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Investigating Death

Learning the proper procedures to maintaining an organized and efficient death scene.

May 01, 1997  |  by Gerald W. Garner

Few situations faced by the front-line law enforcement officer will challenge his or her talents as an observer, investigator and collector of information and evidence like the death scene. His or her skills as a writer and reporter of facts will likewise be tested to the max on such a vital assignment.

For the uniformed officer who harbors a desire for promotion or the right to carry the detective's gold shield one day, the death scene offers the opportunity to show what he or she can do in front of the department's brass and investigators alike. Even more important, his on-scene work and the written accounts he prepares concerning his observations and actions are the keys to telling others what happened, thereby helping assure justice for the deceased and his survivors- the most vital objective of all.

As important as the task is, there is really nothing exotic or mysterious about the process required to conduct a thorough and objective on-scene investigation of a violent, unattended or otherwise suspicious or "unknown circumstances" death. The procedures that will serve you well in the investigation and documentation of many other crimes will work here, too. Even though the victim may be past telling you what happened, he and his surroundings will have a lot to say to the observant, patient investigator. How well you are listening will for a long distance toward determining the eventual success or failure of your on-scene labors.

To produce useful results, your death case investigation must be a systematic and careful one. While no two cases will be exactly alike and each will require the application of at least slightly different tactics and techniques, the following guidelines should provide you with the investigative framework for getting the job done right.

On- Scene Investigation

Even allowing for the variations you will experience from one death scene to the next, virtually every investigation can be divided into several tasks or assignments. That remains true whether you work for a small department where you will be responsible for handling the case from crime scene to trial or are employed by a mega- agency that expects you to turn the case over to specialists at some point. Consider these pointers as your proven "steps to success" for untangling the mysteries of a violent or suspicious death scene.

Protect Yourself First

You don't want to find yourself added to the casualty list on a death scene. Be prepared for surprise threats even before you arrive. Watch out for the suspicious or out of place. Ask your dispatcher if a suspect is believed to be still on-scene, but remain wary even if the response is in the negative. Realize, too, that the situation can change while you are en route or after you arrive and begin to decipher the puzzle. A witness may turn into a suspect; the new widow may become the criminal. Stay sharp and watch out for new hazards.

You should be aware, of course, that things as well as people can hurt you. Put on the latex gloves before you enter the scene, and do your best to avoid contact with blood or other bodily products. Wash thoroughly if you do get anything on you, and discard and isolate any contaminated clothing or personal equipment as soon as possible. Watch out for accidental cuts or sticks from blades or needles found on- scene. Warn other personnel of any dangers you detect.

Secure the Scene

Be cautious in your approach to the death location. Whether your scene is inside or outdoors, tries to ensure that all personnel enter and exit by the same route, avoiding stepping in or kicking around potential evidence, like blood splatters. The touching of anything at all by emergency responders must be kept to an absolute minimum to avoid destroying or altering evidence.

If you or anyone else must move or change anything, like the victim's body in an attempt to render aid, what you did must be documented. Anything added to or taken from the scene must be noted as well. Investigators wasted countless hours trying to track down a cigarette butt or matchbook found at a death scene only to learn the item was dropped by a careless first responder.

"Err" on the side of sealing off too much area as opposed to too little in a suspicious death case. If, for instance, a body is found in a bedroom, at a minimum the whole home should be sealed off for an evidence search. You may develop information that requires you to isolate the yard, street and nearby vehicle, too. Do not hesitate to expand the area to be protected, as required.

Crime scene tape works great to mark the boundaries of your outdoor scene, but do not fail to have a real, live person there to enforce the restrictions. This officer should record the identity of everyone who enters or leaves the scene and when. This documentation could become important if the chain of custody or integrity of the evident (remember the O.J. case?) is called into question later.

Naturally, you should assure that the absolute minimum number of persons possible penetrates the perimeter of your scene and that each has a legitimate reason for doing so.

Realize that you may have to detail an officer or media specialist to deal with the demands of the media.

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