|CRIME SCENE STAGING AND ALTERATIONS
The CSI Effect on Criminal Investigations
By Vernon J. Geberth, M.S., M.P.S.
Former Commander of Bronx Homicide, New York City Police Department
Author of Practical Homicide Investigation: Tactics, Procedures, and Forensic Techniques. Fourth Edition. CRC Press, 2006
PI Magazine: Journal of Professional Investigators
Vol. 20 Number 2, April 2007
Article has been expanded for research.
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"Staging a scene occurs when the perpetrator purposely alters the crime scene to mislead the authorities and/or redirect the investigation. Staging is a conscious criminal action on the part of an offender to thwart an investigation. The term 'staging' should not be used to describe the actions of surviving family members who cover or redress a loved one, who is found nude or has died in an embarrassing situation. These activities are certainly understandable considering the shock experienced by a relative who encounters the sudden and violent death of a loved one.
In my experience investigating suspicious deaths I have oftentimes had a 'gut' feeling that something was amiss. Practically speaking, 'If you have a gut feeling that something is wrong. Then guess what? Something is wrong.' Actually, that "gut" feeling is your subconscious reaction to the presentation, which should alert you to the possibility that, 'Things are not always what they appear to be'" This position is consistent with equivocal death investigations. In 'staged crime scenes,' however, the presentation of the homicide victim and the manipulation of the crime scene by a clever offender could make the death appear to be a suicide. I have personally investigated many such cases and the truth of the matter is that initially; the cases did look like suicides." ¹
EQUIVOCAL DEATH INVESTIGATIONS
"Equivocal death investigations are those inquiries that are open to interpretation. There may be two or more meanings and the case may present as either a homicide or a suicide depending upon the circumstances. The facts are purposefully vague or misleading as in the case of a "staged crime scene." Or, the death is suspicious or questionable based upon what is presented to the authorities. The deaths may resemble homicides or suicides, accidents or naturals. They are open to interpretation pending further information of the facts, the victimology, and the circumstances of the event."²
THE C.S.I. EFFECT
The C.S.I. Effect refers to the phenomenon of the impact that crime scene and forensic criminal investigation television shows, along with their coverage in media, have on the general public.
There are a plethora of forensic programs such as CSI, (Crime Scene Investigation, CSI Miami, CSI New York) Law and Order, Special Victim's Unit, Cold Case, The New Detectives, Court TV Forensic Files, Body of Evidence, A&E, Criminal Mind, Bones, The FBI Files, etc.
These shows depict criminal investigations, the location and retrieval of evidence, the interaction of authorities with suspects, alibis as well as scientific explanations for events that mimic real life scenarios. Albeit that in many instances the applications of the forensic sciences as well as the events as depicted in these programs have been fictionalized and formatted strictly for entertainment. The bottom line is that many people who view these programs actually assume that everything they have seen on the show is real. Since perception is reality, the CSI Effect has become a major issue for law enforcement and the criminal justice system.
Law enforcement became aware of this phenomenon early on as they interacted with persons who had been influenced by the programming. Offenders began to carefully remove or attempt to destroy evidence in crime scenes. Victims became keenly aware of the value of physical evidence and expected the authorities to locate and retrieve materials that would identify a suspect. In fact, Metro homicide detectives in Las Vegas, which was the venue for the original CSI series, would routinely receive calls from the public demanding that the Metro police dispatch the "CSI" Team that they saw on television.
Law and Order is well known for fictionalizing real-life cases from headline stories across the nation and opens with the following statement,"In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police who investigate crime and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories." ³The show follows a small team of New York City homicide detectives as they investigate and capture an offender. Generally, about halfway through the hour-long program the focus shifts from the investigation of the crime to the prosecution of the offender. The case is handed over to a team of lawyers from the Manhattan District Attorney's office and then continues into the courtroom with the presentation of the evidence and explanations of the legal aspects of the case. Millions of viewers watch the current episodes of Law and Order as well as the spin-off programs and re-runs aired on a daily basis through the Law and Order franchise.
The criminal justice system and the courts have experienced CSI Effect as jurors began to articulate their perceptions of the proceedings based on their impressions from the televised forensic programming. Lawyers, prosecutors and judges say the CSI Effect has become a phenomenon in courthouses across the nation. Prior to the popularity of forensic shows like CSI, the presentation of forensic science in the courtroom was like discussing trigonometry.
The jury would go to sleep. Today, there is an avid fascination and sometimes an attraction with the topic that has become an obsession with almost 60 million viewers watching CSI shows weekly.
However, there is also a positive side to the CSI Effect. The phenomenon has reached into both classrooms and courtrooms. Universities have seen a dramatic increase in applications to forensic science programs and more young people are looking at careers in forensic science.
Dr. Katherine Ramsland, Ph. D. authored an excellent treatise on this subject. In her book, The C.S.I. Effect Ramsland described the C.S.I. Effect as "The influence of popular crime shows on the culture, specifically with regard to possibly miseducating viewers who are potential jurors." 4
In her book, Ramsland examined the consequences of a proliferation of forensic television programs and their effect on someone's perception of forensic science and the police investigative process. She covers the simulation and enhancement aspects of the CSI shows as well as computer forensics and digital data. Her chapters on forensic art, virtual autopsy and toxicology as well as DNA and court process along with specific cases illustrate the influence that forensic shows can have on the average person. The chapter on Psycho-logic, which demystifies the science of profiling and how the courts deal with this behavioral evidence, are explained using a case history format.
Deviance and psychological oddities seem to catch the interest of the viewing public, and the forensic shows go out of their way to include such programming in their productions. The chapter on "Learning the Language" explains how these shows use professional researchers to provide the show's writers with an inside view of various subcultures and their idiosyncrasies, which include B&D and/or S&M scenarios as well as complex scientific procedures that are seemingly realistic enough to convince the viewer that they can understand these topics and thus gain a false sense of knowledge.
In reality, the experts in the various forensic and law enforcement fields, who are portrayed by actors and actresses in these programs, must have extensive education in both undergraduate and graduate study, coupled with years of experience and practice utilizing their expertise in a much more sobering environment than that presented in television programming, which only emphasizes the attractive and fascinating aspects forensic science.
Ramsland summed it up as follows, "Thanks to these programs people on juries believe they know all about forensic science and investigation. They're wrong, but they don't know that, and their errors can impact the outcome of a case" 5
In The C.S.I. Effect, Ramsland presents a number of real-life cases, which were used in various forensic television programs. Of course in the television presentations of these real-life cases, the evidence is always discovered and the science is remarkably accurate. It is absolutely ridiculous how fast these television characters get their laboratory results not to mention that wonderful computer that kicks-out the photo, name and address and complete protocol of the offender. I would certainly like to have the patent on that machine maybe I can stop writing textbooks.
The Negative Side of The CSI Effect
The fictional aspects of these programs provide the entertainment component. However, there are a number of legitimate investigative techniques as well as tactical police procedures revealed to the viewing audience that contribute to the C.S.I. Effect. The problem is that criminals read the same books and watch the same TV shows as everybody else, so they are gaining insight into the investigative process as well as the value of trace evidence and have become more savvy. These "CSI Criminals" attempt to prevent leaving evidence at crime scenes. Offenders are now ultra-careful not to leave any blood, fingerprints, body hair or anything else that may identify them in the crime scene. Offenders routinely wear gloves so they will not leave any fingerprints. Some rapists now use condoms to avoid leaving genetic material behind. Others hide, mutilate or destroy the victim's body so there will be no Corpus Delicti.
ALTERATIONS TO THE SCENE:
The C.S.I. Effect also has contributed to an increase in crime scene alterations. Alterations include the introduction of foreign materials into the crime scene, which have nothing to do with the original event as well as the obliteration and destruction of evidence within the scene to confuse and mislead the investigation.
Gary Ridgeway, "The Green River Killer," would attempt to throw off the investigators by leaving bogus evidence. Ridgeway, who neither smoked nor chewed gum, left chewing gum and cigarette butts at dump sites. At one scene Ridgeway scattered airport motel pamphlets and car rental papers to imply that the killer was a traveling salesman to mislead authorities.
A rape offender in my files, who was a White male, had collected his Black cellmate's pubic hairs from his bunk while they were in jail together. He later introduced these Negroid pubic hairs into a rape-murder scene to convince the authorities that they should be looking for an African-American suspect.
Suspects have also learned how to destroy some types of evidence by watching the CSI shows. Techniques such as using bleach to destroy DNA, scrubbing away fingerprints, washing the victim or making the victim take a shower, smashing the hard drive on their computer, or using arson to destroy the crime scene are examples of alterations.
Types of Crime Scene Staging
Making The Death Appear to be a Suicide
- The most common type of "staging" occurs when the perpetrator changes elements of the scene to make the death appear to be a suicide or accident in order to cover up a murder.
- The second most common type of staging is when the perpetrator attempts to redirect the investigation by making the crime appear to be a sex-related homicide.
- Arson represents another type of staging. The offender purposely torches the crime scene to destroy evidence or make the death appear to the result of an accidental fire.6
An eleven-year-old female was found hanging from her bedpost by a chain connected to a dog collar around her neck. The police and prosecutor's office deemed the case a suicide. The medical examiner determined that the little girl had been vaginally and anally assaulted. Professional forensic investigation and crime scene analysis concluded that this death was more consistent with homicide than suicide. The father had apparently staged the crime scene to make it appear that his daughter had committed suicide.7
In some cases, the offender may actually attempt to mislead the authorities by staging the crime scene to make it appear to be something other than a sex crime. For instance, I remember a case where the police were requested to respond to a "possible suicide." When they arrived, EMS personnel were attempting to revive a partially clothed female. The EMS personnel advised the officers that when they arrived they observed the unconscious female with a ligature around her neck. Her body was partially suspended by this ligature, which was affixed to some molding. However, upon closer examination of the death scene, the officers noticed signs of a struggle. It was determined that she had been raped and strangled to death by a worker in her building. 8
Making The Death Appear to be a Sex-Related
Police Department had responded to a 911 call from a frantic male stating that his wife had been stabbed and he needed help. Police arrived and met a male with blood on his clothes and hands. He stated he had fought off the attacker and had been stabbed by the assailant who had a knife. He led them to the basement of his home where they discovered a woman's body. The woman, whom the man identified as the man's wife was found lying on her back. Her pants had been ripped open and her panties had been pulled down to reveal her pubic area. Her sanitary napkin was pulled away. Crime scene officers retrieved an unused condom from between her legs. The husband reported that he had interrupted a burglary in his home by an assailant armed with a knife. Although initially the case appeared to be a burglary and sex-related homicide it was in fact a "staged crime scene" to cover up a domestic violence murder. The husband had killed his during a domestic assault and had cut himself as he stabbed her. He arranged the items in the house to make it appear that the house had been ransacked and then made the 9-1-1 call. 9
Using Arson to Destroy Evidence or Make it appear to be Accidental
A paroled rapist, who had eluded arrest by washing his victim's private parts with lotion and ketchup to remove any DNA, confronted a woman in her bed while she was asleep. The rapist followed a distinctive M.O and would always tell his victims not to "look" at him as he sexually assaulted them. This victim not only looked at him but she had attempted to fight him. During the struggle, the offender strangled her, stabbed her in the throat and then covered he head with a plastic bag to kill her and prevent her from identifying him. The offender then took paint thinner and doused it over his victim's body and the bed. He then went to the other locations in the residence where he had engaged in sexual assault and poured the flammable liquid throughout the house to destroy any evidence. 10
The "BTK" Killer
Serial killer Dennis Rader, who called himself "BTK," was certainly careful not to leave any fingerprint evidence in his communications. Rader sent eleven communications to the authorities between March 17, 2004 and February 2005. BTK would taunt the detectives with a series of letters and rambling poems as well as drawings, which simulated the victims in a bound fashion. His communications revealed a sadistic arrogance with a total lack of lack of remorse or shame as he vividly described his sadistic cruelty. He bragged about stalking his victims, whom he would torture and toy with before strangling them to death. On some occasions he would photograph their nude and bound bodies. There wasn't a single fingerprint or partial print recovered by the authorities. The BTK Task Force arrested Rader on February 25, 2005.
He waived his rights and made full confessions to the series of murders including two additional murders, which had not been originally linked to BTK.
Assistant Director Larry Thomas of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation asked Rader how he was able to avoid leaving any of his fingerprints. Dennis Rader proudly explained how he would wear two pairs of gloves just in case there was some new technology that could be used to identify glove prints. He also handled the communication by holding only the corner of the page while he wore the gloves. He told Larry Thomas that if he handled the paper too often, even though he was wearing gloves, he would cut-off the ends of the paper and discard the pieces at different locations. He also told authorities that he had learned about physical and trace evidence while he was in college. He also stated that he would watch T.V documentaries about his case and listen to what the forensic experts would reveal about any evidence that might be found. 11
Maury Travis - "The Bi-State Strangler"
In St. Louis, Missouri, a serial killer named Maury Travis was captured after sending a letter to a reporter directing him to the location of his "seventeenth" victim. The offender had downloaded a map from Expedia.com, which was traced back to his computer. The homicide detectives never got the opportunity to interview Maury Travis. Travis had invoked Miranda after the FBI agents advised him of his Constitutional Rights. Travis then committed suicide in jail before authorities could learn more about him and his activities. However, it was estimated that he was responsible for approximately 20 homicides of Black, female prostitutes and drug users in Missouri and Illinois.
Special Agent James Walker, Illinois State Police and Homicide Detective Roy Douglas were the primary investigators on this case. During the course of their investigation they located and seized numerous items from the suspect's home. They seized his computer, ligatures, ropes and belts spattered with what appeared to be blood, women's underwear and wigs and videotapes. Investigators believed that Travis held several of his victim's captive in the basement of his home before killing them. The forensic examination of the computer hard drive revealed further evidence inculpating Travis in this series of murders. Homicide detectives also located videotape secreted behind a wall in the basement. One tape dubbed, "The Wedding Tape" provided the most compelling evidence. Travis had recorded his sexual assaults and tortures on the VHS tape using the wedding footage as a cover.
Although, Travis didn't confess to the murders Travis made some interesting Res gestae comments during the day he was with the investigators such as, "I got fucked by the computer," "I'm toast," and "What do I tell my mother?" Travis also told Detective Douglas, "You guys are going to bury me or lock me up forever, aren't you." He was informed that it was a possibility.
Roy Douglas also discovered some videotape from A&E programming, which Travis had recorded concerning homicide investigation. Roy Douglas certainly found this to be interesting considering that Travis left little or no evidence at the disposal sites and that the bodies had been placed in other jurisdictions miles away from his home and residence. Travis has used the information from A&E Forensic Files to thwart the police investigation. 12
It is not unreasonable to assume that someone might attempt to "Stage a Crime Scene" based on something they saw on one of the forensic shows. Furthermore, it is logical to presume that an offender who has viewed these various forensic programs will take precautions not to leave any trace evidence on the body or at the scene, which may identify him or link him to the crime. In some instances this is exactly what occurred.
1 Geberth, Vernon J. Practical Homicide Investigation: Tactics, Procedures, and Forensic Techniques 4th Edition. Boca Raton Florida: CRC Press, LLC, Taylor & Francis Group, 2006, pp. 22-23.
2 Ibid. p. 22
3 Law and Order Program. Introductory Statement narrated by Steven Zirnkilton
4 Ramsland, Katherine. The C.S.I. Effect. New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 2006, p. 276.
5 Ramsland, Katherine. The C.S.I. Effect. New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 2006, p. xiv
6 Ibid. p. 23.
7 Author's Files
8 Author's Files
9 Author's Files
10 Author's Files
11 Personal Interview Assistant Director Larry Thomas, KBI December 26, 2006.
12 Personal Interview Retired Detective Roy Douglas, St. Louis Homicide December 27, 2006.
© 2007. Materials herein are excerpted from Vernon Geberth's Practical Homicide Investigation: Tactics, Procedures, and Forensic Techniques. Fourth Edition. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press, LLC Francis & Taylor, 2006.
This article appeared in PI Magazine: Journal of Professional Investigators Vol. 20 Number 2, April 2007