Writer’s Police Academy Part 2: Death Scene Investigation by Sarah Madison

Last month, I wrote a general introductory post to Writer’s Police Academy and my experience there. For this month’s post, I’d like to go into more detail. As I mentioned in the previous post, attending WPA is a lot like going to any big continuing education meeting. A variety of seminars are listed simultaneously, and you must pick and choose which to attend. Also like a CE meeting, there were loosely defined tracks: several classes on arson, for example, or legal issues.

Because I already have somewhat of a medical background, I initially decided to forego the more medical seminars and attend courses where I thought my education was lacking. It didn’t take me long to change my mind, however.  In part because my background didn’t always lend itself to a direct translation into police/crime-based information, but also because this is where my interests obviously lie. To deny them would cut out an important–and authentic–voice in my writing.

This became apparent to me early on in the weekend because some of the very popular classes were limited as to the number of participants. As such, the organizers of WPA held a lottery for the courses and attendees were chosen at random. Some courses had to be limited for logistical reasons, such as the emergency driving course, or the live fire handgun class. I was lucky enough to get a ticket for both Death Scene Investigation and Ballistics.

Death Scene Investigation proved to be the first course of the day for me.

We were taken into a classroom and shown graphic images of actual death scenes, and then given the opportunity to say what we thought had occurred based on the blood spatter and evidence visible in the photographs. Before each set of photographs, the instructor gave us as attendees the option to leave the room before the next set of images were posted. Some people took the opportunity to do this. I confess, even though I have a pretty strong stomach, at times I felt a little queasy knowing I was viewing the scene of someone’s murder. That didn’t stop me from feeling a little spurt of pride, however, when after being shown photos of a brutal attack of a mother vacationing in a cabin with her two children, the instructor asked for speculation as to who the murderer was and I correctly guessed it was the estranged husband.

Now granted, the odds are high that a murdered woman is usually a victim of a domestic situation.  But when the instructor asked why I believed this was the case,  I pointed out that the woman was on vacation alone with her children, that the murderer had waited until the children had gone swimming, that the attack was brutally centered on her breasts and genitals, possibly signifying a strong personal hatred or previous sexual relationship, and that her left hand had been severed–the ‘ring’ hand.

The instructor was so pleased with my reasoning, he gave me a T-shirt!

After the initial instruction about basic procedures (more on that below), we then entered a room that had been staged with a fake death scene. We were given time to observe the evidence and then determine what took place. This was a little tricky since the room was small and there were a lot of us in it. Most of us could only clearly see a small portion of the scene. However, I won another T-shirt when asked for speculation as to what had happened and I said there had to be at least one shooter from outside, as the glass on the inside of the room indicated a bullet had been fired into the room. But I missed the bloody footprint, as well as the driver’s license (conveniently) abandoned in the trash basket.

My notes from the course are barely legible, as I wrote at top speed trying to keep up, but here are the highlights:

  1. Blood spatter goes in all directions–look for cast-off. In our arranged death scene, blood spatter had been placed on the ceiling and many of us neglected to look up. When a blade goes into a body, suction is formed around it, so if it is pulled out, the blade comes out with force and cast-off ends up behind the perpetrator.
  2. Passive blood drops don’t change size past four feet in height, therefore you can measure the size of the drop that falls from a height of under four feet to determine the height at which it fell (think of blood dripping off the tip of a knife point). There is a mathamatical formula for working this out, but don’t ask me to explain it! If a tear-shaped droplet forms as a result of cast-off, the fat end of the droplet will be closest to the source and the tip points in the direction of flow.
  3. Don’t assume all the blood is the victim’s. You may only get one chance to get a sample if it came from the murderer, so identification and preservation are critical. Knives become slippery with blood and it is easy for the perpetrator to get cut under those circumstances.
  4. A scene with a lot of evidence is frequently divided into grids (much like an archeological dig)
  5. Every death is treated as a homicide until proven otherwise.
  6. A void pattern can be as important as a spatter pattern (ie, what was in the way of the spray and where is it now?).

You can’t assume the perpetrator has left the scene–so you must complete a search/clear building first. Victims can only be assessed–not declared dead (coroner must declare death). A first responder can only say “pulse/no pulse.” The coroner is often an elected official with no real medical background. Larger counties will have both a coroner and a medical examiner, but it depends on the state.

The first responders will use codes when calling for backup because people listen to police scanners. An officer cannot assess/help/call for backup until the home is cleared.

One thing that came up again and again during the weekend is how often murderers confess to their crimes. It’s almost as if committing such a horrific act weighs on their conscience to the point they can’t help but confess given the slightest opportunity. Spontaneous utterance (confession) can be accepted, but an officer must Mirandize immediately afterward.

Officers on the scene can question anyone present to get background statements but there is a fine line between a witness and a suspect. When in doubt, read Miranda rights, but that may shut a witness/suspect down.

If a witness/suspect asks if he should get a lawyer, the correct response is to say, “It’s up to you. I’m not in a position to tell you your rights.”

If a suspect doesn’t call 9-1-1 immediately after a situation that ends in death, then self-defense credibility drops rapidly.

Once you’re assigned to a crime scene, it’s yours until the investigation is complete to avoid cross-contamination of a scene. If a crime scene occurs in a private home, the entire street will be closed off until secure.

That’s pretty much what I got out of the course–that and the realization I had halfway decent observation skills! I enjoyed the class so much I revised my planned schedule so that I could take more courses that were similar. I also learned there is too much to learn in a single course! I took notes, but quickly realized I’m going to have to invest in some more reading material if I want to be truly accurate describing crime scenes. I have a book on blood spatter on my Amazon wish list now. 🙂

And of course, I want to go back to WPA again!

Tune in next time when I will talk about K9 units and ballistics.

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