Investigating Death

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.

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.


Do an Initial Assessment

Immediately upon your arrival, give the scene a once- over and ascertain what sorts of resources, most particularly manpower, you require to handle it effectively. Consider, for instance:

How many victims am I dealing with?

Is the suspect still present or nearby?

How many witnesses are there, and what are they saying happened?

Is there still a chance that the victim might be saved, and will paramedics be removing him or her from the scene?

Is the scene relatively isolated or is it spread out over a large area? Is it indoors or outdoors?

Is there readily detectable but short-lived evidence present? Can it be protected in-place? Consider taking photos, if possible, of transitory evidence. Use your imagination for protecting evidence in place. You might, for instance, put an open box over a footprint in the snow or mud.

What actually appears to have happened here?

Am I dealing with an apparent crime or something else?

If there is a missing suspect, how about him? What is his description and other particulars? This information needs to be broadcast to your fellow officers as soon as possible. Also, have an assisting officer record the tags of vehicles still parked in the area. One just might lead to your suspect.

What don't I know about this scene that could pose additional problems?

Keep asking questions and seeking answers the whole time you are on-scene. Do not hesitate to alter your initial assessment and responses as the situation becomes more clear or otherwise changes.

Get Plenty of Help

Your first assessment should give you some idea of what kind of assistance you will need, and how must of it. Don't be timid about summoning all of the help you think you'll require. You can always send some of it back into service if it's truly not needed. Your decision regarding assistance will depend upon, among other things, the number of players you are dealing with, including witnesses and suspects to be identified and interviewed. The size and complexity of the scene also will have to be considered. The more spread out the area you want sealed off, the more people you will need.

Even if you are extremely pressed for personnel resources, you probably want at least an assist officer to aid you on a death scene. He or she may end up guarding the scene and corralling the players while you interview the key participants and commence your investigation. If you have a suspect in custody or a victim who has been removed from the scene by paramedics, you'll also want an officer to stay with each. (Remember to separate potential witnesses, where feasible.) Get what you need early on.

Use some of your on-scene helpers to conduct a door-to-door canvass of the neighborhood to find anyone who knows anything about incident or the participants. Those interviewed should be identified by name, date of birth, address and telephone number in police reports. Addresses where no one was home or no one would cooperate also should be noted for follow- up efforts.

Your on-scene assessment also may identify the need for specialized help. If the victim might be sill alive, you'll need paramedics right away. If he's not, you eventually will need a representative of the medical examiner's staff or the coroner's office. Depending upon your agency's protocols, you also may be responsible for calling a crime scene technician, your supervisor, a district attorney's representative and a follow- up investigator to the scene.

Be sure you are aware of your department's policies and procedures for these calls and follow them carefully. That, too, will help assure a smooth investigative process.

Deal with the Victims

Obviously, a still-living victim must be transported quickly by paramedics. If this is the case, before he is removed from the scene, attempt to ask him the identity of the person who caused the injuries. If the person is not known by name, try to obtain a physical description. If it's not possible to get a picture of the victim before he is removed (it frequently won't be), draw yourself a quick sketch of how you found him in relation to the rest of the scene.

Have an assist officer remain with the living victim transport and at the hospital (including in the operating room) to seize evidentiary items (like clothing or projectiles) and note any statements or dying declarations. If possible, photos of wounds or injuries also can be taken at the hospital before treatment alters or covers them. Paramedics and hospital personnel also need to be queried about any statements they may have overheard. All of this must, of course, be documented.

If the victim is dead, there should be no rush in removing him from the scene. Photos should be taken of his positioning and a diagram made showing the position of the body and its precise distances from other objects at the scene.


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.


Wounds and injuries should be photographed up close. More detailed shots will need to be taken later at autopsy. Photograph substances found on the body or the clothing of the victim, such as blood, semen or apparent powder residue. These photos should include both long views and close-ups. The pictures should be taken both with and without an object such as a ruler included to show scale.

You might consider making your own sketch of the death scene for possible use as an aid to your testimony later. Be sure you relate all things in your drawing to the other key items present and note the actual distances between them. All of this may turn out to be information you will never need, but there is no way of knowing that while are still on-scene. Gather as much as you can.

Protect and Collect Evidence

Whether you are doing the evidence preservation and collection yourself or supervising others in its completion, it is vital that the tasks be carried out in an orderly, systematic and thorough manner,

Move carefully and have a reason for everything you do.

Again, be sure that you don't need a search warrant before you commence searching and collecting without one.

Get help to conduct a death scene search. Lay out your search areas by grids, strips, squares, rooms or regions, work them methodically, then swap areas of responsibility and search again. You are looking for anything that even might have a bearing on the death you are investigating. The evidence that you might collect is limited only by your eye for detail, but may include shell casings, spent projectiles, medicine or pill bottles, items of clothing, striking instruments and notes or other documents. Items of evidence should be photographed in place before they are disturbed for collection.

Protect items that may be processed for prints later by placing them carefully in clean, unused paper bags or cardboard boxes. Avoid placing additional latent prints on them as you are doing so. Proper fingerprinting of the area and any objects removed from it is a job best left to specialists, so shield these items from contamination until the experts can do their thing.

These same criminalistics specialists should be able to give you sound advice for protecting and properly packaging the tougher evidentiary items, such as bloody garments and trace evidence like hairs and fibers.

Whatever else you do, beware the dangers of cross- contamination in all of the potential evidence you handle.

Keep each item away from all the others and package each separately.

Be sure that your own hands or your work surface don't contribute to a contamination problem and thereby make some defense counsel very happy. Get all of your packaged, sealed- up evidence into the custody of your agency's property storage unit just as quickly as you can.

Make Notifications

From the moment you receive a radioed assignment of a death investigation, start thinking and planning about who you will need to notify to help you compete the investigation as effectively and efficiently as possible.

Your department's operating procedures will help you identify most of the individuals and entities you'll need to advise: supervisor, coroner, victim assistance, district attorney's representative, crime scene technician and so on.

You may want to make yourself a checklist ahead of time to be sure no one gets left out. But also remain mindful that there are probably other resources that can help you in certain situations. These may include social service agencies (for help in caring for very young or very old survivors), religious organizations (for living needs assistance and spiritual support for survivors), and neighborhood groups and associations (for all kinds of aid to grieving families).

As the investigation proceeds, gather all of your helpers for periodic briefings and updates. The sharing of information is vital here.

Double- check and Review

When the primary tasks of the investigation are completed and things have settled down a bit, take a few minutes to go over your actions. Ascertain that the major jobs have been handled and arrangements started to do whatever follow- up taks yet need to be done. Touch base again with all of your "assistants" to be sure they have properly carried out the assignments you gave them. Answer any questions they have regarding what else you expect of them.

Check in with your own boss and brief him or her on the situation as you know it to the moment. If you will be relieved by a follow- up investigator, talk with him to be sure you've answered his questions and carried out everything he wants you to do at or away from the death scene. Tell him everything you know about the case, no matter how trivial the data may appear at first blush.

Finally, take a moment for a bit of introspection. How satisfied are you with your handling of the case? What worked well and what could use some improvements for next time? Invite constructive, honest critiques from peers, investigators and supervisors. Don't beat yourself up for real or imagined lapses on anyone's part- chances are you did a good job of handling a very difficult challenge. Just focus on what you would like to change for the future.

Investigating death, violent or otherwise, is never an easy assignment. Tell yourself (and especially your "helpers") that things went pretty well indeed. Then start getting ready for the next one.

About the Author
Page 1 of 2334
Next Page