Professional Homicide Investigation

By Vernon J. Geberth, M.S., M.P.S.

Author of Practical Homicide Investigation: Tactics, Procedures, and Forensic Techniques. Fourth Edition. CRC Press, 2006

PI Magazine: Journal of Professional Investigators
Vol. 19 Number 3, May - June 2006

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The world of homicide investigation is permeated with human tragedies, which involve a variety of sudden and violent death scenarios. Many of these events, which are seemingly beyond the comprehension of the average person, reveal motivations and patterns of repetition, which are recognized by experienced professional investigators. The investigator becomes keenly aware of the reality of death and the impact it has on both society and the surviving family. This is why it is important that investigators develop and maintain an understanding of the dynamics and principles of professional homicide investigation

"The homicide crime scene is, without a doubt, the most important crime scene a police officer or investigator will be called upon to respond to. Because of the nature of the crime (death by violence or unnatural causes), the answer to "What has occurred?" can only be determined after a careful and intelligent examination of the crime scene and after the professional and medical evaluation of the various bits and pieces of evidence gathered by the criminal investigator. These bits and pieces may be in the form of trace evidence found at the scene, statements taken from suspects, direct eyewitness accounts, or autopsy results." (1)

Homicide investigation is a highly professional and specialized undertaking, which requires years of practical experience coupled with a process of continual education and training.

The Crime Scene

The investigation of homicide usually starts at the point where the body is originally found. This location is referred to as the primary crime scene. The term primary crime scene characterizes the significance of this location and the immediate concern of responding police officials to this forensically critical area in death investigations.

The term primary crime scene is sometimes mistakenly used to describe where the original event may have occurred based on the dictionary definition of primary as having occurred first in the development and/or time of an event. For instance, if the person wasn't killed at the location where the body was found the location might be erroneously referred to as the secondary crime scene. Such an analytical interpretation might very well be appropriate for some speculative concept in the clinical sense.

However, a more practical strategy is to focus your investigative resources on the location where the body was found. This is where most of the evidence will be retrieved.

In "Practical Homicide Investigation," we understand that there may be two or more crime scenes in addition to the location where the body is found. These additional crime scenes may include: Technically speaking, the homicide crime scene begins at the point where the suspect changed intent into action. It continues through the escape route and includes any location where physical or trace evidence may be located. However, according to Practical Homicide Investigation® the primary crime scene is always the location where the body is discovered.

Practically speaking, at this stage of the investigation it is next to impossible to know the exact boundaries of the scene or where the original event occurred.

The Mission

The mission of any professional investigator is to "Seek the Truth." In fact, professionals charged with the responsibility of conducting death investigations should never have a vested interest in the ultimate outcome except the truth. We accomplish this by conducting professional investigations without prejudice, which result in the identification and apprehension of the killer as well as the courtroom presentations by both the prosecutor and the defense attorney whose job it is to present to the jurors the facts of the case and let the fact finders make a determination of guilt or innocence.

Remember: A professional homicide investigator is a "Truth Seeker." He is not opinionated, tainted with prejudice or prone to prejudgment. The object is to allow the evidence and facts, as they are uncovered, to lead you to the most logical suspect.

The Reality

Professional homicide investigators first concentrate on the mechanical aspects of the death, i.e. motives and methods, wound structures, crime scene reconstruction, the cause, manner and time of death as well as other factors that provide clues to the dynamics of the event.

This can be accomplished through crime scene reconstruction, bloodstain pattern analysis, the recovery of trace and microscopic evidence, as well as criminal investigative analysis of an event. Professional homicide investigation is a teamwork venture, which requires professionals to cooperatively work together towards a common goal. In order to function effectively, it is imperative that investigators develop a strong ego defense mechanism, which provides an isolation of affect by means of intellectualization. This allows the investigator to focus and concentrate on the dynamics of the event and not become emotionally involved in the event.

There is a need for patience and flexibility in homicide investigation. A professional practitioner cannot have a "lock-and-load" mentality. He must have a flexible personality that is open to new suggestions, ideas and concepts that arise in these fluid types of investigations. The detective looks for consistencies as well as inconsistencies and must be prepared to change the focus of the investigation as new information is developed.

There is a profound duty and awesome responsibility in dealing with the surviving family in the murder investigation process. It is the homicide detective who encounters the reality of sudden and violent death. The professional investigator must deal with the emotions and dynamics of the surviving family, guiding the family through a complicated and confusing criminal justice system that is seemingly devoid of human compassion.

"Death investigation is a heavy responsibility, and as such, no person, system, nor circumstance should deter you from the truth and your own personal commitment to see that justice is done. Not only for the deceased, but for the surviving family as well." (2)

That is why my personal philosophy as a murder cop is, "Remember: We work for God."

(1) Geberth, V.J. Practical Homicide Investigation: Tactics, Procedures, and Forensic Techniques. Fourth Edition. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press, LLC Francis & Taylor p. 1, 2006.
(2) Ibid. Page 945.

Copyright 2006. 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. 19 Number 3 May - June 2006