10 Most Common Errors in Death Investigations: Part 2


©2007 Vernon J Geberth,
P.H.I. Investigative Consultants Inc.
Reprint: Law and Order, Vol. 56, No. 1, January, 2008

Article Expanded for Research

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Death investigation is a complicated process, which involves a number of different members of the police department as well as various other forensic disciplines working together towards the goal of solving the case. There are any numbers of things that can and will go wrong due to the nature of sudden and violent death. Furthermore, due to the various responsibilities of these individuals, who range from uniform officers to detectives to medical examiners to forensic experts to prosecutors and others in the process there may very well be miscommunications, which result in serious errors that effect the outcome of the case.


It all begins at the crime scene and this is where most of the errors occur.


The First Four most common errors were covered in the November issue of Law and Order.

The following six are listed herein.


5.  Failure to Take Sufficient Photographs


Crime scene photographs are permanent and comprehensive pieces of evidence, which may be presented in a court of law to prove or disprove a fact in question. During the preliminary stage of homicide investigation it is impossible to determine all of the things, which may become relevant or important later on. Therefore, it is imperative that photos are taken of the entire area and location where the crime took place, including any sites contiguous with the original crime.


Remember, you only get one shot at the homicide crime scene, so obtain as much information and documentation as possible.


Many times sufficient photographs were either not taken because the case was NOT handled as a homicide investigation or because it was assumed to be a suicide or natural.  In any event you can never recreate the original crime scene not go back to obtain these important photos.


The old adage, “One picture is worth a thousand words,” is certainly appropriate when considering the value of crime scene photography.  Likewise, you can never take too many quality photographs.  The death may turn out to be a homicide and all you have are some initial photos taken at the scene by the first responders. 


6.  Failure to Manage the Crime Scene Process


The investigator should take charge of the crimes scene and observe the CSU process and recovery of evidence.  Failure to maintain “chain of custody” and proper documentation of evidence is the responsibility of the assigned detective.  Investigators and personnel should not use the facilities within the crimes scene.  If you have to use the rest room, exit the scene and go elsewhere.  Do not bring food or drink into the scene.  Do not drink the resident’s water.


There may be a failure to make a thorough search and collect minute or perishable evidence from the victim's body at the scene.    These materials must be documented and collected prior to transport or they may be lost forever.



In some jurisdictions coroners/ME’s prohibit items to be collected before the victim’s body is transported to the morgue.  This can be a problem.


There may be a failure to maintain custody of the crime scene and of victim’s body for the appropriate time before release.  Too often out of respect for the victim and an attempt to not inconvenience the owner of the crime scene we are in a hurry to release the body or the crime scene.


Many CSI’s place “booties” on their shoes to protect the scene reference trace evidence. This is good, but remember, if you have to exit the scene to go to your car, remove the booties and replace them with a fresh unused pair.  If you don’t, the booties are useless.


Everyone should wear gloves at a crime scene, but for what purpose are they being worn?

If it is for the purpose of “Universal Precautions” (protecting one’s self), the carrying a pair or several pair in you pocket and using them is acceptable.


If it for the purpose of preventing contamination, (Locard’s Principle), then a different method should be used.  Trace and DNA can contaminate keeping gloves in a pocket from the CSI’s hands when placing them in his pocket.  Individually packaged gloves should be used. 


Don’t just look at items, look and see the items.  The expressions “hiding in plain sight” and “the purloined letter” are examples.  Look up, not just down and around.  Look for the item that does not belong, the item that belongs and is out of place, and the item that should be there and is not.


7.  Failure to Evaluate Victimology


Conducting a death investigation without doing victimology is like attempting to navigate unknown territory without a GPS.  Failure to evaluate the victimology precludes you from developing and ascertaining motives, suspects and risk factors.   Risk factors are generally regarded as high, moderate, or low and are based on the lifestyle, neighborhood, occupation, or any specific circumstance that may occur in a person’s life.


Victimology is the collection and assessment of all significant information as it relates to the victim and his or her lifestyle.  Personality, employment, education, friends, habits, hobbies, marital status, relationships, dating history, sexuality, reputation, criminal record, history of alcohol or drugs, physical condition and neighborhood of residence are all pieces of the mosaic

that comprise victimology.   The bottom line is “Who was the victim and what was going on in his or her life at the time of the event.”  The best sources of information will be friends, family, associates and neighbors and that will be the initial focus of the investigation as you attempt to identify these sources of information.


Victimology assessment begins at the crime scene as the detective observes and records information about the victim and the circumstances surrounding the event.  Personal records, which include telephone and e-mail address books, telephone answering machines, cell phones, cell phone contact lists, PDA’s, diaries, letters and correspondence, are generally available in the residence or home of the victim.  If the victim had a computer, further information from the hard-drive will reveal additional files, e-mails, website selections phone records and calendars


Ascertaining the victimology is the key to any successful death investigation.  I have often said that, “The homicide cop learns more about the victim then the victim knew about him or herself.”  In order to conduct a professional inquiry and or provide a comprehensive investigative analysis a thorough victimology is paramount to the investigation.


8.       Failure to Conduct an Efficient Canvass

A failure to properly coordinate and conduct an effective canvass by assuring that every possible witness in a neighborhood, business is located, identified and questioned regarding the crime.  
A canvass is a door-to-door, roadblock inquiry or brief interview with persons on the street by which detectives attempt to gain information about a specific incident. It is an important investigative tool and a vital part of the preliminary investigation at the homicide crime scene.
            Failure to complete a neighborhood canvass that extends for at least two-blocks
Failing to obtain complete canvass information on all possible contacts, who work, live and/or reside in the area of canvass
            Failure to use Canvass Control Sheets to assure that everyone is contacted

            Failure to continue follow-up visits to get all possible witness information during the area canvass

            Failure to provide investigative information to the canvassers

Potential witnesses are sometimes overlooked because only one sweep was made during the canvass at a time when some potential witnesses are gone.


The assigned detective or member of the team conducting the homicide investigation should conduct formal interviews with anyone located by the canvassers. Likewise, the detective supervisor should be kept up to date with any information uncovered by the canvassers. In this way both the supervisor and the team will be aware of all developments in the case and be better able to put this information into proper perspective.  The correctly done canvass is an invaluable investigative technique that can provide, An actual eyewitness to the crime, Information about the circumstances of the crime, An approximate time of occurrence and/or estimate of time of death, Information about the deceased - identity, habits, friends, etc. and possible motive.


9.  Failure to Work Together as a Team


The chief investigator and/or supervisor are faced with a multitude of duties, which include various personnel. Therefore, teamwork is required for a successful homicide investigation, and it is they who must set the tone for this teamwork approach as they coordinate:


The patrol service or uniform division

The detective division and other homicide detectives

The medical examiner or coroner

The crime scene technicians or fingerprint experts

The District Attorney

Medical and ambulance personnel

Other agencies such as the FBI if the homicide involves a federal employee


Many times during a major case investigation there is a failure to disseminate information to those who are working the case.   Too often egos and turf battles occur, which derail or compromise the investigationLack of communication between these officers working the case and any agency or jurisdiction with a vested interest can hurt the investigation.

Professionals are supposed to work as a team. It is the responsibility of the chief investigator to assure that all of the personnel involved in the investigation are continually briefed.


Provide for the dissemination of information to all units involved in the homicide investigation. Ideally, all investigators should be aware of all aspects of the case. It is up to the detective supervisor to coordinate and disseminate this information to the “troops.” Properly informed officers can better perform their own assigned functions and contribute more intelligently to the overall effort.


10.  Command Interference or Inappropriate Action


One of the most frustrating errors in professional death investigation occurs when the too many bosses with “Headquarter type mentality” arrive at the scene with their own agenda, which has nothing to do with the death investigation.  Their interests are usually politically driven and are counterproductive to the inquiry.  


Many times, especially if the case is sensational or noteworthy, high-ranking officials such as the mayor, the chief of police, fire chiefs, judges, and even the chief prosecutor may appear on the scene. They are usually there to “assist” in operations, but their “assistance” and overall contribution to scene preservation is usually less than helpful. It is important to note that rank does not preclude scene contamination.


Examples of inappropriate actions are making public statements about the case before all the facts are known, insisting on providing information to the press in a timely fashion.  This can be disastrous when prematurely releasing information on the cause of death before autopsy.


In many situations, because they are at the scene they feel the need to direct the investigation.  Consequently superior officers will have investigators running in different directions, which have nothing to do with the primary investigative mission. 


The result is a loss of a cohesive and central command, miscommunications and no one stepping up willing to make decisions and take control for fear of alienating one of the bosses.




The answer to what can we do to prevent these errors is constant, training, training and more training with refresher training courses for those already in service.  Many of these errors are cyclical in nature seemingly re-occur every time we have newly assigned officers and detectives. It also reflects the level of training and experience of the agency involved.  I recommend the book Practical Homicide Investigation®, which is the benchmark and “Best Practice” model. This text continues to be the “Bible of Homicide” and the recognized protocol for professional death investigation and provides the most practical and conventional information available to police officers and detectives responsible for conducting intelligent death in­vestigations.



Vernon J. Geberth, M.S./, M.P.S. is the author of “Practical Homicide Investigation: Tactics, Procedures and Forensic techniques” Fourth Edition, CRC Press, LLC.

He retired from the NYPD Homicide with the rank of Lieutenant Commander and has dual Master’s degrees.  These copyrighted materials have been excerpted with Geberth’s permission.


Please see the list of contributing law enforcement professionals who consulted with the author in formulating the 10 Most Common Errors in Death Investigation in Part 1 of this work.



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