More work goes into a homicide investigation than what the media alludes to. Television shows like Law and Order, and CSI show an over glorified series of basic investigations as well as highly dramatic interrogation in which each homicide case is solved within a one-hour episode. In reality, a homicide investigation is 20 times more complex than what is aired on prime time television. Cases can take years to solve, and a large number remain open indefinitely.
From start to finish, a homicide investigation begins when the first responder arrives on the scene, and ends when the perpetrator is placed behind bars. The goals of an investigation are to see if the death of a person was caused by a criminal act of another individual, as well as determining the person responsible for causing the death. The earlier an investigator arrives on the scene of the crime, the more likely the case is to be solved. “Medically, death is determined by the cessation of three vital functions: heartbeat, respiration and brain activity. (Hess and Orthmann ) Normally, the first sign of death is when the person has stopped breathing. If a person dies shortly before, or in the presence of an officer, the officer should always try to revive the victim. The person’s pulse should be checked for after breathing has ceased since certain drug over doses cause extremely shallow breathing, and can give the allusion that a person is deceased. The two most important pieces of physical evidence in a homicide investigation are the murder weapon and the victim’s body.
Videotaping, photographing, and sketching the crime scene, as well as taking notes are crucial actions in an investigation as well. The evidence that is found must be properly handled and packaged. Physical evidence can be found in an abundance of different places, such as: on the victim, on the suspect, or at the scene of the crime. If the victim is still living, and brought to the hospital, the hospital then becomes a separate crime scene. Discovering the body of the victim, as well as identifying it can help the police tremendously. In some cases, the body of the victim is not found.
The perpetrator could have performed any number of disposal techniques such as, dissolving the body in a vat of acid, cutting up the body, burying the body, or burning the body. In cases where the body is buried under ground, the police can use a few different technologies in order to locate it. Magnetometers, metal detectors, ground-penetrating radar, and infrared thermography are the newest technological advances in the police arsenal. Also, cadaver dogs are highly useful since they are specially trained to locate a body by identifying the scent of decomposing human flesh. Once the body has been located, police must identify it.
Multiple identification of the deceased victim made by family, friends, or co-workers is ideal since human error is much more likely when under stress. If the victim is disfigured beyond recognition, police examine fingerprints or DNA, which are the two most reliable forms of identification. Fingerprints do not always have available matches in the IAFIS, which is a “national fingerprint and criminal history system that responds to requests 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to help our local, state, and federal partners—and our own investigators—solve and prevent crime and catch criminals and terrorists. (FBI. gov) DNA analysis allows investigators to rule out that the victim is not a specific person in the event that fingerprints cannot be matched. Investigators must estimate the time of death, or TOD, of a victim in order to acquire an accurate time frame in which the homicide occurred. This estimation is important since it could prove that the suspect could have been at the scene during the estimated time frame, as well as to the victim’s family for Social Security, and insurance purposes.
The post mortem interval (PMI) is the time between when the victim’s death, and when the corpse was discovered. “Understanding the processes that occur in a body during the PMI can help investigators estimate a time of death. ” There are many methods in which forensic scientists can estimate the TOD, but none of them are fool proof.
As a result, pathologist can usually find a good estimation of the victims TOD within a few hours of the actual event. When a person first dies, their body stays limp until Rigor Mortis sets in nywhere from ten minutes to several hours afterwards, depending on environmental conditions. Rigor Mortis (Latin for “stiffness of death”) causes the joints of the body to stiffen as a result of partial contraction in skeletal muscles. The smaller muscles, like those found in the face, are usually affected first. Maximum rigor is normally reached within 12 to 24 hours, and can keep the body rigid for around three days until the muscles begin to decompose. In some cases, usually when the victim is holding something at the TOD, the victim’s hand will tightly close around the object.
This is called a cadaveric spasm, and while associated with rigor mortis, the condition is only found in specific muscle groups instead of the entire body. A cadaveric spasm can sometimes help investigators determine if the death was a result of a suicide or a homicide. If a victim is found with a gun in his hand, and the gunshot wound was not inflicted from his own weapon, it is more likely he was trying to defend himself against an armed assailant. Knowing if a person is alive or dead is a very important part of the first responding officer’s job.
If the victim is pronounced dead, investigators must find the murder weapon in order to have solid proof that they were killed by someone else. If a body is discovered after a homicide has been committed, investigators must identify it, and determine the time of death, which can be estimated by looking at a number of signs. With all of this work for investigators to do, how can one homicide case be completely solved within a one hour time slot on television?
Courtney from Study Moose
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