Visual Documentation in Crime Scene Investigations
Noor Z. Razzaq
Upon arrival at a major crime scene, officers must have the ability to effectively multi-task utilizing what often amounts to be very limited resources. Supervising officers and investigators must work diligently and take steps in order to preserve the integrity of any evidence and the scene as a whole in order to facilitate an effective investigation as well as effective prosecution. In that light, this article will focus on the basics of visual documentation as applied to crime scene investigation. Knowing and understanding the basics of videotaping, photographing, and sketching of crime scenes can be integral to effective suspect identification and prosecution as well as the process of crime scene analysis as a whole.
Crime Scene Videography
Crime Scene Videography is valuable as an overview for presentation in court as well as a moving analysis of the scene. It allows for a documented perspective of the crime scene which cannot be captured in reports, interviews, or photographs. Prior to videotaping, the investigator should walk the designated videographer through the scene. Videos should begin with an overall general view of the scene. If the scene is indoors, then the video should include an overall pan of the outside of the location. The tape should then include a brief preamble by the investigator which includes the narrator’s name, the case number, time, date, location of the incident, and a concise description of all rooms and evidence to be viewed in the tape.
Upon completion of this introduction, audio should be disabled as to not bias the jury and videotaping of the scene should begin with a general overview of the crime scene and adjoining areas. The only exception to this is the inclusion of explanation of what a given piece of evidence is. However, care must be taken not to say anything that could emotionally bias a jury as doing so can result in the judge denying the videotape as evidence. Upon initiation of crime scene video analysis, the cameraman should use close-up and wide angle views to show the location of evidence, relevance of evidence, and the scene layout. Slow camera movements such as zooming and panning should be used while videotaping.
Just as with crime scene photography, close-ups of small items of evidence should include a scale to illustrate the size of the item. No personnel should be present in the video whatsoever and the content must be relevant to the case and not produce a level of emotional bias that would be unacceptable to a given judge deciding on the admissibility of the evidence. The local prosecuting attorney’s office should be contacted well in advance to determine what could be considered as producing an unacceptable level of emotional bias.
Ideally, camera work should be accomplished by a professional trained to walk through the crime scene without disturbing any evidence. Investigators should bear in mind that while videotaping is very helpful if done correctly, it isn’t mandatory and shouldn’t be done if having untrained personnel accomplish this would compromise the integrity of the scene. Furthermore, videotaping does NOT replace crime scene photography. Rather, it acts as a more graphical representation of different aspects of the scene.
Crime Scene Photography
Immediately following Crime Scene Videography should be the initiation of Crime Scene Photography as the investigator will need pictures of the scene in its most natural state. Both black and white as well as color photographs should be taken and utilized in a manner which balances the possibility of causing emotional bias against the need for color. All in all, the goal of crime scene photography is to provide as unbiased and detailed pictures as absolutely possible. Not only is color a consideration, but supplementary lighting to more adequately illuminate the picture as well as steadiness of the shot.
All evidence being photographed needs to be marked or flagged before being photographed and should be photographed from three perspectives: overview (far away), mid-range, and close-up. Overview and mid-range photos help to establish the modus operandi of the offender while the close-up photos are used to demonstrate size and detail in inanimate objects as well as establish corpus delicti, or the fact a victim is actually dead on a homicide scene (O’Connor, 2006). While the average digital camera may be generally acceptable for use in crime scene photography, O’Connor (2006) recommends the use of higher pixel cameras for homicide scenes to more effectively capture the minute details of smaller pieces of evidence.
The two methods of crime-scene photography used on scene in and of itself include overlapping and progressive. Overlapping photos are taken in a circular/clockwise direction and progressive photos are taken of a given piece of evidence while the photographer is walking towards it. In addition, there are five additional perspective angles to accomplish when photographing a body at a homicide scene: head to foot, right side, foot to head, left side, and aerial (bird’s eye view of the body). Crime scene photographs should be taken by trained crime scene photographers employed by either the local police/sheriff department or from neighboring jurisdictions. In the event crime scene photographers are unavailable, investigators should attempt to have any police personnel with basic training or experience in crime scene photography take the photos.
Sketching the Scene
Once the scene has been photographed, investigators need to sketch the crime scene, which can be accomplished by crime scene sketch artists from the local department or from other neighboring jurisdictions. The sketch can be most described as more than a note but less than a photo (O’Connor, 2006). The four types of crime scene sketches include the overhead (bird’s eye view) sketch; the exploded view sketch which depicts the floor and each wall laid out adjacent to the appropriate edges of the room’s floor; the elevation sketch, which involves “looking at the scene from side-to-side” (O’Connor, 2006); and the perspective sketch, which adds a third dimension to the scene. The initial sketch will be completed by the investigator. Each additional detailed sketch should be accomplished by a team of investigators in concert with a crime scene sketch artist.
If any measurements need to be taken from any central object such as the dead body in a homicide, a minimum of two points of reference should be used to identify the exact location of the body on a sketch by using the tree and the front door as reference points. For example, measurements could be taken at main entrance of a house to the center of the body and from another outstanding feature (e.g., a tree) also to the center of the body. The finished sketch should also contain a legend which matches up evidence with its marker number or flag and identifies other symbols for the landmarks the represent (e.g., trees, house, body, weapon, et cetera) (O’Connor, 2006). Initially, a rough sketch should be and should be reproduced as a more refined finished 3-D sketch drawn to scale which is usually annotated as 1/8 inch to one foot for indoor crime scenes and 1 inch to 20 feet for outdoor crime scenes (O’Connor, 2006). The accuracy of the finished sketch is extremely important as the prosecution may use it to create a mockup for court.
Just as with all other types of evidence, a chain-of-custody record must be maintained for crime scene videotape, photo, and sketches. There are other factors to bear in mind as well. Videotaping isn’t mandatory, but can be very helpful in a case. Crime Scene Photography, on the other hand, is an absolute must at a major crime scene and can easily make or break a case in court. Finally, crime scene sketching is integral to effective scene processing and should be done with as much attention to detail and accuracy as possible as the finalized sketch may be used in developing a three-dimensional mockup for court.
O’Connor, T. (2006). An Introduction to Crime Scene Analysis. Retrieved June 4, 2007, from: http://www.apsu.edu/oconnort/3220/3220lect01a.htm
Staggs, S. (1997). Using Video to Record the Crime Scene. Retrieved June 4, 2007, from: http://www.crime-scene-investigator.net/video.html
Copyright © 2008 by Noor Z. Razzaq. All rights reserved.