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L.A. County Coroner Insists on Dead-On Accuracy for TV Shows

Investigator Craig Harvey provides forensic advice to Hollywood for TV shows including 'NCIS,' 'Southland'

L.A. County chief coroner investigator Craig Harvey has been providing forensic advice to Hollywood for TV shows ranging from “JAG” and “Boomtown” to “Southland” and “NCIS,” as well as films like “Pathology,” “Deja Vu” and “Street Kings.”

IN THE BEGINNING

Harvey’s stint as coroner consultant began when producer Donald Bellisario reached out to him in the early 2000s for the series “JAG.” When Bellisario moved to “NCIS,” Harvey was asked to brief thesp David McCallum for his role as a coroner investigator. Today, Harvey and the writer-producers of “NCIS” know each other so well that he can call in his advice by phone.

ACCURACY, ACCURACY, ACCURACY

“Just about every show that has a forensic aspect, I probably have talked to a writer, talked to a production set decorator,” Harvey says. His advice covers things like signage, lighting, tools and what’s in the autopsy room. “I make it as real as possible,” he says. The education has been a two-way street. When Harvey started in 2003, Bellisario told him, “It’s a TV show, not a documentary.”

THE ‘CSI’ EFFECT

Now the public expects toxicology reports and other forensics results within an hour, just as they’re delivered onscreen. But TV writers take creative license to move a story along, Harvey says, pointing out that in reality, it takes six to eight weeks to obtain such results.

WORST MOMENT

A scene that still sticks with him came from an episode in a show he prefers not to name in which a red liquid was dripping from a planter to a pool. The character in the scene put an ungloved finger in the material and put it up to his nose. “We don’t do anything without putting gloves on first,” Harvey says. “(And) you never put anything near the nose.” Luckily, he adds, “it turned out (the substance) was hummingbird food.”

HOBBIES

Wandering in cemeteries — “the older the better,” he says — and caring for four dogs.

STATS

NAME: Craig Harvey
TITLE: Chief coroner investigator for Los Angeles County
GOAL: To assist productions in presenting the most accurate portrayal of the field of forensic science.
HEADQUARTERS: Los Angeles County Dept. of Coroner, Marengo and Mission streets in downtown Los Angeles
AGE: 59
YEARS ON THE JOB: 26
YEARS AS CHIEF: 21
NO. OF CASES HANDLED ANNUALLY BY THE DEPARTMENT: 16,000-18,000
TOTAL NO. OF CASES INVESTIGATED UNDER HIS WATCH: Approximately 400,000

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