Life, Death and Police Work – Part III

A death certificate is required as proof befor...
A death certificate is required as proof before some bereavement flights. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Article by: Scott Hall
            In our first two series, we examined the initial procedure of death scene investigation, including securing the scene, authoritative agenda’s and agencies, evidence gathering and some of the details of how it is gathered, photography and other parameters.  All of these initial pieces help to create a framework and give the investigator a general profile, of the scene, not necessarily the victim.  In order to help understand the victim, the investigator must follow the path that may help to gain the realization of how the death came to a head; this includes creating a profile of the deceased and no death investigation is done without certain tools of the trade as well as lots of documentation and in this final article in our series, we will conclude with some of those tools for helps as well as list the link to our Daniel Underwood case.

            Unless the investigator has firsthand knowledge of the victim, there is a good chance the investigator will have to create and document a profile of the deceased.  Creating a good profile will require a bit of work, as the profile information will include the history surrounding the death as well as the levels of investigation and whether or not further investigation is necessary or how deep or broad the investigation should go.  Drawing from the witness interviews, the investigator may wish to include in their profile the what, where, when and how the witness was involved.  This part of the investigation must be clear and as thorough as possible in relation to the investigation and the surrounding circumstances.  Some of the details in this stage could be used in part to any pretrial incidents that may be needed in order to process prosecution of persons responsible. 

            While completing the profile of the deceased, the investigator will want to obtain the terminal history of the person.  This doesn’t mean the investigator has to find out if the victim had a terminal illness, it means that the known circumstances and any medical interventions must also be documented.  Items such as:  noting when and where the victim was last known to be living, any incidents prior to the death, any EMS records associated with the death, medical or pharmacy records that may be relevant to the death and any ante mortem specimens.  Getting these items help to distinguish medical treatments from trauma or suspected method of death and though this may be more important for the medical examiner or coroner the information relative to the investigation will likely become the property of the investigator over the case in question.

Institute of Mental Health 6, Nov 06
Institute of Mental Health 6, Nov 06 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
            Other parameters must be noted and included in the decedents profile or even expanded further, such as the victim’s medical history, including social or mental health issues.  In noting or investigating the victim’s medical history or mental health history, this will help to establish whether or not there were underlying problems that could have lead to the death.  Some medications when not properly administered or fail to be administered can cause some persons to end their life and in some cases, it is important the investigator is clear as to the mental or physical health of the person.  This could include clues to alcohol or drug use, whether or not the victim was right or left handed or could even reveal if a struggle took place, depending on evidence recovered from the body or area.  Areas of interest to the investigator on social levels could be patterns of relationships, family histories, sexual or employment histories, daily routines and even any religious patterns that all may be relevant to the investigation.

            Along with the tedious task of interviews, photographs, documenting items and noting observances, the investigator may become the authority over the release and other parameters of the body.  For instance, in order for an investigator to release a body to a funeral home or director, an official certificate of death must be filed and all associated items that are needed for completeness of investigation must be acquired.  Once the body is buried, exhumation is time consuming and costly for families and law enforcement alike, so all conclusionary evidence must be obtained.  This means having all things ready for the exiting part of the investigation, including insuring that all evidence has been collected, the proper agencies have been notified that collected evidence is in route or will be in route for further study, insuring that all hazardous conditions have a response or plan of action to remove them and may include notifying the family so that further clean up or closure can take place. 
Information (Photo credit: heathbrandon)

            Besides providing necessary information to the courts and other agencies involved in the process of investigation, the investigator must also make themselves known to the families of those victims, becoming their catalyst of information.  The investigator informs those families of when an autopsy will be performed, any support services, agencies involved that will have pertinent information, insure that no one is left alone with the body until it can be properly secured, distribute a time table for completing the investigation and releasing the body as well as informing them of any further needs, such as media releases or medical report releases.  This small attention to detail helps many families and offers the investigator the chance to assist the citizens with the proper resources needed to finalize any needed items.  With all the information gathered, it is no wonder investigators carry pens, paper and devices that assist them with investigations.

            As we can see, tools such as sight, smell, critical thinking and evaluation, interviewing and documenting are a large part of death investigation.  The investigator has more waiting on them than just an opinion upon arrival.  It includes gathering evidence, securing scene and person as well as victim, making crucial decisions and collaborating with everyone involved all to assist in drawing the correct conclusion as to the scene and its specific circumstances.  Along with documentation of the evidence and photographic conclusions (usually done by a separate department, but may be done by initial investigator), certain physical tools must be on hand.  Tools at the investigator’s disposal (besides pen and paper) are:  Flashlight, evidence bags, body bags and identification tags, evidence markers, crime scene tape, personal protective equipment such as gloves or a facemask, pocket knives and even a watch just to name of few of the 50 some odd items that may need to be available.

            In conclusion, when conducting an investigation into a death, real police work and gum shoe or advanced technology will never be as quick as Hollywood or other media outlets would like its viewers to believe.  The same can be said of Daniel Underwood’s death, upon looking over all the notes and all the public information that is related to it, one can easily see flaws in the basics of the investigation, including not noting the discrepancies in testimony, the blood patterns that show possible body movement and even the small details about why the victim had no significant blood stains on their person even after laying in a pool of blood, including brilliantly white socks.  With all the items necessary and established procedures, the case of Daniel Underwood will forever remain a point of debate and while the expected procedures are clear, sometimes even the smallest of details can change a suicide into something bigger. 

Reference and Readings:

*Authors note* CNJ has a complete file on the Daniel Underwood case, including crime scene photo’s, interviews both post mortem and further, including links to audio that show discrepancies in the case and contact with the victims family (mother) and are available to interested parties only that can assist with overturning this case from suicide to accidental homicide or homicide or manslaughter.

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