TV shows and movies (and novels) tend to dramatize crimes. My co-presenter at the NJ SCBWI annual conference, Guy Olivieri, who is a forensic detective with the Woodbridge, NJ police, laughs a little and shakes his head when discussing how things work in the real world. At our workshop, Scene of the Crime: How Experts Handle A Crime Scene, I talked about writing a factually correct crime scene and he presented the steps and information about how detectives and investigators examine a crime scene and collect evidence. This final part in my series on that presentation is based on Guy's observations and expertise: 6 Mistakes to Avoid at a Crime Scene. In Guy's words:
"Crime scenes are so fragile that just about anything you do can cause crime scene contamination. The moment that the first uniformed officer enters the scene, it is contaminated. Investigators must be ready for that question on the stand, "Was the crime scene contaminated before you arrived?" The answer to this question is always and unequivocal "yes it was counselor," followed with an explanation if allowed. Crime scene contamination is unavoidable in law enforcement's quest to render aid to the victim or obtain evidence. However, law enforcement can mitigate contamination by avoiding these six (6) deadly crime scene mistakes:
1. Not controlling police personnel.
The biggest problem in any crime scene are your fellow officers and therefore the most important appointment is to choose a "gatekeeper." The gatekeeper's job is to maintain the integrity of the scene, keep a list of who entered the scene (a crime scene log) and to prevent unauthorized personnel from gaining access. Some officers inadvertently contaminate the crime scene when they are assigned "the job," while others like to show up to gawk. These officers pose the most difficult challenge at the crime scene for the "gatekeeper."
2.Not identifying evidence.
When processing a crime scene you have to have an open mind. If you are only looking for certain items, that is all you will find. Don't miss the forest for the trees. If you think it has the potential to be probative evidence, then take it with you. There is nothing worse than finding out hours later that you left an important piece of evidence behind.
3. Not documenting interviews/evidence, etc.
If the investigator doesn't take the time to document parts of the case then the entire case could be jeopardized. If the reports aren't filled out, then that information will be lost forever. Worst yet, a poorly documented case opens it up to rightful criticism by the defense counsel. They will point out that certain things weren't documented because they were exculpatory- meaning they would eliminate his/her client as a possible suspect. If it wasn't recorded, it never occurred.
4. Not taking enough photographs.
The old mantra of a crime scene techs that I used to work with was, "Film is free." The case investigator is the one that will be explaining themselves in a courtroom, so they need to learn how to take charge. You can never have enough photographs. More is better, for sure. Photographs play an important role as demonstrative evidence in a courtroom, a memory aid for investigators, a reference for cold case detectives and the opportunity to identify something that was originally missed.
5. Not identifying secondary or tertiary crime scenes.
The primary crime scene is always where the initial incident talk place, unless it was a homicide, then it is where the body was found. Once again, the investigator cannot operate with blinders on. For instance, if the location is a "dump site" (murdered elsewhere and left the body in another location) then you would have to think that a vehicle was probably used, therefore another potential crime scene. Other areas to think about are points of entry and egress, alleys, rooftops, elevator landings, staircases, etc. An investigator should always think of potential secondary and tertiary crime scenes in every case.
6. Taking crime scene photos with people standing in the background.
Nothing screams crime scene contamination or mismanagement more than rolls of film with both uniformed officers and investigators standing in the midst of the scene- some for no apparent reason. Crime scene photos should be taken when the scene is as pristine as possible. The proper way a crime scene should be documented is: photo, sketch, search and collect.
By no means is this an all inclusive list of what could go wrong at a crime scene, however, these are the six (6) most likely scenarios. In addition, I have one more tip to share and it has to do with EMTs. Always ask the EMTs to clean their belongings up before leaving the scene. If not, you run the risk of having blue gloves, plastic wrappings, bandage wrappings, etc. flying around your crime scene. Also, if possible, ask them not to cut through the bullet/knife holes in the victim's shirt when they are removing his/her clothes.
References: Joseph L. Giacalone, ret. NYPD Det. Sgt. http://joegiacalone.net/cold-case-squad/
The Manual of Detection, by Jedediah Berry.
Guy Olivieri, Det., Woodbridge PD
We hope this helps when writing about crime scenes. There is no need to make things up to create drama; following the rules of reality makes for more tension because it's more difficult than whipping stuff out of your imagination. (Remember when I opened this 4 part series with "Truth is stranger than fiction"?) Plus, you run the risk of an expert (like Guy!) who know what you're writing is false and they may just call you on it. Nothing irks a savvy reader more than an author who doesn't present a well-written, true-to-life (not including fantasies/scifi) book. Make it believable, make it true!
Give them nothing but the facts-