The Anatomy Of A Murder Investigation: How A Criminal Murder Investigation Works

The mechanics of a typical murder investigation from the standpoint of the investigators themselves. How is it handled, and what are the procedures followed.

By Pat Lawless

It's just after ten o'clock at night when the call comes in to the 911 operator in a small city of 120,000 people. A woman, frantic, has gone to her sister's apartment and found her dead, apparently murdered. The 911 operator cautions her not to touch anything else (she's already used the phone), and to close the apartment door and wait outside the building for the police to arrive. A note is handed to the dispatcher, who sends two patrol cars and an ambulance to the scene. While they are en route, the dispatcher calls the detective's office and advises the Duty Sergeant of the call. She notices that there is a forensic unit already on the road, which has just cleared photographing an accident scene. The forensic people are taking a coffee break. She raises them on the radio and advises them of the homicide call, so they can come back to the station to pick up any equipment they may need at the scene.

It's 10:06 p.m. The first patrol car has reached the scene with the ambulance right on it's tail. The two officers have the victim's sister sit in their car while they enter the scene, guns drawn, to ensure that the killer is not still present, and to confirm whether the victim is still alive or not. Presently the second patrol car reaches the scene, to find one of the first officers on the scene interviewing the victim's sister, while inside the building the other officer (who has taken the job of controlling access to the scene) speaks to the paramedics. This officer has already led one of the paramedics into the scene, to assure him that the victim is beyond medical help. There are obvious gunshot wounds, including one to the head, so there is little question of the victim's status. This is often a gray area; the paramedics are there to render medical assistance, and if there is any hope for the victim, however slight, they are expected to act. Naturally the police have the same attitude, but if the victim is beyond hope then they are expected to protect the scene from contamination. The officer controlling access keeps careful records of exactly who was in the scene, and when. He shows his notes to each person who enters and leaves, and asks them to sign them to confirm their accuracy. He knows that as few people as possible should be let into the scene, and should all use the same route while walking, to avoid destroying any evidence unnecessarily. While this has been going on the dispatcher has called for the Coroner to attend the scene. Depending on the jurisdiction involved, the Coroner may be known as the Medical Examiner. Nothing can be done with the body or the scene until the Coroner or one of his assistants has viewed it and declared the person to be deceased. In this case the Coroner checks the victim for a pulse, takes a quick look around, and speaks briefly to the paramedics. He then tells the officer guarding the scene that he is pronouncing the person inside to be deceased, at 10:48 p.m., which the officer makes note of. He also advises the officer that he is officially turning the death investigation over to the police as a homicide. Meanwhile, the Duty Sergeant from the Detective's office has found that all of the General Assignment detectives he has are either busy on the road, or are already involved in important interviews which really shouldn't be interrupted. It's been a busy week, and he has no choice but to call in a detective from the day shift who was just about to go to bed. He tells him to come in to the station and grab a car, and that he'll meet him at the scene. The Duty Sergeant feels that he should personally visit the scene as soon as possible, since the presence of a detective with experience in major crime may prevent mistakes being made by inexperienced patrol officers. He checks his computer screen before he leaves, to see who is at the scene. Noting that one of the patrol cars contains two older experienced officers, his mind is put at ease somewhat. The detective he has called in has major crime experience, so the Duty Sergeant's involvement will be minimal, and the next day another detective will be assigned to work with the Primary Investigator. He quickly calls the Staff Sergeant in charge of the Detective's Office at home to advise him of the situation.

The Duty Sergeant arrives at the crime scene to find the Coroner and the paramedics just leaving. The Forensic Identification crew is standing by for permission to start photographing the scene. They have been to the station and have picked up cases of evidence collection equipment and supplies. Some things are already stored in their van, but some items (like extra film, and blood preservative test tubes) are temperature sensitive and can't be stored in a vehicle during a hot day. He chats with the Coroner for a minute (they have met at crime scenes many times over the years), and then goes inside to speak to the officer guarding the apartment. Taking a quick look at the body and the apartment, he then clears the Forensic officer to start photographing, but not to collect any evidence or disturb anything until the Primary Investigator for the case arrives. He then goes outside and tells the second patrol crew that they won't be needed any more, and that they can go back to patrol, but not until they've gone on a coffee run. It's going to be a long night, and the rest of the people involved won't be going home at midnight like they expected. The Forensic crew has followed him out, and has put on disposable "bunny suits"; biohazard coveralls to prevent them from inadvertently coming into contact with blood or body fluids. Once they start collecting evidence, they will also put on latex gloves. The Duty Sgt. then talks to the officer who was interviewing the victim's sister. He has taken a detailed statement from her, and she believes that the victim's estranged husband is the prime suspect in this murder. The Staff Sergeant reads the officer's notes, and then briefly speaks to the woman, ascertaining that she has someone (her husband) at home. He advises her about assistance available from the Victim Crisis Assistance bureau and gives her his card, as well as one from the crisis bureau. He then tells the officer to give her a ride home. When the second patrol car gets back a few minutes later with the coffee, he sends them to the address the woman had given for the estranged husband, to see if he is there and bring him in for questioning if he is. Meanwhile he runs the suspect's name on his car's computer, to see if he has any criminal record or outstanding warrants. An outstanding warrant for failing to appear for court comes up, and he informs the patrol car of this, but they've already found it. He cautions them to be careful, and asks the dispatcher to send them a backup car. Someone who has just committed murder can be dangerous and irrational, and is liable to react violently to being apprehended. He also tells the patrol car to bring anyone else they find at the suspect's residence in for questioning, as he wants to obtain a search warrant to search the man's apartment, and doesn't want anyone messing with evidence, such as blood-stained clothing.

The Primary Detective has now arrived, and is viewing the scene carefully. He makes sketches of the locations of major items around the body, while being careful not to walk around too much or disturb anything. He obtains all of the information from the officer guarding the scene as to the victim's identity, age, etc., and is briefed on the possible suspect by the Duty Sergeant. Then he tells the Forensic crew to do their stuff. They have already taken their general scene photos, so now one of them starts collecting evidence around the body, and placing it in bags, while the other one acts as a scribe, and takes any additional photos that are necessary. This prevents any contamination of the team's cameras or notebooks from exposure to blood or other body fluids. Swabs of blood stains are taken. Blood that is spattered on the wall is photographed with adhesive measuring tapes near it, for possible future "Blood Spatter Interpretation" by a forensic scientist. Samples of various fibers and materials from the apartment are taken and carefully labeled. The walls and furniture are carefully examined with a flashlight to check for slugs that may have exited the body. None are found, but if the autopsy shows a missing bullet, the apartment will be torn apart to locate it. Anything that could conceivably be considered evidence is carefully bagged and labeled for future examination.

During this long and technical process, the Primary Investigator and the Duty Sergeant have left the scene and gone back to the station, where the victim's husband is in a holding cell. Arrested without major incident, he is intoxicated, belligerent, and verbally uncooperative. The arresting officers have noted what could be bloodstains on his clothing, and have seized it as evidence. They have also performed a blood/alcohol breath test on him, showing a reading of 0.15, almost twice the legal limit for driving. The Duty Sergeant radios the Forensic team to see if they can come into the station to do a gunshot residue analysis on the suspect's hands. They advise that they are right in the middle of evidence collection, so he decides to call in another Forensic team member so that this valuable evidence is not lost. Meanwhile, the Primary has made out the paperwork to obtain a search warrant on the suspect's apartment, and he leaves to visit a judge to attempt to have it endorsed. The other Forensic team member arrives and (with a large intimidating patrol officer standing by), performs the gunshot residue test on the suspects hands. The suspect finds this amusing, and is not uncooperative in this case. His hands are placed in a clear plastic bag full of what appears to be water (it's actually a very mild water/acid solution) and shaken around. The water is then poured into little jars and labeled for analysis by the crime lab. The suspect is placed back in his cell, and the Forensic member joins the Primary and the Duty Sergeant in travelling to the suspect's apartment to execute the search warrant. A search of the suspect's apartment turns up some boxes of .22 cal. ammunition, court papers, and lots of booze, but no gun. The Forensic tech seizes some of these items as evidence.

After they have cleared the suspect's apartment, they hear from the Forensic team at the murder scene. They have collected everything they needed, and were wondering if the body could be removed now. The Primary advises to go ahead and call for body removal, but to please photograph the woman's back before placing her in the body bag. The dispatcher has been listening in on this conversation, and states that she will call body removal right away. Arriving back at the station, the Primary and the Duty Sergeant prepare to interview the suspect, while the third Forensic member makes his notes and properly stores the suspects clothes and residue samples. These must be kept completely separate from the crime scene evidence, to prevent cross-contamination of blood and fibers. Once this has been done, he goes home. Meanwhile, the detectives aren't getting far with the suspect. He is still quite drunk, and demands to see his lawyer. Deciding to leave the interview until he is sober (and hopefully hung-over), they place him back in the cells. Leaving instructions that the crime scene is to be put under guard overnight, they make their notes and go home as well. The Forensic crew has arrived back at the station, and placed the evidence in a biological storage room, carefully laying out any blood stained items to dry on drying sheets. They make a few notes, put their film in the box for processing tomorrow, and call it a night. It's 4:10 a.m. As they are leaving, the Patrol Staff Sergeant tells them that the Coroner called to let both them and the detectives know that he had scheduled the autopsy for the next day at 1:00 p.m.

It's 9:00 a.m., and the Forensic crew meets with the Primary and his newly assigned partner for this investigation, in the Detective's office. The Staff Sergeant in charge of Detectives sits in on the meeting in the conference room, along with the Patrol Staff Sergeant, more out of curiosity than anything. The Primary details the case so far, including the uncooperative nature of the suspect. He also reads out the history of the victim and the suspect, which shows several years of physical abuse against the victim, and related criminal charges against the suspect. The Forensic crew report that a generic test of the suspect's clothes show that the stains are in fact blood, but whom it originated from will need to be determined by the crime lab. The Staff Sergeant asks about the garbage in the man's building, and the possibility that the accused tossed the gun in his garbage. The Primary relates that the gun was not in the garbage in the apartment, and that it did not appear to have been emptied for some time. The Staff Sergeant suggests checking any dumpsters in the area of the apartment and the crime scene. The Patrol Staff Sergeant offers to have one of his patrol cars do this. At this point the dispatcher calls, stating that a man has just called and reported his car missing, and that he told her that he had leant it to a man, who's name is the same as the suspect's. He had expected it back the previous night, and since he could not find either the man or the car, he was worried that he might have left town with it. Getting a description of the car from the dispatcher, the Staff Sergeant then asks her to have patrol cars all over town look for the car and secure it as a crime scene if it is found. He tells her to start with the area of the man's apartment, and the area of the murder scene. He also tells her to have the man come into the station to give a statement. Right after this, the front desk of the station calls, stating that the suspect's lawyer is waiting to speak to him. The meeting is wrapped up, and the Primary goes to speak to the man's lawyer and bring him back to the meeting room so he can meet with his client. After the lawyer has met with the suspect, the Primary and his partner take a second crack at interviewing the suspect, but to no avail. His lawyer has advised him not to say a word. They put him back in the cell and check on the status of the missing car. The dispatcher tells them that it has not been found as of yet. They then go out to have some lunch, before heading to the local hospital for the autopsy.

In the hospital morgue, they meet with the Pathologist and his assistant, who are ready to start the post-mortem examination. The Forensic crew is already there, and have already photographed the body and seized the victim's clothes as evidence. Overnight the body had been locked in a freezer using a lock supplied by the police department, which is stored in the Detectives Office, to preserve evidence continuity. The autopsy proceeds slowly, and every step is carefully documented by the Pathologist and his assistant. The pathologist takes his own photos in addition to the Forensic crew's, and asks them to send him a copy of theirs as soon as they have them printed. One of the Forensic officers asks if the pathologist feels that the wounds should be excised (cut out) for further examination by the crime lab if necessary, and the pathologist agrees that this is a good idea. The Coroner drops in to check on the progress of the investigation, and ask the Pathologist when he would be willing to release the body to the family of the victim. This settled, he leaves the room again. Halfway through the autopsy a phone call comes in for the Primary, and he is advised that the car has been found. He tells the dispatcher that he would like another Forensic crew to examine and photograph it where it was found, and then tow it to the station evidence impound garage for further analysis. The autopsy completed, the Pathologist states that the cause of death was a gunshot wound to the head, and that a total of three shots were fired, from a small caliber weapon, possibly a .22 pistol. All three slugs have remained in the body, and the detectives and Forensic officers look at them closely. Although they are somewhat deformed, they all agree that they appear to be .22 slugs.

Leaving the autopsy, the entire group of police personnel return to the station, where they are met by the other Forensic crew. They report that they have located a .22 pistol under the seat of the car, and have determined that four shells are missing from the clip. It appears to have been fired since it was last cleaned. The car is held for examination for two more days, and then is returned to the owner. All personnel involved now have their work cut out for them, doing reams of paperwork to complete the case. Reports, court briefs, evidence lists, lab submission reports, and crime scene logs all have to be completed for examination by the Prosecuting Attorney's office. Dried evidence has to be properly labeled and stored, and evidence going to the crime lab has to be packaged and delivered, ensuring that the continuity of the evidence is never broken. The whereabouts of the evidence must be tracked at all times. Some evidence is examined in house, before being stored.

Prologue: The next day the Prosecutor decides that there is sufficient preliminary evidence to charge the suspect with murder. The additional shell missing leads to a re-examination of the crime scene for the extra slug, but it is never found. The crime lab determines that the suspect had fired a gun recently (from the hand residue samples) and that the gun in the car was the same gun that killed the victim (from examination of the rifling pattern on the slugs). They are unable to lift fingerprints off of the gun using their laser, but do match the blood from the suspect's pants to the victim, using DNA coding. The owner of the car gives a statement that the suspect was in possession of the car at the time of the murder, and had spoken frequently about how he should kill his estranged wife. The origin of the gun itself remains a mystery, as no records of it are ever found. Eventually the suspect's lawyer arranges a plea bargain based on his client's level of intoxication, knocking the charge down from First Degree Murder to Second Degree Murder, but saving the expense and uncertainty of a trial. The suspect is sentenced to life in prison, with no chance of parole for 15 years. Most of the evidence collected is never used, and is stored for a pre-determined time limit, and then destroyed. Case closed.

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