Life, Death and Police Work – Part II

Soldiers of the United States Army Criminal In...
Soldiers of the United States Army Criminal Investigation Division inspecting a crime scene. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
            In our first article, we covered some of the basics of the beginnings of a death investigation, emphasizing senses and a sense of safety as well as the need to establish clear communication paths.  Death investigations require diligence, intense study and detailed police work, looking high and low for clues and among the ways investigators obtain these clues is by photography, interviews, physical evidence gathering and insuring that all of this is handled with care and precision.  Critical thinking also plays a role in death investigation, including the skill of evaluation and this skill fits like a custom made suit in our wardrobe of tools available to complete the investigation.  In this article, we will cover some of the tools and their application and use in investigation of death scenes.

            In our modern electronic age, to take a photograph may mean simply pointing your phone, pressing a button and presto, instant virility if good enough.  In police investigations, it means photographs with as high a definition as possible and various angles of the same scene to insure all possibilities have been photographed.  Sometimes depending on scene, it may or may not include a body.  What they do contain is crucial to investigation as there may be finite details not seen as the walk through is conducted, giving the investigator a snap shot of time to study and review.  When taking these photographs, the investigator will orient them to proximity in the room or area and in some cases noting length or physical characteristics with a ruler or some object to compare in size which may also annotate the absence of certain items, helping to recreate the scene and gaining the investigator better understanding. 

English: A crime scene photo admitted into evi...
English: A crime scene photo admitted into evidence shows the wooded area where Caylee Anthony's body was found. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
            A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a detailed description to aid those pictures is priceless.  For example, a person with a gunshot wound to the head may make us think either self inflicted or may have been done in a shoot out or even by accident, if all we had was a picture, we have our thousand words, but also have a thousand questions.  An investigator’s next best friend is their pen or pencil and a pad of paper, to note critical observances or items that may need help in describing in the series of photographs submitted as evidence.  Items that may need to be included are: blood and body fluids present, if photos were taken prior to or after the removal of the victim’s body, diagrams describing the layout of the area or keynotes about specific details in temperature, smells, environment or statements.  In many early television programs often times viewers may hear in crime dramas, “it’s not the police work I hate, it’s the paper work.”  This is a tool that is both warranted and necessary as those same notes may help to put away a suspected perpetrator, the more detailed the better, like it or not.

            Suppose you were an investigator and upon your initial discovery of the body, a witness says to you, he was just outside that area, I have no idea how this could have happened.  Among the questions an investigator must answer “is this the location of the death” not just because the investigator must make sure there are no zombie occurrences but because sometimes in foul play bodies may be placed to look like other things may have taken place.  In our first article, the case of Daniel Underwood was mentioned and one of the debatable details is “was the body moved”, according to what was uncovered at the crime scene, two pools of blood with a streak in the middle.  One would assume the body had been moved based on photograph alone; however, the Texas Rangers investigating the case seemed to overlook that detail.  This type of mistake is not one that is common, so not mentioning it in their reports makes this author want to send their department a copy of the book where these notes and highlights were derived.

            It is very important that an investigator obtain details of the location of the decedent, items that should be noted should include: the location of the death, how the person arrived where they were and what transportation was used to get them there, any differences in the body and the scene such as rigor mortis or other items to help indicate time of death, the clothing of the decedent if torn or has items upon it that may be considered for evidence or investigation, check for any dragging marks or indicators of post mortem movement, gather dispatch records from ambulance or other authorities involved and any interview notes from family or loved ones at the scene.  If there is the chance that the victim could survive the incident, the officer has the authority to release them to emergency care persons, but only upon confirming the scene is secure enough to accomplish safe transport.  A split second error could cost both the victim and the officer their lives if a suspected perpetrator is nearby or not done with their crime. 

            Photographs, blood stains or patterns, physical evidence and notes all have one thing in common, safeguarding their existence.  Not only must the physical evidence be protected for possible further investigation, but those items that are not a part of the investigation may need to be released to next of kin.  Forensic departments may want to hold on to parts of that evidence for further or future review or consideration as well as other agencies that may have a vested interest in the investigation, documenting and annotating this evidence also helps to insure that the investigator cannot be accused of stealing property.  Among the items that may warrant safeguarding: Medications, Money or valuables, ballistic materials, building materials, critical or sensitive information of witnesses or anything of interest to the investigator.   

            Witness statements are very important to the investigator; they give clues about scene settings, times, temperatures and in some cases histories that may include behaviors in and around the area.  Citing sources within the report can help the investigator piece together details that may otherwise not be discovered through the regular patterns of investigation.  Examples of the details that may be gathered could be: names, addresses and location information of the witnesses, establishing relation of the witness to the decedent, establish a base of knowledge that may include how much detail of the death the potential witness may have, noting or discovering significant detail discrepancies between initial discovery reports and witness descriptions and retain these records permanently (usually archived after becoming a cold case or closed case).

            In conclusion, we have seen that photographs, detailed reports, interviewing witnesses and annotating all changes are aides in solving most death investigations.  These steps along with securing the scene upon initial discovery, will aid the investigator in their path to concluding whether the death was homicide, suicide or some other classification.  Investigators take into consideration all possibilities and piece together all of these items to develop a sense of what happened, how it may have happened, who would be involved and be knowledgeable in the fields of those agencies who assist in drawing these conclusions.  In our next article, we will conclude with creating a profile for the deceased and a brief listing of the physical tools needed to complete a death investigation.

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