Crime scene documentation
Crime scene documentation (Forensic Science)
Any type of environment or location has the potential to become a crime scene. Crimes can occur in urban, suburban, or rural areas, indoors or outdoors, in commercial or residential buildings, in public or private areas, in sparse, clean, tidy locations or hideously filthy and cluttered locations. Each crime scene, and each crime event, is in some way unique, and, correspondingly, each scene has unique aspects that are relevant to the investigation.
One of the primary purposes of the crime scene examination is to produce accurate and comprehensive records of everything at the crime scene that has the potential to be relevant to the current criminal investigation and any subsequent prosecution. The information in the records must be sufficient to support any expert interpretations, conclusions, or opinions.
At the early stages of an investigation, the information available to the scene examiner may be very limited. It may be that the only thing known is that a body is in an alley. It is often difficult, sometimes impossible, to predict how an investigation will progress and develop over time. Some item, fact, or detail that does not appear to be particularly significant during the scene examination may turn out to be crucial. Because poor documentation of a crime scene can greatly affect the investigation’s progress and outcome and, ultimately, any trial that may eventuate, crime scene examinations and their resulting documentation...
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Background Scene Information (Forensic Science)
The first law-enforcement officer to arrive at a crime scene may be one of the few individuals to see the scene in a pristine condition. The observations of that first officer often direct the actions or the focus of any investigators subsequently involved with examination of the scene. For example, the first officer on the scene could observe a trail of shoe prints leading away from the scene on grass wet with early-morning dew, whereas scene examiners attending later in the day would not be able to see those prints. If such observations are not documented appropriately and conveyed to the scene examiners, important aspects of the scene exam may be missed.
From the moment a crime scene is made secure, it is important that investigators are able to demonstrate that control of any items within the scene has been maintained. Scene logs are used to record information regarding who has had access to the scene and therefore access to items within it. The chain of custody of scene items begins at the scene and is recorded in exhibit registers, or evidence logs.
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Types of Documentation (Forensic Science)
Crime scene documentation can encompass a huge range of documents or records. In principle, records should be kept of all observations made and any actions taken by all persons involved in securing and processing the crime scene. This includes any handwritten notes and notes transcribed from audio recordings, any photographs taken, and any sketches made by investigators. Depending on the case circumstances, it may also include any notebook entries, or daily job sheets, from the first attending law-enforcement officers or paramedics, scene guard logs, and records from others who have had some contact or involvement with the scene that was peripheral to the actual scene examination.
Photography is a significant part of recording the crime scene, and comprehensive photographing of the scene prior to and during the scene examination is essential. The use of video recording of scenes can also be of value.
Where it was once considered sufficient for crime scene examiners to make notes regarding their observations and the various things they found at a crime scene, it has become increasingly common for examiners to make notes also regarding things they do not find. That is, absences of some kinds of items are often recorded, particularly where those absences allow conclusions to be drawn about actions or events that could subsequently be claimed or suggested.
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End Users (Forensic Science)
In many cases, criminal trials take place months, or even years, after the crimes occurred. It is not realistic to expect anyone to remember accurately the minute details of a crime scene that he or she processed long ago when presenting evidence in court. Consequently, crime scene examiners are allowed the use their notes to aid their recall when they appear as witnesses. In fact, such notes are often deemed more accurate than an individual’s recall if significant time has passed.
For many years, investigators’ notes were precisely that—their own notes. Gradually, however, it has become accepted that crime scene notes are made to be reviewed, or scrutinized, by others. In many crime laboratories, peer review of notes is a standard quality-assurance practice. Correspondingly, it is expected that notes should be clear and comprehensive enough not only to support any findings, interpretations, and conclusions but also to allow other suitably qualified colleagues to reach those same findings, interpretations, and conclusions independently. Defense analysts may also request copies of scene notes for review. They rely solely on the information, or lack thereof, contained in the scene documentation.
Reviews of older unsolved crimes, or “cold cases,” are becoming increasingly commonplace. These case reviews, many of which are driven by advances in technology, have revealed that gradual alterations and improvements have...
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Further Reading (Forensic Science)
Elliot, Douglas. “Crime Scene Examination.” In Expert Evidence: Law, Practice, Procedure, and Advocacy, edited by Ian Freckelton and Hugh Selby. 3d ed. Pyrmont, N.S.W.: Lawbook, 2005. Covers broad aspects of crime scene examination, including scene processing and recording.
O’Hara, Charles E., and Gregory L. O’Hara. Fundamentals of Criminal Investigation. 7th ed. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C Thomas, 2003. Detailed work devotes significant discussion to the processes of crime scene documentation.
Saferstein, Richard. Criminalistics: An Introduction to Forensic Science. 9th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007. Good general text covers a broad range of topics, including crime scene examination and documentation.
Walton, Richard H. Cold Case Homicides: Practical Investigative Techniques. Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press, 2006. Comprehensive volume on cold-case investigation includes discussion of the use of original crime scene documentation when old, unsolved cases are examined.
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