Homicide Investigations

by Tabetha Cooper
Birmingham Homicides - Jan-Apr 2006
Birmingham Homicides - Jan-Apr 2006 (Photo credit: Dystopos)
Criminal investigation is slightly different when dealing with homicide cases.  An investigator has extra steps to take during their investigation.  It also helps if an investigator knows how the body of a victim can provide evidence and what the importance of a modus operandi is when looking for the perpetrator of the homicide.  They also have to know about the different types of homicide and how each one is determined.  They need to be able to differentiate between a homicide and a suicide as well.
In any criminal investigation, according to both Osterburg & Ward (2007) and the Nationa
Modus operandi
Modus operandi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
l Medicolegal Review Panel (1999), an investigator must determine if a crime has been committed and what all is part of the crime scene.  After this has been determined, the crime scene needs to be sectioned off for the sake of its preservation.  Chain of custody needs to be established and then documentation, photographs, and a complete evaluation of the crime scene needs to be conducted.  After the scene has been evaluated everything determined to be evidence needs to be collected, inventoried, and preserved.  Any witnesses at the crime scene need to be interviewed.  All the investigative techniques for investigating any crime are the same but other measures need to be taken when dealing with a homicide.  When an investigator gets to the crime scene they need to make sure that the victim is indeed deceased.  After that has been determined, and with help from the medical examiner, the cause of death needs to be established if possible at the crime scene so that investigators can go ahead and look for the murder weapon.  The body needs to be photographed and all injuries need to be 
Skulls on a Beach:
Skulls on a Beach: "Currents carry many dead things to Punuk Island making it the graveyard of the Bering Sea." (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
documented.  The victim needs to be identified in order to gather information to figure out a motive for their homicide and so that notification of death can be given to the family.
The first thing that an investigator needs to do when they go to a crime scene, where there is a death, is determine if the death was from natural causes, suicide, or a homicide.  A suicide is a death that a person has inflicted on themselves, whereas a homicide is a death inflicted by another person.  When a death is suspected to be suicide information on the victim needs to be gather that can point to that conclusion.  According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the leading causes of suicide are “depression, alcohol/substance abuse, or a major stressful event.”  In light of that information an investigator should look for a history or mental illness, a stressful event, or signs that the victim was using drugs or alcohol on a regular basis.  In a suicide the murder weapon or if it was a case of a drug over dose the bottle of medication or drug paraphernalia should be close to the body. 
            If all signs of the death points to homicide the investigator needs to determine which type of homicide it was.  There are two types, murder which is a premeditated unlawful taking of another’s life or manslaughter which is the unlawful taking of another’s life without the intent to cause death (Osterburg & Ward, 2007, p. 351).  For example, a woman finds out that her husband has been cheating on her with someone she knows.  She takes a knife from her home and enters the other woman’s home illegally and kills her, then disposes of her body in a shallow grave that she had dug earlier that day.  That would be classified as murder because the wife clearly planned to kill and dispose of the body of the other woman.  On the other hand, take a man walking home from work when a teenager decides to rob and beat him.  He sees a pipe lying beside the sidewalk and picks it up to help defend himself.  He swings the pipe in an attempt to get knock the teenager away from him and accidently hits him in the head, killing him.  That would be manslaughter because he never intended to kill the boy; he was just doing whatever he could to get the teenager to leave him alone
US Army CID crime scene investigator
US Army CID crime scene investigator (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
            When collecting evidence it is vital for the crime scene investigator to get details from the body of the victim.  The National Institute of Justice (2009), says that an examination of the body can give unbiased information about the “victim’s physical attributes, his/her relationship to the scene, and possible cause, manner, and circumstances of death.”  Examination of the body can also lead to the discovery of blood and other bodily fluids that can give investigators a DNA sample that can be compared to suspects, in hopes of making a positive identification of the perpetrator.  A medical examiner can determine if the body was relocated after death.  This lets investigators know if there is another crime scene that needs to be found and examined, which could give them additional leads.  If the information from the victim’s body can’t lead investigators to a suspect, it can help them to establish a modus operandi (a perpetrators particular means and method to commit a crime) and possibly link the homicide to others in and around the area.  Although, Douglas and Munn (1992) warns that too much stock should not be put into the modus operandi alone.  A criminal’s modus operandi may change over time as certain aspects of the crime don’t go the way it was planned or after the perpetrator has been caught.  They can change their methods to exclude the things that got them caught and include things that will make the crime easier to commit.  In the event that a modus operandi can link a homicide to another within another jurisdiction, it may be possible for departments to share information with each other that may assist with gaining leads.
            When an investigator can conduct an investigation with the proper techniques, know how to differentiate between a homicide and suicide, can recognize the evidentiary value of the body, and utilize the modus operandi, they are well on their way to becoming very successful. Knowing all the right investigative techniques for a murder does not ensure that an investigator will catch a murderer but following all the guidelines does make the prospect of catching the killer much more likely. 


Douglas, J.E & Munn, C.. (1992) FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, February 1992. Retrieved February 23,

National Institute of Justice. (2009) A Guide to Death Scene Investigation: Documenting and Evaluating
The Body | National Institute of Justice. Retrieved February 23, 2010, from

National Institute of Mental Health. (2009) NIMH · Suicide in the U.S.: Statistics and Prevention.

National Medicolegal Review Panel. (1999) Death Investigation:  A guide for the Scene Investigator.
Retrieved February 23, 2010, from http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles/167568.pdf

Osterburg, J.W. & Ward, R.H. (2007) Criminal Investigation: A Method for Reconstructing         the Past (5th Ed.) Newark, NJ. Mathew Bender & Company, Inc.

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