Part 1 – Death Investigation Equipment List
A Guide for Death Investigation for Crime Scene Investigators and Forensic Pathologists
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) list the top three causes of death in the U.S. as: Health-Related Issues, Accidents Resulting in Injuries and Homicide/Assault.
The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) published a study on death investigation in 1997. The primary purpose of the study, initiated in June 1996, was to identify, delineate, and assemble a set of investigative tasks that should and could be performed at every death scene. These tasks would serve as the foundation of the guide for death scene investigators.
The most recent NIJ publication on this subject was released in June, 2011 and it is the intent of the staff of the Crime Scene Tech Blog to summarize some parts and elaborate on others from the original 64 page document in a series of posts on this blog. The reader may also secure a copy of the original text at: NIJ Death Investigation Guide
In the way of introduction, this post will cover the necessary tools and equipment needed by the death scene (crime scene) investigator and/or the forensic pathologist.
1. Alternate light source: 395nm through 625nm.
2. Barrier sheeting or tent (to shield body/area from public view).
3. Biohazard plastic trash bags.
4. Blood collection tubes.
5. Body bags with locks.
6. Body identification tags.
7. Business cards with fax and e-mail address.
8. Camera equipment. (Digital SLR w/external flash).
9. Clean body covers (sheet/ drape).
10. Communication equipment.
11. Crime scene barrier tape.
12. Departmental death scene forms.
13. Disposable protective cover all with disposable shoe covers
14. Evidence identification markers (felt tip, crayon, ballpoint pen, etc..
15. Evidence sealing tape, evidence labels and/or tags with chain of possession forms
16. Face and eye protection.
17. First aid kit.
19. Hair cover.
20. Hand tools (e.g., bolt cutter, hammer, metal detector, paint brushes, pocketknife, rope, shovel, etc.).
21. Investigative notebooks.
22 Latent print kit, with fingerprint taking equipment
23. Latex or Nitrile gloves.
Part 2 – Arrival at the Death Scene
Upon arrival at the death scene permit the investigator to establish formal contact with other officials from other agencies. The investigator must identify the first responder to ascertain if any artifacts or contamination may have been introduced to the death scene. The investigator must work with all key people to ensure command protocol and scene safety prior to his/her entrance into the scene.
Upon arrival at the scene, and prior to entering the scene, the investigator should:
A. Identify the lead investigator at the scene and present identification.
B. Identify other necessary officials at the scene (e.g., law enforcement, fire, EMS, etc.) and explain the investigator’s role in the investigation.
C. Identify and document the identity of the first essential official(s) to the scene (first “professional” arrival at the scene for investigative follow-up) is to ascertain if any movement, collection or otherwise disturbance has occurred to any potential physical evidence, has the body or bodies been examined and/or moved by a competent, trained professional and to ascertain if any artifacts or contamination may have been introduced to the death scene.
D. Determine the scene safety and security of the area designated as a crime scene (prior to entry).
Summary: Introductions at the scene help to establish a collaborative investigative effort. It is necessary to carry identification in the event of questioned authority. It is essential to establish scene safety and security prior to entry.
Safety and Security
An essential part of the death scene investigative process is to learn the steps taken to ensure scene safety and security for all personnel present. This will include law enforcement, fire/EMS, witnesses and victims. The risk of environmental and physical injury must be removed prior to initiating a scene investigation. Risks can include hostile crowds; collapsing structures; traffic; and environmental, chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive (CBRNE) threats. If necessary, the death scene investigator may call upon additional agencies for assistance, if the need arises.
Upon arrival at the scene, the investigator should:
A. Assess and/or assist in the establishment of physical boundaries and placement of barriers.
B. Identify incident command, if one is established.
C. Secure vehicle and park as safely as possible.
D. Use personal protective safety devices (physical, biohazard safety).
E. Arrange for removal of animals or secure (if present and possible).
F. Obtain clearance/authorization to enter scene from the individual responsible for scene safety and security (e.g., fire marshal, disaster coordinator, etc.).
G. While exercising scene safety and security, ensure the integrity of the scene and any evidence present to the extent possible from contamination or loss by people, animals and the elements.
H. Prior to actually beginning the examination of the scene the death scene investigator(s) should request a thorough briefing from representatives of other agencies at the scene. It is imperative that the death scene investigator learn of any known factors, such as motive, eyewitness accounts, statements of victims, etc.
Due to the potential for death scene hazards (e.g., crowd control, collapsing structures, poisonous gases, traffic), it may be necessary to remove the body before any scene investigation can be continued. Environmental and physical threats to the investigator must be removed in order to conduct a scene investigation safely. Protective devices and equipment must be used by the scene investigators to prevent injury or biological contact. The investigator must take all possible steps to protect the evidence against contamination or destruction.
Confirmation or Pronouncement of Death
The investigator must ensure that the appropriate personnel have viewed and examined the body and that death has been confirmed. Appropriate personnel must make a determination of death prior to the initiation of the death investigation. The confirmation or pronouncement of death determines jurisdictional responsibilities.
Upon arrival at the scene, the investigator, when it is determined safe to do so, should:
A. Locate and view the body.
B. Check for pulse, respiration and reflexes, as appropriate.
C. Identify and verify the credentials of the individual who made the official determination of death, including the date, time and location of the determination.
D. Ensure death is pronounced, as required.
Once death has been confirmed, rescue/resuscitative efforts cease and medicolegal jurisdiction can be established. It is vital that this occur prior to the medical examiner/coroner’s assuming any responsibilities.
Part 3 – The Death Scene Walk Through
The value of the death scene walk through is that it provides an overview of the scene as well as some basic insight as to what transpired. The “walk through” provides the investigator with the first opportunity to locate and view the body, pinpoint and attempt to identify valuable and fragile evidence, and determine what initial investigative procedures should be implemented. This opportunity provides for a systematic examination and documentation of the scene and body.
The investigator conducts a scene “walk through” to establish pertinent scene parameters. Upon movement into the actual scene, the investigator should:
A. Reassess scene boundaries and adjust them if needed.
B. Establish a path of entry and exit that avoids physical evidence, to include a scene sign in-sign out log.
C. Identify visible physical and fragile evidence.
D. Document and photograph fragile evidence immediately and collect it in an expeditious manner..
E. Locate and view the body or bodies.
Summary: The initial scene “walk through” is essential to minimize any crime scene disturbance and to prevent the loss and contamination of physical and fragile evidence.
Establishing the Chain of Custody
The death scene investigator will ensure the integrity and value of the evidence by establishing and maintaining a chain of custody, a vital part of any investigation. The purpose of the custody chain is to safeguard against any subsequent allegations of tampering, theft, planting and contamination of evidence.
Ensuring the integrity of the evidence by establishing and maintaining a chain of custody is vital to an investigation. This will safeguard against subsequent allegations of tampering, theft, planting and contamination of evidence.
Prior to the removal of any evidence, the custodian(s) of evidence shall be designated and shall generate and maintain a chain of custody for all evidence collected. Throughout the investigation, those responsible for preserving the chain of custody should:
A. Document the location of the scene and time of arrival of the death investigator at the scene.
B. Determine who will serve as custodian(s) of the evidence, determine which agency(ies) is/are responsible for collection of specific types of evidence, and determine evidence collection priority for fragile, easily damaged or contaminated evidence.
C. Identify, document, secure and preserve evidence with proper containers, labels and preservatives as appropriate.
D. Document the collection of evidence by recording its location at the scene, time of collection, and time and location of disposition, and by whom.
E. Develop personnel lists, witness lists, and documentation of times of arrival and departure of personnel.
Summary: It is essential to maintain a proper chain of custody for evidence. Through proper documentation, collection and preservation, the integrity of the evidence can be assured. A properly maintained chain of custody and prompt transfer will reduce the likelihood of a challenge to the integrity of the evidence.
Follow the Laws Related to the Collection of Physical Evidence
The investigator must follow all local, state and federal laws existing for the collection of evidence to ensure its admissibility. The investigator must work with law enforcement and the legal authorities to determine the applicable laws regarding collection of evidence.
The investigator, while working with other agencies, must identify and work under appropriate legal authority. Modification of informal procedures may be necessary but laws must always be followed.
The investigator, prior to or upon arrival at the death scene, should work with other agencies to:
A. Determine the need for a search warrant (discuss with appropriate agencies).
B. Identify local, state, federal and international laws (discuss with appropriate agencies).
C. Identify medical examiner/coroner statutes and office standard operating procedures (discuss with appropriate agencies).
Summary: Following laws related to the collection of evidence will ensure a complete and proper investigation in compliance with state and local laws, admissibility in court, and adherence to office policies and protocols.
Part 4 – Documentation and Evaluation of the Death Scene
Photographing, Videotaping and Written Documentation of the Scene
Photography: The photographic documentation of the scene creates a permanent historical record of the scene since photographs provide detailed corroborating evidence that constructs a system of redundancy should questions arise concerning the report, witness statements or position of evidence at the scene.
The investigator will create detailed photographic documentation of the scene that provides permanent high-quality images. It is also important to document in writing a description of each photo so that it can be used for future reference and interpretation. Do not depend on memory alone to explain what is depicted in your photos.
Upon arrival at the scene, and prior to moving the body or evidence, the investigator should:
A. Remove all nonessential personnel from the scene.
B. Place physical markers such as evidence tents, cones or placards to delineate the positions of the various pieces of evidence
C. Obtain a series of overall orientation photographs of the scene to spatially locate the specific scene to the surrounding areas.
D. Photograph specific areas of the scene to provide more detailed views of specific areas within the larger scene. Most agency protocols require that wide angle, medium close up and close up photos be taken of all relative pieces of physical evidence.
E. Photograph the scene from different angles to provide various perspectives that may uncover additional evidence. Take photographs with photo scales included to document specific evidence.
F. Obtain photographs even if the body or other evidence has been moved.
G. Set up and maintain a chain of evidence for the photo recording media such as film or digital storage devices.
Note: If evidence, including the body or bodies has been moved prior to photography, it should be noted in the report, but the body or other evidence should not be reintroduced into the scene in order to take photographs.
Summary: Photography allows for the best permanent documentation of the death scene. It is essential that accurate scene photographs are available for other investigators, agencies and authorities to recreate the scene. Photographs are a permanent record of the terminal event and retain evidentiary value and authenticity. It is essential that the investigator obtain accurate, relevant photographs before releasing the scene.
Videography: Videotaping the death scene offers many intrinsic values to the investigation. Properly taken videos provide the viewer with an actual view of the scene and the information it holds. While photographs offer a valid, permanent record, video may also be a part of the scene investigation—but they should not replace photographs.
Be certain to follow any established agency protocol regarding the use of video:
A. Remove all nonessential personnel from the scene during videotaping.
B. Agency protocol will dictate whether the audio function of the video camera will be activated or deactivated.
C. Best results are achieved when the video camera is mounted on a tripod, thus providing a steady, easy to watch result.
D. Limit the amount of zooming in and out of the lens.
E. Set up and maintain a chain of evidence for the video recording media such as tapes or digital storage devices.
A video of the death scene provides more of a 3-dimensional perspective than still photographs. This is especially helpful to jurors who may have a problem interpreting what is depicted in still photos. In this case “action” speaks louder than words. But a reminder, video should be used to accompany still photos—not to replace them.
Written documentation of the scene provides a permanent record that may be used to support and correlate with and enhance photographic documentation, while it refreshes recollections and it should record observations. Investigators will provide written scene documentation in all cases
After photographic documentation of the scene and prior to removal of the body or other evidence, the investigator should:
A. Sketch or diagram and describe in writing items of evidence and their position and relationship to the body with necessary measurements.
B. Describe and document, with necessary measurements, blood and body fluid evidence, including volume, patterns, spatters and related characteristics.
C. Describe scene environments, including odors, lights, temperatures and other temporary or fragile evidence.
Note: If scene conditions have changed or evidence has been moved prior to written documentation, it should be noted in the report.
Summary: Written scene documentation is essential to correlate with photographic and video evidence and to re-create the scene for police, forensics, judicial and civil agencies with a legitimate interest.
Part 5 - Establish the Probable Location of Injury or Illness, Collect Personal Property Evidence
The location where the body is found may not be the actual location where the injury/illness that contributed to the death occurred. It is, therefore, imperative that the investigator make every attempt to determine the locations of any and all injuries/illnesses that may have contributed to the death. Physical evidence at every location within the scene may be pertinent in establishing the cause, manner and circumstances of death.
The investigator shall seek detailed information regarding any possible or probable locations that may have been associated with the individual’s death.
The investigator should:
A. Document (as described in previous posts) the location where death was confirmed.
B. Determine the location from which the decedent was transported and how the body was transported to the scene.
C. Identify and record any discrepancies between the body and the scene under scrutiny (e.g., rigor mortis, livor mortis and body temperature).
D. Check the body, clothing and scene for consistency/inconsistency of trace evidence and indicate the locations where artifacts are found.
E. Check for drag marks (on the body and the ground).
F. Establish post-injury activity.
G. Request dispatch (e.g., police, ambulance) records.
H. Interview family members and associates as needed.
Summary: Due to post-injury survival, advances in emergency medical services, multiple modes of transportation, the availability of specialized care, or criminal activity, a body may be moved from the actual location of illness/ injury to a remote site. It is imperative that the investigator attempt to determine any and all locations where the decedent has previously been and ascertain the mode of transport from these sites
Collect, Inventory and Safeguard Property and Evidence
The decedent’s property found on or near the body must be safeguarded to ensure proper processing and eventual return to next of kin. Evidence located in this manner must be safeguarded to ensure its availability for further evaluation.
The investigator must ensure that this property and evidence are collected, inventoried, safeguarded and released as required by law.
Procedure: After personal property and evidence have been identified at the scene, the investigator (with a witness present) should:
A. Inventory, collect and safeguard illicit drugs and paraphernalia at the scene and office.
B. Inventory, collect and safeguard prescription medication at the scene and office.
C. Inventory, collect and safeguard over-the-counter medications at the scene and office.
D. Inventory, collect and safeguard money at the scene and office.
E. Inventory, collect, and safeguard personal valuables and/or property at the scene and office.
Summary: Personal property and any evidence collected are important items at a death investigation. Evidence must be safeguarded to ensure its availability if needed for future evaluation and litigation.
Part 6 - Interview Witness at the Scene
The documented comments of witnesses at the scene allow the investigator to gain primary source data regarding discovery of the body, witness corroboration of events leading up to the death and terminal history. The documented interview provides essential information for the investigative process.
It is vital on the part of the investigator to thoroughly and completely document the exact words used by the witness. This may be achieved in two ways:
1. Provide the witness(es) with a pad of paper and a writing implement and allow them to write their statement in their own words.
2. Make an audio recording of the witness(es) statement, and then transcribe the verbal statement into document form.
The statement—to offer any value—must be in the individual’s own words, and it must not be the interpretation of what was stated by the investigator—in his/her own words.
Prior to any interviews of witness, they should be separated from one another and cautioned not to discuss the incident with anyone prior to being interviewed by the investigator.
The investigator’s report shall include the source of information, including specific statements and information provided by the witness.
Procedure: Upon arriving at the scene, the investigator should:
A. Collect all available identifying data on witness(es) (e.g., full name, address, date of birth, contact information).
B. Establish the witness’s relationship/ association to the deceased.
C. Establish the basis of the witness’s knowledge (how does the witness have knowledge of the death?). D. Obtain information from each witness individually..
E. Note discrepancies from the scene briefing (challenge, explain, verify statements).
F. Record and retain statements as needed.
The investigator’s final report must include documentation of the witness’s identity and must include a complete summary of the witness’s actual statements, corroboration with other witnesses and the circumstances of discovery of the death. This documentation must be considered to be a permanent record in establishing the chain of events.
Eyewitness testimony can be highly accurate in providing details or can be a disappointing collection of disjointed reflections. Much depends on the individual being interviewed. It is therefore imperative that witnesses be given the opportunity to write down their statements or for the investigator to record them electronically. Thus, if a witness should suddenly change his/her story at a later time, the results can be easily challenged.
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NIJ recently published a new handbook on Investigating Scenes With Mass Fatalities: Download this important publication: Enhancing Scene Processing Protocols
Section 2 – Part 7 begins a new page. This next section deals with specifics—mostly as related to the body or bodies.
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