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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

Do not remove items from the body or otherwise disturb it!

In many jurisdictions, the responsibility for going over the body and its persona; effects will lie with the medical examiner or be a joint operation between the coroner's representative and the lead officer on-scene. Anything removed from the victim, whether on- scene or elsewhere, must be identified and packaged properly to preserve its evidentiary value and the chain of custody. A concise written account must be made of this operation.

Identify and Interview the Subjects Involved

Inasmuch as some witnesses and other involved parties have a nasty tendency to vanish once the law has arrived, one of your very first on-scene priorities should be to at least identify everyone present in case they have to be located again later. Don't hesitate to require identification from these people - you're the one who will look foolish if they do a fast fade on you and you have no idea who they were. Realize, too, that your suspect (if there is one) may be among them. Don't fail to do a patdown search for weapons of anyone on-scene who makes you concerned for your safety. On a violent death scene, that could be just about everybody!

Once you have identified those present, pull them aside one at a time (no group interviews!) to find out what they can tell you about what happened. Depending on what has transpired, you may have to first calm them down and assure them that they are safe before any useful information can be obtained.

Once they start talking, allow them to tell their version of events all the way through before you interrupt with questions. You can then go back to fill in the blanks and get the details you will need for your investigation via effective questions.

Keep your group of witnesses and others with useful information collected in one area where an officer can watch them. Ask them not to discuss the incident among themselves. You do no want to end up collecting questionable information that is the product of group- think. But do keep these people there until you're sure they won't be needed for further interview by yourself or other officers. Meanwhile, consider keeping them occupied by furnishing them statement forms and asking each to put into written form his or her recollections of the event. Recognize that the written statement alone will not suffice and a thorough follow-up interview will be necessary.

If the suspect is among those you have collected, arrest, secure and search him if probably case exists to do so. Isolate him from the other subjects still on-scene. Removing him to your law enforcement facility probably will be the best way to accomplish this.

If you are planning to question him after he's in custody, be sure to first give him his Miranda rights and elicit from him the acknowledgement that he understands them before you proceed. (Caution: You'll probably want to postpone questioning even a cooperative arrestee who is drunk or stoned if you want anything he has to say to stand up in court later. Check first with your prosecutor or legal advisor.)

Photograph the suspect clothed and unclothed to establish evidence of his physical condition and record any injuries he may have received in his in his interaction with the victim. In order to preserve any evidence that may be on or about your death-scene suspect, collect and secure everything he has on his person, including his clothing and footwear. Package each item separately to avoid contamination allegations later. Blood draws by a qualified medical technician may be in order if the question of the subject being under the influence of drugs or alcohol could become a legal issue later.

Prevent your suspect from washing his hands and secure bags around them if you are dealing with a gunshot death and you have the ability to perform gunshot residue and trace evidence tests on him. (Don't wait too long to get these procedures going!) Naturally, you also will want to collect booking finger and palm prints from your subject. Throughout, be sure that the suspect is kept under visual surveillance just in case he becomes self- destructive or attempts to destroy evidence.

Record the Scene

You already know to photograph carefully and thoroughly anyone you have in custody for a death-related crime. You must do the same for the victim and the overall crime scene.

If available, both videotape and still photos should be taken once you have either obtained a search warrant or a written consent for any non-public areas involved or determined that you do not need one. (Again, check first with your prosecutor or legal advisor if you have any doubts.) All photography should be in color and should include views of the victim and involved areas from all possible angles, including possible entry and exit points on the involved vehicle, overhead shots of the overall scene should be taken.

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