The victim lies slumped over a chair, a single gunshot wound to his temple a testament to his last minutes; a scrawled suicide note is on the mantelpiece and a revolver is at his side. You might be keen to pronounce this unfortunate scene as a suicide — but perhaps the truth is more sinister, and less obvious, than it immediately appears. Walking through the crime scene may provide vital clues that speak to the truth.
1. Taking our initial steps: meeting the first officer
It’s likely that by the time we forensic investigators or crime scence investigators arrive the police will already be there, the scene may have been sealed, and canvassing for witnesses has already begun. We can extract an initial opinion from the first attending officer, who may have some valuable insights, before we begin processing the scene. This first officer can lead us on the scene walk-through.
Whilst touring the scene, we should remember that the undoubtedly well-meaning attending officers may well have inadvertently compromised our scene already. They may have trampled all over the carpets in their size-ten Altbergs, opened windows or doors, turned switches on or off, unloaded the revolver, and generally left a fresh trail of forensic mess all over what should be a pristine crime scene. It’s therefore critical to speak to the first attending officer as soon as possible, in order to determine what the scene was like before it was disturbed. Officers are trained to cause minimal disruption to scenes, but some is inevitable, and we should be mindful of it.
Following our chat with the officer we need to ensure the our own safety as well as the security of others working in the scene. Are there any hazards, such as drug paraphernalia, sharp objects, falling debris or even suspects likely to still be hiding somewhere on site?
2. One foot before the other: prioritising the work
Whilst the necessary work will appear evident – photographing the scene, examining the body, fingerprinting the gun, taking swabs and samples etc, these might not necessarily be our first consideration. What about the footprint in the mud outside the window? Will it deteriorate in the environmental conditions? Similarly, what about fingerprints on exterior surfaces, and fibre collection from doorways? Such considerations are important, as valuable evidence may be lost over time.
The examination of any major crime scene always starts with a scene search. A washed, still-wet glass on the draining board may indicate that our victim had a drink shortly before his demise (but, then, why bother washing it?) Excavating the bins may reveal what our victim had consumed shortly prior to his death. This search will reveal valuable clues about the victim’s life and enable us to piece together his final actions in a way that the first attending officer simply won’t have been able to. We can also begin to think critically, investigating and fact-checking the accounts supplied to us by witnesses.
3. Hand lenses and evidence bags: examining the scene
Once we have determined what our priorities are, we can investigating the remaining scene. In doing so, we may wish to obtain some specialist equipment, such as an external lighting apparatus, swabbing equipment, sterile containers for seizure, and some transport (for removing large items).
Priority items being examined, we can turn to the obligatory scene photography. What we’re trying to do here is create an indelible record of the scene of the crime as it was when it was first found, not just for court – but to help investigators in their reconstruction efforts. We might also discover some useful clues when doing so. Perhaps, for instance, the victim’s closest hand to the revolver is his right, and our victim was left-handed. Strange.
After photography, the destructive processes can be applied, such as moving the body, spraying of Ninhydrin, sampling and anything else which might mean compromising a scene before a permanent record of it was made. By doing it this way, we can still reconstruct it later and have prevented any allegations of crime-scene tampering.
4. The handover: turning over the details
Finally, we can pass all the details of the scene (including our own report) to the investigating officers, to enable them to construct an accurate picture of what happened. By adopting a critical, open-minded approach to what we have been told and what we’ve observed, we can create a picture which might have been less obvious to the attending officers. Potentially, our victim was drugged with sleeping tablets, shot through the head, and the whole situation was constructed to look like a suicide. Perhaps it was a suicide after all and our victim felt for a comfortable way out.
Your Turn: Are there additional steps that could ensure that we continue to think critically through the crime scene walk-through? Do you have any suggestions on gaining a different angle on what may have happened to open up a new avenue of investigation? Let us know in the comments. We’d love to hear from you.