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I met Vernon Geberth, a retired NYC homicide detective, a few years ago. He’s a prominent forensic consultant and the recognized clearinghouse for all things related to death investigations. I see him annually at a forensics conference and, this year, he told me that his 5th edition of Practical Homicide Investigation: Tactics, Procedures and Forensic Techniques would soon be published.

The 1st edition had become a veritable bible for investigators, so I could just imagine what a 5th edition offered. I couldn’t wait to see it.

Geberth is a former lieutenant commander of the New York City Police Department and commanding officer of the Bronx Homicide Task Force. The recipient of over sixty awards for bravery and exceptional work during his decades of service, he has investigated, supervised, assessed, researched and consulted on thousands of homicides, including high-profile (e.g., BTK, Gordon Hess, David Parker Ray).      


When he started, Geberth identified the sharpest detectives and shadowed them. On days off, he went to the library to look up everything he could find on the subject of homicide. Then he began writing for Law and Order Magazine. His goal was to standardize and substantially improve how homicide investigations were performed. This included an emphasis on teamwork and outside expertise.

“I would take crime scene pictures home and analyze them,” he once told me. “I used to keep a rolodex of the experts that I’d met in different locations and I’d call them up for advice. I went down to the Museum of Natural History and interviewed a forensic anthropologist and an entomologist. So I was putting together these resources, but I was also making friends.”



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Geberth became the first law enforcement professional to devise guidelines and protocols for efficient death inquiries. Currently he runs P.H.I. Investigative Consultants  Inc., which provides state-of-the-art instruction and consultation to police officers. 

The 1st edition of Practical Homicide Investigation offered 800 pages that covered everything from the crime scene to proper evidence handling and documentation, to different types of homicides and suicides. The 5th edition runs more than 1200 pages, with full-color photos. It even includes substantial portions from Geberth’s book on autoerotic accidental deaths.

(By the way, if you’re a layperson, don’t eat before opening this book!)

PHI’s five primary components, according to Geberth, are teamwork, documentation, preservation of evidence, being flexible, and using common sense. At a crime scene, investigators should observe, describe, record anything they find, and use proper procedures to collect the evidence. This book goes over every known scenario: inside, outside, typical, atypical, straightforward, ambiguous, staged … you name it. The Table of Contents alone runs 25 pages!  

Geberth urges investigators to always remember that they get just one chance to do it right. He works tirelessly to ensure that investigators get the proper tools. (And a side note to my writing colleagues: this is a great resource for methods, motives, and case details.)

Besides over 900 full-color photos and illustrations (with 250 new ones), among the 5th edition’s valuable features are:

*A revised "Homicide Investigator’s Checklist"

*The latest DNA technology

*A revised and extended chapter on equivocal death investigations

*Fully updated chapters on death notifications, sex-related homicide, management for police administrators, suicide investigation, and narcotics-related and homosexually based homicides

In the preface to this edition, Geberth writes: “Homicide investigation is a profound duty with awesome responsibilities.” He urges investigators today to be attuned to the impact that death has on surviving relatives and on society itself. Professionalism is key, which means education (including self-education), integrity, and concern for the truth.

In short, this book is impressive. (I recommend lifting weights to prepare yourself to pick it up.) Geberth leaves no stone unturned. I pride myself on my collection of unusual suicide cases, but he includes some in this book that riveted me. In fact, I’m going to end this review now so I can go read some more.