Mistakes at crime scenes

By Simon Morgan, Director of Investigations at Desroches

“When you introduce humans, you introduce human error!”

Sadly, when examining and explaining mistakes made during the course of investigations, this statement is invariably the root cause of failure. Despite the many positive improvements in investigative training and techniques, aligned to progressive developments in the forensic examination of crime scenes, mistakes that were being made thirty years ago are still being made at crime scenes today, and will undoubtedly be made tomorrow. Furthermore, these problems do not confine themselves to any particular department or unit, they can be found amongst police and investigators throughout the world. The critical factor in all of this is for law enforcement personnel to consistently know what they need to do at each and every crime scene.

Some factors that cause investigations to fail

In this article I will identify a number of the more common and crucial mistakes that are made both by first responders to an incident and those who engage in the initial or primary investigation at the crime scene. In subsequent articles, I will outline several high profile investigations where such failures have contributed to a perverse acquittal or wrongful conviction.

Failures in any investigative process can have serious consequences. In particular, unsuccessful prosecutions and wrongful convictions can bring the criminal justice system into disrepute. In addition the cost of some major investigations climbing into hundreds of thousands, even millions of pounds, and wasted efforts or civil litigation can prove extremely expensive, both in financial terms and the social impact on individuals, their families and their communities.

Although the issues apply to all types of investigations, I will focus on examples encountered at murder crime scenes; if we can get the most demanding of investigations right, the rest will surely follow.
The list of potential errors in an investigation is extensive, but some of the key errors include failure to effectively apply the 5 Priorities at the crime scene:

1. To preserve life
2. To preserve the scene
3. To secure evidence
4. To identify the victim and witnesses
5. To identify the suspect(s)

The over-riding issue which links all of the above possible areas of failure is a lack of policy and procedure of how to implement the 5 Priorities, preserve and examine a crime scene, then implement a clear and organised investigation plan. These issues are compounded when such policies and procedures do exist, but investigators fail or choose not to adhere to them. In the UK there exists well established guidance and policy concerning these issues, together with best practice identified over many years investigating demanding and complex crimes.
In the majority of investigations, the case begins at the crime scene. The initial actions of the first responding officers, followed by the lead investigators, will often determine the success or failure of the case.

Useful hints

Scene Preservation & Securing the Evidence – This is where it all begins! After preserving the life of the victim, if this is possible, these next two stages are amongst the most important and demand the upmost effort, diligence and attention to detail of all officers. These essential elements cannot be over stated as they are the fundamental basis for commencing an effective investigation. Some of the more common failings at crime scenes are listed below.

Scene preservation can provide different challenges to the first responders at each and every crime scene. The status of the victim, the number of victims, witness interference, the geography of the scene, the weather, the list simply goes on and on. However, simple considerations can be applied which assist in preserving the scene and the evidence it will will contain.

A consistent problem encountered in crime scene investigations is that no one checks the floor or the ground prior to entering the scene. First responders should take particular care where they step when attending a scene. If the approach route to the victim is an obvious one, take a different route. Remember the obvious one is the most likely one the suspect has walked. Detectives and crime scene investigators should examine the ground so that shoeprints and other evidence can be identified, preserved and recovered.

Never assume that the death is a suicide or from natural causes and consequently no need to establish a crime scene. Always assume you are dealing with a homicide, until you can prove it is not.

First responding officers may fail to detain all persons present in the scene, which may include the suspect, or they might fail to separate possible witnesses and obtain original accounts.

Failing to properly identify the boundaries of the crime scene and therefore not securing a sufficient area, leaving part of the crime scene exposed to contamination and loss of evidence. Instead of securing just the front door they should have surrounded the entire house and gardens.

Preventing unnecessary members of the public, and police personnel, from accessing a crime scene, adding and removing evidence as they go, must be achieved. Locard’s Principle identified that when two objects come into contact there is an exchange and they leave a trace of each other. The scene must be secured until the lead detectives and crime scene experts attend and provide further directions. A defence often used in trials is that the police contaminated or failed to control a crime scene. This can be negated by a clear system of adhering to the rules of scene preservation, which include all staff wearing protective clothing.

Keep a chronological list of all persons attending and entering the crime scene and the purpose for which they do so. Challenge and refuse entry to any person who has no genuine cause for entering and this includes senior officers who simply want to view the scene. Unless they add value by entering, politely refuse and inform a supervisor.

Communication at crime scenes is vital, with the first responding officers reporting everything they have witnessed upon their arrival and the actions they took. This information must be communicated to supervisory officers, detectives and crime scene investigators and then in turn to the pathologist prior to the post mortem.

Mistakes will be made at crime scenes, because we are human, but it is the way in which they are identified and handled that will make the difference, eradicating perceptions of cover-ups and conspiracy. Education and training will reduce the mistakes made at crime scenes. Honest and open communication across all staff is essential if mistakes are to be identified. This will enable staff to learn from any mistakes made and identify best practice to be used in future.

Photographs and video capture of a crime scene are permanent and secures evidence of what the scene contained. It can be used to present evidence at court, for scene interpretation and for briefing other officers involved in the investigation but did not attend or enter the scene. The crime scene photographer has only one chance to thoroughly document the crime scene.

The lead investigator should know and use the rules and policies for evidence recovery. If the careful process of documenting the evidence to prove the chain of evidence is not followed, the investigation will be severely disadvantaged and could lead to the acquittal of the guilty.

A detailed forensic retrieval plan is required which documents exactly in what order the scene will be forensicated, what scientific methods will be used and by whom. Remember, there is often only one chance to examine a scene.
The list of potential areas where we can, and often do, make mistakes and miss vital opportunities to solve cases is unfortunately quite extensive.

Remembering and adhering to the above guidance at the crime scene will be of huge benefit to the subsequent investigation. To emphasise the importance of this advice, I have analysed two very high profile cases which unfortunately resulted if failed investigations specifically because the rules of crime scene preservation and securing of evidence were not followed.

Case study 1; The O.J. Simpson prosecution

At around 12:10 a.m. on the 13th June 1994, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were found murdered outside Nicole Brown Simpson’s condominium in the Brentwood area of Los Angeles. Nicole had been stabbed multiple times in the head and neck with defense wounds on her hands. O.J. Simpson and Nicole Brown Simpson had divorced two years earlier. The following day, O.J. Simpson was notified of the murders while on a business trip in Chicago. He returned to Los Angeles, is temporarily handcuffed, and taken in for questioning. Evidence found and collected at the scene led police to suspect that O.J. Simpson was the murderer and on the 17th June 1994, as OJ Simpson was about to be arrested for murder, he fled from Robert Kardashian’s home and was chased by police while riding in his white Ford Bronco, driven by friend A.C. Cowlings.

After extensive legal deliberations, the trial of O.J. Simpson opened on the 24th January 1995. What should have been a relatively short trial, unfortunately turned into a long drawn-out affair that lasted for nearly nine months. During the trial, the failings of the police at the crime scene in particular, came under extensive scrutiny. Finally, on the 3rd October 1995, the jury found O.J. Simpson not guilty of two counts of murder.

This case was a prime example of mistakes made at the crime scene which caused the prosecution to fail. This included the recovery, recording, handling, and processing of the evidence in this case.

From the discovery of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, and the instigation of a police investigation, fundamental mistakes in crime scene management were made. Instead of securing the crime scene and preventing unnecessary access, far too many people were allowed to enter and contaminate the immediate area. Local police policy dictated that only the criminalists was authorized to collect evidence and the coroners to move the bodies The lead detectives did not arrive until between 0400 and 0430, by which time 18 officers had registered as entering the scene already but none of those were criminalists or coroners. What they were intending to do is a mystery, but for certain they were contaminating the scene and destroying evidence. When Detectives Phil Vannatter and Tom Lange arrived, the number of personnel who needed to be present was five. This included the two officers who arrived first and supposedly secured the scene, the first two responding detectives Ron Phillips and Mark Furham who they were replacing, and the photographer. Ultimately there was no real reason for all the others to be there.

The next major mistake was made with good intentions. The detectives were concerneds that the ever intrusive media were attempting to photograph Nicole’s body with telescopic cameras. To prevent this and protect the evidence, they took a blanket from within the house and placed it over her body. This altered the crime scene, and took material from within the house to the crime scene immediately outside. They should have used a new clean plastic sheet which had never been used at any previous crime scene.

The crime scene had been secured but only the very immediate area. It is essential that every effort is made to secure the maximum area, as it is always easier to subsequently narrow down the area to be forensically examined; conversely, it is virtually impossible to subsequently extend a crime scene and still hope to secure evidence which has not been preserved. The front garden area where the bodies were discovered was included within the crime scene tape, but the road itself was not and there may have been tire marks on the pavement that were evidence.

Despite having clear and established departmental orders which dictate who is in charge of a crime scene, what the responsibilities are of the various personnel involved and who is allowed access to the scene, these were not followed. Nobody took control and organised the various officers. Despite being in charge of the crime scene, Vannatter and Lange joined Fuhrman and Phillips to inform Simpson of the death of his ex-wife, leaving their supervisor in charge of the crime scene. This was an ineffective use of resources when only two officers are needed to deliver such a message.

Later Lange again left his post at the crime scene to assist in the interview of O.J. Simpson at the police station. He was surplus to requirement as his partner Vannatter could handle it.

On this occasion he did not leave anybody in charge of the crime scene and vital blood evidence was missed on the back gate which would probably have been recovered during the final crime scene walk-though. At the subsequent trial a great deal of difficult questions were posed as to why the blood was not collected on June 13th, and left until the 3rd July, several weeks after the crime scene had been released.

The allegation of planted evidence was also made in front of the jury. When Simpson was interviewed he provided a sample of blood for analysis. The nurse failed to record the amount of blood she had taken, but later testified it was around 8cc’s. The laboratory records only accounted for 6.5cc’s. The nurse had in fact guessed how much he had taken from Simpson, as he normally took 8cc’s. This simple mistake did two things. It shows the importance of attention to detail, and it went some way in causing the acquittal of Simpson.

The allegation of planted evidence was given more credence when the media captured Vannatter passing the vial of blood in an envelope to Dennis Fung, the criminalist in charge of collecting the evidence in the case. LAPD policy dictated that a reference number had to be written on all evidence before it was submitted to the laboratory. Fung was the only person who knew this case’s number and so Vannatter gave him the blood.

This allegation was not restricted just to blood evidence. It was alleged that the criminalist Fung planted socks that were recovered from the foot of Simpson’s bed. This was a simple mistake, but was made into a big issue by the Defense Team. The videographer failed to note the time on the video camera before commencing to record the scene. Fung had earlier retrieved the socks from the bed before the video was made and had recorded the correct time he did this. Unfortunately, this was after the incorrect time indicated on the video camera, which recorded no socks at the location.

This issue was subsequently disproved during the civil trial, as Nicole’s blood from the sock was compared to Nicole’s blood from the test-tube sample which was preserved with EDTA; the sock sample was considerably further deteriorated, therefore could not have been planted from the sample in the test tube.

In interview with Los Angeles police, Simpson initially failed to explain the cause of the deep cut to his right hand, then later claimed he did it when reaching into his vehicle, which happened to be on the night of the murders. He reopened this when he broke a glass after being informed of his wife’s death. The police failed to conduct a probing effective interview, or investigate the supposed smashed glass incident.

Simpson eventually developed into a suspect and agreed to surrender to police on June 17th, but failed to appear. When police attended his home, he was away, but left what appeared to be a suicide note. Later that day, he was observed driving his Bronco and what followed was a famous police chase. He was eventually arrested in possession of a loaded handgun and a false beard and moustache.

Identifying witnesses at the crime scene is a crucial element of the 5P’s. The prosecution relied upon Kato Kaelin, who on the night was a guest at Simpson’s home. He gave evidence that he and Simpson went out for food, returning at 9.36pm. He then could not account for Simpson’s movements until 11pm, when he heard thumps on his wall, at the same time another witness described a large shadowy figure enter the house. During this period, Simpson claimed he was practicing his golf swing in the garden. This does not explain why at 10.03pm he called his girlfriend on his car phone!

The prosecution played their ace cards, involving blood analysis. Blood at the scene was from 1 in 170 million people, and matched that of Simpson. Blood on the two socks in Simpson’s bedroom was from 1 in 6.8 billion people, and matched Nicole’s. The Defence had no choice but to attack the way the scene was forensicated and identify corrupt practices.

The Defence seized every opportunity to attack the police. Mark Fuhrman was the officer who recovered a bloody glove outside Kaelin’s bedroom. The Defence exposed him as a racist and a liar.

The next big mistake, was asking Simpson to try the glove on, but it did not fit. It was later believed the blood had shrunk the material, and a photo showed Simpson previously wearing ill-fitting gloves. However, the damage was done.
The Defence employed a forensic expert named Henry Lee who introduced serious doubts about the evidence and specifically that there was “something’s wrong” with the blood evidence.

The cumulative effect of the Defence Team strategy to discredit the forensic evidence finally won through. On the 3rd October 1995, the jury finally acquitted O.J. Simpson. While Simpson claimed he would track down the real killers, on the 5th February 1997 a civil jury in Santa Monica, California, unanimously found O.J. Simpson liable for the wrongful death of and battery against Goldman, and battery against Brown.

Case study 2: The Amanda Knox prosecution

Amanda Knox moved from America to Perugia, Italy, in September 2007 for the purposes of university study, where she shared a cottage with two Italian women and a British student by the name of Meredith Kercher. She very soon started a relationship with a man by the name of Raffaele Sollecito, and often spent nights at his apartment.

On Thursday 1st November 2007, Meredith was out but returned home at 9:10 pm, to any empty house. It is believed she was murdered sometime in the next few hours.

On Friday 2nd November 2007, Amanda Knox allegedly came home at 10:30 am. She claimed that the front door of the cottage was open, but she thought nothing of this as the latch was faulty. Meredith’s bedroom door was closed, and Amanda simply thought she was still asleep. Amanda had a shower in the small bathroom and saw what she believed were some spots of blood. She entered the larger bathroom, where she found the toilet had been used but not flushed.

Amanda became concerned and went back to Raffaele’s apartment to tell him. Then she called one of her Italian roommates, and tried to call Meredith. Her mobile phone records reveal she made these calls just before midday. Amnda and Raffaele returned to the cottage and found a broken window which appeared as though the place had been burgled. Meredith’s door was locked. Raffaele called his sister who was a police officer, and she told him to call the police.

Police actually arrived at the cottage having found Meredith’s mobile phone in a nearby garden and traced it to the address. They forced open Meredith’s locked door and under a duvet, they found her partially naked body. Her throat had been cut.

Amanda and Raffaele were questioned over the next few days. They gave accounts consistent to the version of events as so far described. However the questioning became more intense, and during the night of 5th – 6th November they changed their stories. Raffaele told police that Amanda had left his apartment that night for a few hours. Amanda stated she had a weird dream in which her boss named Patrick Lumumba, who owned the bar where she worked, was in Meredith’s room and Amanda was covering her ears to block out the sound of screams.

These statements and the manner in which they were obtained, caused much controversy. Amanda alleged duress in that she had no lawyer or translator and after having been kept awake all night, an officer hit her around the head.

On 6th November, Raffaele, Amanda and Patrick were arrested and jailed. Patrick was released after about two weeks as his alibi was proven true.

From the crime scene police identified a fourth suspect, an immigrant called Rudy Guede who had left a palm print in the victim’s blood on a pillow underneath her dead body; his DNA was also found in and on her body, clothing and personal possessions. This evidence also proved he was the person who used the toilet and failed to flush it. Guede had escaped to Germany, but was arrested and extradited to Italy.

Guede gave an account in which he told police he and Meredith had arranged to meet at the cottage that evening, and had consensual intimate contact. Guede used the toilet and whilst doing so a stranger entered the cottage and attacked Meredith. Guede claimed he fought with the attacker, who then fled the scene. He comforted Meredith, but panicked and he too fled the scene. He was seen by witnesses dancing at a local nightclub at about 2:00 am.

While Guede was in Germany awaiting extradition, police monitored his phone calls and during one of these he clearly stated that Amanda was not present at the murder. After his arrest he changed his story and stated the stranger with whom he grappled was in fact Raffaele. The original account did not implicate Amanda, but in the new version she was now present, but outside the room.

The police believed that Amanda, Raffaele and Patrick Lumumba killed Meredith after she refused to take part in a sex game. When they had to release Lumumba because of his fool proof alibi, they simply replaced him with Guede. The strange part here is that Guede had no known connection with Amanda or Raffaele.

The police believed that Amanda, Raffaele and Patrick Lumumba killed Meredith after she refused to take part in a sex game. When they had to release Lumumba because of his fool proof alibi, they simply replaced him with Guede. The strange part here is that Guede had no known connection with Amanda or Raffaele.

The evidence police relied upon takes us back to the issues identified when investigations commence with the 5 Priorities not being strictly followed:

1. The suspects clearly changed their version of events. The defence team believed that police knew a black man was involved, as they recovered distinctive hair at the crime scene. This is why they focused Amanda towards Lumumba. On the evening in question, Amanda and Lumumba exchanged text messages. He told her not to come into work as the business was empty. She agreed, texting “See you later. Good night.” The police asserted this meant she was due to meet him later. She was pressed on this point until she came up with this dream she had. She and Raffaele now assert their first version of events were the truth.

2. The murder weapon was a kitchen knife they recovered from Raffaele’s apartment, which they claim has Amanda’s DNA on the handle and Meredith’s DNA on the blade. However, this evidence was challenged on thye following issues;
• The knife did not match the shape and size of two of the three wounds on the throat
• The match to Meredith’s DNA is of doubt, as it was so minute and recovered by Low Copy Number testing which is unreliable due to contamination
• This knife was different from the knife-shaped blood stain found at the scene

3. DNA at the scene. A full six weeks after the police first responded to this crime scene, they recovered a bra fastener from the floor where Meredith was found. It also had a minute trace of DNA from Raffaele, but again things were complicated;
• The crime scene video showed officers repeatedly handled the fastener before finally bagging it as evidence, which added to the issue of cross-contamination
• DNA from three other people was on the exhibit
• The video showed it being kicked or moved into a pile of other items, again risking contamination
• Raffaele had previously entered the cottage lawfully and would have left DNA trace evidence of his presence. This could be the source of the contamination

This again emphasises the importance of preserving the evidence, which failed on this occasion.

4. Police relied upon the evidence of the blood stains which revealed a mixture of DNA from Meredith and Amanda. Analysis of this revealed it was blood from Meredith and non-blood DNA from Amanda. She lawfully had access to the property therefore the presence of her DNA would be expected.

5. The main witness claimed he saw Amanda and Raffaele lurking near the cottage on the night in question. He transpired to be a vagrant with drug and alcohol issues and was totally discredited.

6. The police dismissed the broken window as staged and impossible to climb through. The truth was that Guede was a climbing burglar and before the murder was in possession of property stolen from a third floor climbing burglary. Examination of the broken window showed a climber could easily have got through.

The above two cases eventually resulted in acquittal of the defendants, although the errors caused by police were only identified during the appeal which overturned the guilty verdict and freed Amanda Knox. Many lives were ruined by these two cases, none more so than the murder victims and their families. Many investigation hours and millions of pounds worth of public monies were spent, with no lasting convictions. Most crime scenes give investigators one real opportunity to secure, preserve and recover the evidence in a manner which will stand up to the scrutiny of the judicial process.


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