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Police procedures at death scenes–Part 2

From Scott:

Last time, I talked about the functions and duties of the Coroner’s office, including the work done by the Forensic Pathologist. In this installment, I’ll move forward into police procedures when investigating the death scene.

First, I would like to take a moment to discuss what we call the “CSI Effect.” The popular television series, which has spawned its share of spin-off series, demonstrates the capabilities of the crime scene investigator. But in the process, the writers take great liberties with the entire process. No lab in the country is as well-equipped as the television crime lab. The scientists who work in real crime labs do not typically go to crime scenes, although they do go on rare occasions. And they don’t go out interviewing and arresting the suspects.

The other problem is that, in the interest of making the show more interesting, they play free with the abilities of the technologies in the crime lab. An example is the use of a chemical called Luminol, which is used to detect the presence of blood, even if the surface has been cleaned. I saw an episode where, in broad daylight, Luminol was used to detect blood on the metal blade of a shovel. My issues with this are many. The main problem is that the glow of a positive reaction from Luminol can only be viewed in near-total darkness. The other major issue is that metals will produce false positives for Luminol, making their positive result useless.

The CSI Effect, then, is this: jurors and victims all expect that the crime scene unit can work miracles. Cases have been lost in court due to this unreasonable expectation. Many prosecutors actually inform juries about this issue, during their oral arguments at both the beginning and closing of a trial. If real jurors in an actual trial can be fooled, you can see where an author can easily make grievous mistakes when writing about a death scene. If you don’t want to be flooded with angry emails (or reviews!) from people who know better, pay close attention to what you’re doing on your death scenes.

You may hear someone who claims to have intimate knowledge of police procedure tell you that all death scenes are treated as homicides until a different manner of death is confirmed. While this sounds great in the classroom, it becomes impractical in reality. It simply costs too much, in resources, officers, and money, to treat every death as a murder. The experienced investigators examine the scene and appraise it based upon what evidence is present. Typically, if it actually is a murder, it is fairly evident, and will be treated that way.

The first officers on the scene will secure the area and wait for the crime scene investigators. The first step is a walk-through. The investigator examines the entire scene for evidence and evaluates the possibility that this case might be a homicide. The next step is photography. Unlike CSI, the entire scene is video-taped and photographed before any item is touched. The TV investigators pick things up, examine them, then place them back and take pictures. If you did this at a real scene, the defense attorney would destroy you in court.

Before any important items are removed, complete measurements have to be taken. This can be done with tape measures, laser measuring tools, or survey equipment. The results will be used later to create a scale diagram, possibly in three dimensions in a computer simulation, showing the position of everything at the scene. It will be used for later evaluations of the scene, as well as courtroom presentation.

Only after all this is finished will officers begin collecting evidence. If there is a firearm present, the collecting officer will first “make the weapon safe.” This involves removing the magazine and ensuring the chamber is empty. Or, in the case of a revolver, the cylinder must be opened and the rounds emptied out. A firearm is always unloaded before being handled, for obvious safety reasons.

I’d like to take a moment to point out some firearm terminology that is routinely butchered in fiction (and in the news, for that matter). With a semi-automatic or automatic weapon, a magazine is the device that holds the ammunition. Unfortunately, this is almost always referred to as a “clip.” In reality, the clip is what holds the bullets together in the box that comes from the manufacturer. The bullets can’t be fired from the clip, but with the aid of a “speed loader” the bullets can be rapidly loaded from the clip into the magazine for firing. Please, do your readers a favor and keep these two straight.

The next step is the release of the body to the Coroner’s office. If the death involved a shooting, the body will be taken to the hospital for X-Rays (unless the Coroner’s facility is equipped with its own X-Ray gear). If the death is believed to be a homicide or suicide, an autopsy will be performed. In the case of a natural death, the Coroner will decide if an autopsy is needed.

In my next installment, I’ll cover the ways to determine how long it has been since a death and discuss the different death scene classifications: homicide, suicide, accidental, and natural.


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