8.10.2012

Life, Death and Police Work – Part I

England-forensic2England-forensic2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Article by: Scott Hall
            A death investigation, simply stated is one where investigators try to assist persons who have lost loved ones with answers to when, how, why and what happened when the death occurred.  Whenever death happens, clues to its cause are generally left behind, some obvious, some microscopic and in either case, a death investigator must recognize those clues and piece together the scenario at hand and carefully collect and organize those clues.  Among the most critical tools a death investigator can have is their senses such as sight, sound, smell, not necessarily touch and taste and all help upon the initial entry to a scene as well as a variety of other tools needed in their investigations.  In 1999 a publication known as “
English: Calosoma (Charmosta) investigatorEnglish: Calosoma (Charmosta) investigator (Photo credit: Wikipedia)Death Investigation: A Guide for the scene investigator” was released as well as an updated version in 2011 that covers a few guides pertinent to these types of investigations and this series will reflect some of its readings.  The officers who investigate death, have to walk a line like no other and this article will hope to focus on what exactly the investigator may see in a 3 part mini-series of death investigations.


US Army CID crime scene investigatorUS Army CID crime scene investigator (Photo credit: Wikipedia)                        If all our homicides were played out like what we see on television, with specific “epiphanies” and moments of clarity with clear cut paths, our nations prisons would be overflowing with persons who were guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and police officers who have no problems dealing with death and the horrific pictures it can leave in its wake.  In reality, homicide, murder, serial murder or mass killings are never pretty, never clear cut and seldom come with grand epiphanies that lead to arrest, it takes hard work, verifying facts, intense investigations and sometimes heated moments all to find out facts that lead to an arrest of the person responsible and have them face justice.  First, they must arrive upon the scene, the first step into the search for the truth behind the death.

            As one can imagine, upon discovering a death that may be suspicious, there will be lots of authorized persons on the scene, so upon arrival the investigator must do a quick “meet and greet” with persons already there working the scene collecting or assessing evidence.  This will help the officer get to know the team working on the case and establish a more collaborative investigation, thus details and notes can be compared and compiled.  Examples of this type of collaboration could be the medical examiner or coroner, shift supervisors, uniformed officers who have secured the scene as well as key persons involved in the investigation process like a forensic team.  Investigators may arrive at a scene alone, but rarely investigate alone in most crime scenes; a team effort starts from the first officer’s arrival.

            The next step is to ensure the scene is safe and secure from environmental and any hazards that can produce physical injury to all persons on the scene.  Examples of these hazards vary from hostile crowds, upset family members and curious parties to biochemical or bio hazardous environments and calling in the appropriate persons to secure those environments before further investigations can continue.  An officer’s number one priority is always safety of all persons including self, only natural they would apply it to a death scene investigation.  This may also include doing a sweep or asking for a tactical sweep of the area to insure no suspected perpetrators are on the scene or in the area.  This usually happens prior to encountering the body of the victim as a precaution to all involved and in some cases if a particular structure or location is deemed unsafe, the body may be moved out or away as a further step in securing a scene.

http://openclipart.org/clipart/people/magnifyi...http://openclipart.org/clipart/people/magnifying_glass_01.svg License: PublicDomain Keywords: people Author: AbiClipart Title: Magnifying Glass (Photo credit: Wikipedia)            In addition to confirming the death once the scene is deemed safe and being briefed or briefing selected persons, the investigator must conduct a walk through.  In some rare cases if death has not been confirmed, the investigator may elect to take a pulse or check the victim for vital signs; this is not unusual if the officer investigating is uncertain or if emergency medical personnel have not arrived to assist.  Eventually the investigator will conduct a scene walk through, establishing parameters to the scene, an entry and exit path, identify all visible and fragile evidence that is obvious, take initial recordings or photographs (if so equipped) and gain knowledge of decedent.  Depending on size of scene, persons involved and the associated parameters, this stage may take some time to set up, remember, safety first so if the scene is particularly hazardous, more than one item may take place at the same time.  This particular focus reminds this author of a key mistake that was made in a death investigation in Texas, where Daniel Underwood’s death was deemed suicide and not accidental homicide.  In this scene, the victim lay bleeding for approximately 39 minutes before the initial investigator would allow EMT’s to take the victim to the hospital, where 15 mins later, the victim died, due to “securing the scene”, a quick Google search for that case will help clarify the details.

            Next, the investigator may want to establish a chain of command, such as who to give death details to (coroner) or who is collecting or collected evidence and which agencies will be responsible for its procurement throughout the investigation and may even include who is tracking those who come and go on the scene, all details crucial to a thorough investigation.  For example, one of the pieces often claimed to be the keys that let O.J. Simpson out of criminal court for the murders of Nicole, was the mishandling and contamination of physical evidence, just a few ounces of caution could easily have swayed this case in the opposite direction.  Noting of course that many of those same points were brought up in the civil case, where a preponderance of the evidence was used, not the beyond a reasonable doubt in criminal cases.

            Collection of evidence comes with its own set of governances, each separate and specific to each department’s investigators.  The need for a warranted search of the premises may be in order or perhaps some international law applies each with its own governance and each falling under a different authority, the investigator must be knowledgeable of those same authorities’ policies or procedures in collecting the evidence.  Clearance from a Coroner or some local official are sometimes necessary in order to properly gather evidence at a crime scene.   As mentioned earlier in this article, their own senses play a role in the collection, including the gut sense that things just don’t add up making the scene itself subject to the scrutiny of the investigator and evidence gathering is a great place for the application of that gut sense.

            As we can see in this part of our series, many items take place in the process of setting up a death scene investigation and only Hollywood or television production crews can speed up things for us to understand and grant us relief of the mystery with their brilliant epiphanies and sound understandings.  In reality, the process of collection of evidence and starting the investigation may take several parties, several collaborative ideas and crucial safety steps long before evidence gathering gets detailed, some of those detailed environments will be covered in our next article, including crime scene photography, safeguarding and interviewing and then finally concluding our 3 part series with a listing of a few of the  tools that may be used in the course of investigation.
            
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