Crime scene documentation takes your readers on a journey into a vivid description of the sites and events of the crime and the crime scene location. Your document will paint a mental image in the mind of the reader of exactly what you see, what you hear and maybe what you smell. The crime scene document will also describe the setting, the victim’s activities and the scene prior to the incident.
When writing your scene report, consider whom your readers may include and ultimately where this report may end up. Your readers will range from your supervisor, your investigator and, possibly, prosecuting and defense attorneys who present their interpretation of your investigative report to a judge and jury. Your report may remain at a state court level, or it may find its way to a federal court. You may find yourself authoring a document that gains media attention. In any event, it’s a good rule of thumb to write your report as if it will end up before the U.S. Supreme Court one day.
Another important factor: After the incident, the report writer must have a fresh recollection of the scene details and remain able to effectively articulate those details as if the investigation occurred yesterday. Also, an investigator may use your crime scene document to conduct a custodial interview. It may help the investigator to know the key details of the evidence and the intimate details of the scene, and it may assist in the outcome of the interview. The suspect knows the details—do you?
Finally, effective, precise crime-scene documentation will help the recreation of the events that took place on scene for a jury presentation. The more details you include when investigating and documenting a scene, the better you can recall the events.
Once an investigator, officer or technician arrives on scene, the following examples of detail-oriented documentation will give a report reader a clear and precise visualization of what the scene looked like, and will corroborate the photographic, schematic or video depictions of the crime scene.
The scene overview should, at minimum, include the date, time of investigation, type of investigation, time of arrival on scene and who is at the scene (fire or paramedic personnel, coroner personnel, officers, etc.). You may even want to document fire or paramedic vehicle locations and their direction of departure or travel through your scene (if your scene happens to be outdoors in a street or a parking lot) to explain why evidence items may appear out of place for witness statements. Always ask fire personnel, paramedics, witnesses, etc., if they moved or disturbed anything prior to officers arriving on scene. Then ask the officers if they moved or disturbed anything prior to your arrival. This may help eliminate any questionable areas down the road or during courtroom recreation.
We all have a protocol or methodology to our crime-scene investigation, but what happens when we are taken out of our norm by inclement weather? What happens to our evidence? Documenting the weather conditions as they are upon your arrival will, again, save your recall years after the incident. The weather could account for a lack of evidence (e.g., blood evidence, skid marks, sexual assault evidence, trace evidence, etc.) at your scene. Document clear skies, windy conditions, rainy conditions or even foggy conditions—they will all affect your crime scene. These conditions may also play a factor in witness observations and evidence discrepancies and explain why some things may not have been completed during the investigation.
What were the lighting conditions at the time of your investigation, and what resources did you need? Note the use of available sunlight to illuminate, or even dusk and dawn light, which may affect the vision of a witness or a victim. What lighting was available on scene—overhead streetlights, security lights, porch lights, interior lighting, etc? List any assisted lighting, such as flashlights, portable floodlights or even vehicle headlights.
Too many times, we illuminate a scene in our efforts to locate and recover critical evidence and forget this lighting was not available to a victim or witness, making it difficult for a juror to understand. (E.g., “Why couldn’t the victim identify the subject? They should have been able to see all the way down the alley.”) Simple documentation, along with other photographic techniques, can make a big difference in the photographic documentation, along with a vivid description of an area’s lighting (or lack thereof).
This segment may seem trivial and is often overlooked, but it can prove instrumental when you try to preserve the integrity of your scene. How was the scene secured—yellow police-line tape, fluorescent flare patterns, cone patterns, barricades, uniformed officers, marked police vehicles? Documenting the method used to preserve the scene will enhance the integrity of your scene and the preservation of your physical evidence, and it may help eliminate the question “Has this scene been contaminated or compromised?”
This critical element can link crime scenes together by modus operandi or target location. Example: You note the location as a single-family residence adjacent to an alley, ravine or cul-de-sac, all of which could indicate that the subject entered the area undetected through the rear and/or may have parked a vehicle away from the scene. You
can apply this same methodology when des-cribing the victim location when the scene becomes a part of a serial robbery series, such as a take-over market robbery with managers and employees present, or a mom-and-pop market rob-bery with a single employee present. Document the immediate surrounding area. Is the location adjacent to a heavily traveled roadway where potential witnesses may have driven around the time of the crime?
Include details in your descriptions, such as “a small fast-food restaurant in a large industrial complex.” Again, this paints a mental picture of what the area looked like in the mind of the reader. Another notable feature may include large glass windows providing a clear view of the interior/exterior of a location. This may prove extremely helpful, especially when you are corroborating the ability of a witness to clearly see events that may have taken place during the crime. When making these observations and notations, walk to the location where the witness/victim may have been and give a description of what may have helped their observations. The same can hold true of impeaching statements made by suspects/witnesses by simple notation and documentation of their view of the crime. Rarely do suspects remember addresses of their criminal actions, but they will remember the location colors and intersection areas.
Document the entire scene, interior and exterior. Although you may be called to work the scene in its beginning stages and view the scene as fresh with many details vivid in your mind, without the documentation, many details may be lost or forgotten—key details that may come into question later in the investigation.
Simply stated, what did you observe? This should include a written narrative of the visual images that you are seeing, in descriptive detail, and any offensive or chemical odors, sounds or unusual sights present at the time you note your observations. Other factors to note: What’s the setting prior to the crime? Are there signs of a struggle? What items of evidence are readily visible?
This article was drafted to help you when you are asked that infamous question by a defense attorney: “You were at the scene, weren’t you?” These simple steps will help another investigator recreate your case years down the road and help you recall the scene without difficulty and with confidence when presenting the facts to a jury.
In the end, remember your investigative report may be the one pivotal piece of documentation that makes a difference in the prosecution of a murderer or a serial rapist. You certainly don’t want it to be the weakest link in the investigation and provide a gap for an offender to get away with their crime.
Kimberle Swobodzinski is an identification technician with the Gardena (Calif.) Police Department. She has worked crime-scenes for the past 17 years, and testified as an expert witness in crime-scene investigations and homicide investigations. She teaches Crime Scene Management, Basic Crime Scene Investigation and Advanced Crime Scene Investigation. She teaches in the Investigative Criminal Institute (ICI) Core Course and is a graduate of both the ICI Instructor Course and the POST Master Instructor Development Program.