A Guide to Death Scene Investigation: Evaluating the Scene

Once the death investigators have arrived at the scene, confirmed the death and performed initial processing, they must evaluate the scene. They should follow these steps:

Photograph Scene

Principle: The photographic documentation of the scene creates a permanent historical record of the scene. Photographs provide detailed corroborating evidence that constructs a system of redundancy should questions arise concerning the report, witness statements or position of evidence at the scene.

Authorization: Medical Examiner/Coroner Official Office Policy Manual; State or Federal Statutory Authority.

Policy: The investigator shall obtain detailed photographic documentation of the scene that provides both instant and permanent high-quality images. It is important to document in writing a description of each photo so that is can be used for future reference.

Procedure: Upon arrival at the scene, and prior to moving the body or evidence, the investigator should:

  1. Remove all nonessential personnel from the scene.
  2. Obtain an overall orientation photograph of the scene to spatially locate the specific scene to the surrounding area.
  3. Photograph specific areas of the scene to provide more detailed views of specific areas within the larger scene.
  4. Photograph the scene from different angles to provide various perspectives that may uncover additional evidence.
  5. Obtain some photographs with scales to document specific evidence.
  6. Obtain photographs even if the body or other evidence has been moved.

Note: If evidence has been moved prior to photography, it should be noted in the report, but the body or other evidence should not be reintroduced into the scene in order to take photographs.

Summary: Photography allows for the best permanent documentation of the death scene. It is essential that accurate scene photographs are available for other investigators, agencies and authorities to recreate the scene. Photographs are a permanent record of the terminal event and retain evidentiary value and authenticity. It is essential that the investigator obtain accurate photographs before releasing the scene.

Develop Descriptive Documentation of the Scene

Principle: Written documentation of the scene provides a permanent record that may be used to correlate with and enhance photographic documentation, refresh recollections and record observations.

Authorization: Medical Examiner/Coroner Official Office Policy Manual; State or Federal Statutory Authority.

Policy: Investigators shall provide written scene documentation.

Procedure: After photographic documentation of the scene and prior to removal of the body or other evidence, the investigator should:

  1. Diagram/describe in writing items of evidence and their relationship to the body with necessary measurements.
  2. Describe and document, with necessary measurements, blood and body fluid evidence including volume, patterns, spatters and other characteristics.
  3. Describe scene environments including odors, lights, temperatures and other fragile evidence.

Note: If scene conditions have changed or evidence has been moved prior to written documentation, it should be noted in the report.

Summary: Written scene documentation is essential to correlate with photographic evidence and to re-create the scene for police, forensic(s), and judicial and civil agencies with a legitimate interest.

Establish Probable Location of Injury or Illness

Principle: The location where the decedent is found may not be the actual location where the injury/illness that contributed to the death occurred. It is imperative that the investigator attempt to determine the locations of any and all injury(ies)/illness(es) that may have contributed to the death. Physical evidence at any and all locations may be pertinent in establishing the cause, manner and circumstances of death.

Authorization: Medical Examiner/Coroner Official Office Policy Manual; State or Federal Statutory Authority.

Policy: The investigator shall obtain detailed information regarding any and all probable locations associated with the individual's death.

Procedure: The investigator should:

  1. Document location where death was confirmed.
  2. Determine the location from which the decedent was transported and how the body was transported to the scene.
  3. Identify and record discrepancies between the body and the scene (e.g., rigor mortis, livor mortis and body temperature).
  4. Check body, clothing and scene for consistency/inconsistency of trace evidence and indicate location where artifacts are found.
  5. Check for drag marks (on body and ground).
  6. Establish post-injury activity.
  7. Obtain dispatch (e.g., police, ambulance) record(s).
  8. Interview family members and associates as needed.

Summary: Due to post-injury survival, advances in emergency medical services, multiple modes of transportation, the availability of specialized care, or criminal activity, a body may be moved from the actual location of illness/injury to a remote site. It is imperative that the investigator attempt to determine any and all locations where the decedent has previously been and the mode of transport from these sites.

Collect, Inventory and Safeguard Property and Evidence

Principle: The decedent's valuables/property must be safeguarded to ensure proper processing and eventual return to next of kin. Evidence on or near the body must be safeguarded to ensure its availability for further evaluation.

Authorization: Medical Examiner/Coroner Official Office Policy Manual; State or Federal Statutory Authority.

Policy: The investigator shall ensure that all property and evidence is collected, inventoried, safeguarded and released as required by law.

Procedure: After personal property and evidence have been identified at the scene, the investigator (with a witness) should:

  1. Inventory, collect and safeguard illicit drugs and paraphernalia at scene and office.
  2. Inventory, collect and safeguard prescription medication at scene and office.
  3. Inventory, collect and safeguard over-the-counter medications at scene and office.
  4. Inventory, collect and safeguard money at scene and office.
  5. Inventory, collect and safeguard personal valuables/property at scene and office.

Summary: Personal property and evidence are important items at a death investigation. Evidence must be safeguarded to ensure its availability if needed for future evaluation and litigation. Personal property must be safeguarded to ensure its eventual distribution to appropriate agencies or individuals and to reduce the likelihood that the investigator will be accused of stealing property.

Interview Witness(es) at the Scene

Principle: The documented comments of witnesses at the scene allow the investigator to obtain primary source data regarding discovery of the body, witness corroboration and terminal history. The documented interview provides essential information for the investigative process.

Authorization: Medical Examiner/Coroner Official Office Policy Manual; State or Federal Statutory Authority.

Policy: The investigator's report shall include the source of information, including specific statements and information provided by the witness.

Procedure: Upon arriving at the scene, the investigator should:

  1. Collect all available identifying data on witness(es) (e.g., full name, address, date of birth, contact information).
  2. Establish the witness's relationship/association to the deceased.
  3. Establish the basis of the witness's knowledge (how does the witness have knowledge of the death?).
  4. Obtain information from each witness individually or as appropriate.
  5. Note discrepancies from the scene briefing (challenge, explain, verify statements).
  6. Record and retain statements as needed.

Summary: The final report must document the witness's identity and must include a summary of the witness's statements, corroboration with other witnesses and the circumstances of discovery of the death. This documentation must exist as a permanent record to establish a chain of events.

Date Created: June 15, 2009