Unique Crime Scene Experts Every Writer Must Know About
Murder. Mayhem. Suspense. Crime. Whodunits.
Man, do they sell books!
If you are putting some of that in your next Great American Novel, whether you write historical, thriller, romance, suspense, mystery, or anything in between, you should know the facts about how law enforcement handles these crime scenes. Who actually would come to certain crime scenes. What they actually do (and don’t do) at these scenes. What type of forensic tests can (and can’t) be done at the crime scene. What tests would need to be done later in a professional crime lab.
Knowing the facts, you can then write accurately, but can also make a character or two not follow correct procedure – thus, botching up the criminal investigation – whether by accident or on purpose.
But . . . and this is very important . . . your readers MUST know that YOU know what is correct versus incorrect . . . and figure out later that the character made the mistake . . . not you. Otherwise, they will think that you do not know what you are writing about . . . and you will lose credibility. Let’s do the math: losing credibility = losing readers (or potential readers).
In this age of the Internet . . . news travels fast. Whether that news is good or bad. You’ll only get one chance to make a great first impression. So, we have to write it right.
In most major cities and heavily populated areas, law enforcement has the luxury of many crime scene specialists available to either be called out to a major crime scene, or these specialists may even be on the payroll of the agency and respond as required. Smaller agencies frequently will use the services of a larger agency for its personnel, or even call upon specialists on a per diem basis.
Here are the specialists frequently used in major crime scene investigations, and what exactly their roles are:
Crime Scene Investigators: these are either law enforcement, also known as “sworn” because they have been sworn in to uphold the oath of an officer and are almost always armed and possess arrest powers; or “civilian”, that is, they are not law enforcement and they have no enforcement or arrest powers.
Forensic Pathologist: a medical examiner, in almost all states a licensed medical doctor that is called to apparent homicide scenes. They will assess the scene, examine the body minimally on scene, pronounce the time of death (formally), and if lucky, be able to document the body with the assistance of an investigator from the medical examiner’s office. In almost every state, the body becomes the custody of the medical examiner and is removed to his or her agency for autopsy. The body is not to be moved in any way until the medical examiners arrives. Hmmm . . . do I smell a good red herring here for a storyline?
Forensic Anthropologist: these personnel are extremely important in cases where a body may have been buried, or skeletal remains are found. They offer expert advice in how a body should be removed and excavated from buried scenes, specifically where bones are fragile and the body is highly decomposed. Utilizing screens and containers, bones are carefully exhumed, photographed, documented, tagged, and secured. These experts are also instrumental in assessing, from the bones, the approximate age, sex, race, gender and height of the unidentified remains.
Forensic Audio Engineers: they are useful in cases where there may be a recording (bomb threat, kidnapping ransom) to enhance the sound and eliminate background noise so as to isolate the speaker’s voice. This is useful to determine spoken accents, identify background noises and determine possible location (waterfall, mechanical shop, aircraft overhead, sirens, etc.). These type of engineers were used extensive in attempting to determine where the shots that were fired at President John F. Kennedy actually came from, by analyzing the background noise and “report” from the shots fired.
Forensic Nurses: These personnel are used extensively in collecting sexual assault evidence from child and adult sexual victims. Their duties include photography of the wound(s), collection of evidence from the victim’s body (pubic hair combings, sexual assault evidence kits, fingernail clippings, etc.). They are licensed nurses with additional training in forensic evidence procedures.
Forensic Odontologist: Commonly referred to as dentists, they are forensically trained in reconstruction of skulls found with or without all teeth, and can determine approximate age of a deceased by the wear marks and size of teeth. They will also assist in performing x-ray examinations on skulls recovered, and also in assisting with comparing missing person’s dental records to recovered skulls and teeth. These experts were instrumental in the crime scene investigation at the World Trade towers on 9-11, and are also called to task in other major disasters such as plane or boat crashes. Another specialty is how they compare bite marks on victims to casts of a suspect’s teeth. This was a major factor in convicting serial killer Ted Bundy, who bit many of his victims. His unique teeth are shown here to the right of his photograph.
Forensic Toxicologist: Specialists in performing tests on tissue samples, organ samples and other body samples to determine cause of injury or death. Examples of their expertise would be performing tests to determine poisoning, alcohol or drug use, allergic reactions, or examining and testing items possibly tampered with to poison unsuspecting victims.
Forensic Psychologists: Although they are most often not called to a “fresh scene”, these experts are invaluable in creating a criminal profile of the suspect(s) by examining the scene, the weapons used, the point(s) of entry and departure, and the evidence dynamics.
Cadaver Dogs: Often overlooked, these dogs are trained to detect the odors associated with decomposing human remains. They are quite useful in scenes where the body has not been found, or perhaps buried. Although they receive no pay, no vacation, and can’t call out sick, they receive months and months of training and are frequently housed by the specialized officers that bring them to the scenes.
Forensic Composite Artist: these experts perform “composite” sketches from descriptions given to them by witnesses or survivors to a crime scene. Their finished product is then posted on the Internet, shown on television, and published in newspapers to allow the public to possibly identify the suspect and ultimately contact and assist the police.
Forensic Entomologists: These experts really bug me. Literally. Their expertise is bugs, insects and almost all creepy crawlers. By knowing the life cycle of insects, they can collect these insects at a crime scene, and thus determine the approximate length of time the body has been in that location. This is extremely important in determining time of death. Of course, you have learned from my previous posts that time of death is crucial in determining who may have had last contact with the victim, thus eliminating or involving a person or person as a suspect.
Rounding out the expert witness parade: forensic surveyors, forensic photographers, and forensic videographers.
As a writer, by knowing what experts to place at a crime scene, and what they do at these scenes, you can cherry pick what you’d like your crime scene expert characters to do. Or not do. Or do poorly. Or perfectly.
Since crime scene investigation has evolved into a highly specialized field, the days of “one person does it all” is extinct. Your readers must always realize that even though some of your “created” experts may flounder and make a faux pas, you know the correct procedures.
Remember, you heard it here. Now go write it right.