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Over the last few weeks I had two different opportunities to interact with professionals in our field. First, I taught a seminar on crime scene investigation, Gizmos and Gadgets and the Death Scene Check List in Tulsa, OK. I also presented a webinar called Crime Scene: Death Scene Checklist. Following the class in Tulsa we had a roundtable discussion with an assistant district attorney for criminal cases and an Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation crime scene supervisor. Based on the discussions and questions at both the seminar and the webinar, I kept coming back to one key point: crime scene documentation is crucial. As the Bureau of Investigation officer put it, you can never get enough documentation. Unfortunately, as one of the senior prosecutors at my seminar noted, one of the biggest problems he and his colleagues run into when trying cases is lack of proper documentation. As a Crime Scene Officer, you’re responsible for documenting each scene. What can you do to ensure that you’re doing your job well?
Good investigators can keep lots of details in their heads. Great investigators document the details. Why is documentation so important? Because you must assume that every case you investigate will go to a jury trial. And when that happens, you want all of your evidence and all of your testimony about that evidence to be admissible in court. You also want to eliminate questions about that evidence. Remember that a trial may come right away, or it could be years later, after you’ve potentially investigated hundreds more crimes, and after your memory has faded. One way to deal with this problem is to use a checklist to document everything you can about the crime scene.
The checklist creates an archive of the scene itself along with a record that you actually observed everything you have noted. For example, say you’re at a crime scene and there is no blood. Unless you actually note in writing that you saw no blood, how does anyone know you even looked for it? Assume you’ll be asked in court about everything, and do everything possible to eliminate the questions.
Checklists are also great tools for helping you manage complex crime scenes. By using a checklist, you can track the steps you need to take to do your job correctly. A comprehensive checklist can be used for your crime scene report if you aren’t required by your department or the prosecutor to use a specific report. Even so, make sure you get approval to use your checklist as your report by your chief or lead detective and the prosecutors before you do anything.
Now, I know some of you are thinking that a checklist won’t work for you because your reports must be done in a certain way or your department or prosecutor requires you to use a specific type of report. I understand that. I still recommend using a checklist for your field notes. Then when you sit down to do your required report, you’ll have all of the information you need. You can complete your report faster, and it’ll be more thorough. Creating a checklist will save time in the long run, and may help you avoid costly errors that could jeopardize your case.
Once you’ve received approval to use a checklist and everyone is on the same page, you can create a template. Remember that the checklist should be comprehensive yet easy to use. It should cover everything from the time you’re called to the scene to the time the scene is released. The more detailed you make it, the better, but set up your checklist so that it’s easy to fill out. Use boxes that can be filled in or checked off as you go along. Make the form easy to read. Ideally, it should also follow logically with the way you process a scene. You can use Microsoft Word Form Fill or any of the many available software programs on the market to create a template that can be modified as needed.
As I’ve noted in other articles, every checklist needs to include basic information about the crime scene and the evidence. Death scene checklists also need to include information specific to that type of crime.
Let’s take a brief look at the type of information you need for a death scene checklist. Along with the basic crime scene information, note the type of case you’re working on (suicide, homicide, accidental, natural, or undetermined). Also cover scene security, search warrant, civilians at the crime scene, scene location, officer assignments, specialists present, weather conditions, coroner notification, body removal, information of the deceased, information on the person who discovered the body, information on where the body was found (structure, water, vehicle, open area), notes on apparent wounds on the body, weapons present, medications/drugs, identification/notification of deceased, scene processing, crime scene release information. Note that you should always record details about the location where you find the body, the position of the body, the condition of the body, and clothing and jewelry on the body. Additional information will depend on the type of location where you find the body. For example, if the body is in a vehicle, you should record the vehicle location, information, and condition. If the body is in water, you should include information about any divers called to the scene.
Keeping a checklist reminds you to look at everything. It’s insurance that even if you get distracted, you’ll go back and finish the job. You’ll be glad you did it if your case goes to court and you’re questioned about the crime scene.
You can learn more about death scene checklists from my webinar, which is available for free online at https://vts.inxpo.com/scripts/Server.nxp. You can also get a copy of my Death Scene Checklist on my Web site (http://www.csigizmos.com/dscl/).
Remember it’s like Judge Judy states: “if it is not in writing, it did not happen.”
Dick Warrington is in research and development and a crime scene consultant and training instructor for the Lynn Peavey Company. firstname.lastname@example.org