the [interest in] the mystery side of criminal justice, and the mystery lends itself well to forensic science."
Just ask author Patricia Cornwell or actor William Petersen. Ms. Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta is arguably the Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple of modern American literature, and she is a coroner. Mr. Petersen, meanwhile, coproduces and stars in "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," routinely one of TV's top-rated shows. "They're puzzles," he says of his show, "and I think people want to participate in the puzzle solving."
The success of his show has spawned a spinoff, "CSI: Miami," as well as dramas like "Crossing Jordan" and investigative shows like "The New Detectives." Clearly, such interest has given forensic scientists unprecedented prominence, but it also has led to serious misconceptions and unrealistic expectations. " 'Crossing Jordan,' " Vizzard quips, "proves that a medical examiner needs to have great legs."
Many of these shows, experts say, condense three distinct jobs - chemist, investigator, and crime-scene technician - into one person, to improve the narrative. They also often overstate the importance of forensic evidence.
As the crime-lab director in Texas' Tarrant County, Singer says he is being called to testify in more cases - even when his findings are insignificant - because juries now expect forensic evidence in every case. "I'm getting called to things that I never would have been called to before," he says. "There's definitely a change."
At universities, some students are shocked that forensic science demands extensive knowledge of chemistry and biology. "That straightens them out real quick from what they see on TV," says Robert Keppel, president of the Institute for Forensics in Seattle.
In the Peterson case, many journalists couldn't understand why it would take weeks, if not months, to analyze the DNA from the two bodies that washed ashore. "In fact, someone would have to drop everything they were doing and work on it for a week to get it done," says Singer. "They did a marvelous job, but they got questioned because it only takes the people on 'CSI' 48 hours."
"CSI" coexecutive producer Petersen realizes that the show causes misunderstandings, but he also sees some benefits. "It's a mixed blessing," he says. "We brought a lot of attention to [forensics]."
• Staff writer Gloria Goodale contributed to this report from Los Angeles.