Courthouse Dogs Provide Comfort for Victims

Today my husband was at the Arapahoe Courthouse. He passed by the courtroom where the James Holmes trial is taking place, and in the hallway were two courthouse dogs, a black lab and a Schnauzer. Several children and adults would occasionally hug or pet the dogs, who are specially trained to provide comfort to witnesses and others.

I first learned about courthouse dogs while writing the nonfiction book A Lawyer's Primer for Writers: From Crimes to Courtrooms. I was writing a section on players in the courtrooms when I stumbled upon an article about courthouse dogs (AKA therapy dogs). I had never heard of such dogs being used in the court system before, so I researched their history and learned how the concept began, which dogs are a good "fit" to work with victims of crimes, the work a trainer does with the dog and victim leading up to a trial, and much more. Below is the write-up from the book on courthouse dogs.

Courthouse Dogs: Canine Compassion at Court

(Excerpt from A Lawyer’s Primer for Writers: from Crimes to Courtrooms - All Rights Reserved)

"I center on their healing power within the justice system. There is so much hurt — the victims, families, even members of our office — from exposure to trauma and anxiety…within this environment, the dogs contribute to justice." – King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng

Did you know that as of the writing of this book, there are 60 courthouse dogs (also called facility dogs and advocate dogs) working in 23 jurisdictions throughout the US?

What Is A Courthouse Dog?

These are specially trained dogs that provide emotional support to people who have suffered physical, psychological or emotional trauma as a result of criminal conduct. For example, a courthouse dog might offer comfort to a sexually abused child while he/she undergoes forensic interviews and testifying in court. These dogs will also greet jurors; offer a soothing presence for vulnerable witnesses; provide a sense of normalcy during emotionally charged court hearings; even cuddle and play with troubled teenagers waiting for hearings.

Courthouse dogs truly become a member of the court as they often visit with court support staff, defense counsel, law enforcement officers and judges during the course of a work day.

Criminal justice professions — such as a deputy prosecutor, law enforcement officer, victim advocate, or forensic interviewer — handle courthouse dogs.

Dogs’ Beneficial Effects on People

According to an article in WebMD, people can derive the following benefits from dogs:

  • Reduced blood pressure and/or heart rate.
  • Increased levels of a relaxation hormone.
  • Decreased levels of stress hormones.
  • A sense of belonging.
  • A greater control of one’s life.

Let’s look at the story of a courthouse dog named Rosie.

Rosie, the First Courthouse Dog in New York State

In 2011, Rosie, an 11-year-old Golden Retriever, had her first day on the job as a courthouse dog. Before a court proceeding began, Rosie met Jessica, a 15-year-old girl who would be testifying in court about being raped.

Rosie and Jessica took the stand before the trial began so the jury wouldn’t see Rosie and possibly be influenced by her presence one way or the other. Throughout her testimony, Jessica petted Rosie — at one point, Jessica removed her shoe and buried her toes in Rosie’s fur. When asked by the prosecutor to point out the man who raped her, Jessica froze. Rosie, sensing Jessica’s distress, laid her head in the girl’s lap to comfort her. After a few moments, Jessica was able to point to the man.

Jessica and Rosie had been visiting each other for three months in preparation for Jessica’s trial date. During that time, the girl and dog had become acquainted by playing together, and Rosie had also learned how to tolerate the tight space of a witness box. Her handler would have Rosie sit in front of a barrier that the handler gradually moved closer to the dog until it mimicked being in a box.

The training paid off. With Rosie’s help, Jessica remained calm during her testimony, and the jury found the defendant guilty.

How Rosie Became a Courthouse Dog

Rosie had started out being trained to be a service dog at Educated Canines Assisting with Disabilities (ECAD), but when it took her three months to learn how to turn on a light, she was taken out of the program. What’s interesting is that such “service dog drop-outs” often go into other programs, such as training to be an arson or courthouse dog, for which they might be better suited.

Soon after Rosie’s left the service-dog training program, she began visiting the Green Chimneys school in Brewster, New York, where she showed a talent for soothing children who were stressed.

For the next eight years, Rosie moved onto the speech-and-occupational-therapy rooms at Green Chimneys, where children were encouraged to talk to Rosie via 80 verbal commands the dog knew. Rosie also aided the children during their physical therapy by encouraging them to follow her over obstacles.

And then she went to the Courthouse Dogs Foundation, where she was trained to work with children during court proceedings.

Sadly, Rosie passed away in 2012, but her legacy lives on through her younger sister, Ivy, who is now an in-house therapy dog at a children’s facility.

-End of Excerpt-

All rights reserved by Colleen Collins. Any use of the content (including images owned by Colleen Collins) requires specific, written authority. Other images are licensed by Colleen Collins, who does not have the authority to distribute to others.

June 8-10: Free Book on Private Investigations for Writers!

This is an amazing book and I’m very happy that I got it. The authors cover so much ground about a PI’s life and work, I’d find it hard to get a more thorough overview.
— Allie R.

At my "sister" site Guns, Gams & Gumshoes, we're celebrating our 6-year blogiversary and giving away our nonfiction book for writers How to Write a Dick: A Guide for Writing Fictional Sleuths. All kinds of info for #crimefiction and #mystery writers, as well as anyone interested in the real world of private investigations.

Book Blurb
The private eye genre has come a long way, baby, with new subgenres — from teenage PIs to vampire gumshoes to geriatric sleuths — attracting new readers every year. Unfortunately, most writers are not aware of the state-of-the-art developments that shape today’s professional private investigator, which sometimes leave writers floundering with impossible and antiquated devices, characters and methods in stories. Which is why we wrote How to Write a Dick: A Guide for Writing Fictional Sleuths from a Couple of Real-Life Sleuths, whose material we culled from our combined decades as private investigators, and also from our teaching online classes and conducting workshops at writers’ conferences about writing private investigators. How to Write a Dick isn’t about how to write a novel, but what you need to know to write an authentic, compelling 21st-century sleuth character or story. 

To Get Your Free Book...

Click on the Amazon link on the right side of the page on June 8, 9 or 10.  

Homicide Investigation Basics

Welcome to the third class, "Homicide Investigation Basics," based on course material that my husband and I taught four years ago to Kiss of Death, the suspense chapter of Romance Writers of America. I have updated and added content for this post.

In this third class, we cover the basics of homicide investigations -- think of it as Homicide 101. We review the key tasks conducted by law enforcement, including an overview about estimating time of death and types of wounds. 

We do not provide any graphic images of crime scenes, although some might find parts of the written information, well, a bit grisly as we discuss things like what occurs in a body after death. Although far more unsavory detail can be found on the Internet, we wanted to advise our readers upfront.

Let's now kick off the class with...

When Police Are Called to a Homicide Scene

All Rights Reserved by Colleen Collins and Shaun Kaufman.

In general, when police respond to the scene of a homicide, they do the following:

  1. Assess the physical condition (without compromising evidence) of the deceased and insure that emergency medical treatment is on the way.

  2. Watch the scene carefully. Most homicides are unplanned crimes of passion and suspects don’t always have extra time to flee. The officer should look for getaway vehicles/persons hurrying from the area or behaving in a suspicious manner.

  3. Search for surviving victims/suspects.
  4. Protect the crime scene.
  5. If a suspect lives in the same residence or has property rights, a detective will obtain a search warrant before further searching the area.
  6. Obtain names and addresses of witnesses and other persons at the crime scene, license plates of nearby parked vehicles.
    Note: If the victim’s car is missing, its description and license number would be obtained and broadcast to other police agencies.
  7. Check neighboring homes for witnesses who heard or saw anything out of the ordinary.
    Note: The sooner information is obtained from witnesses, the better.  As time passes, especially in high-crime neighborhoods, they may become reluctant to talk.
  8. If there are many witnesses, the key witnesses will most likely be transported to the police station for further questioning (there are more police officers and homicide detectives there and more facilities to keep witnesses separate—separating witnesses is always advisable so their stories aren’t tainted by what they overhear others saying). Meanwhile, statements will continue to be taken from other witnesses at the scene.
  9. The detective in charge will do additional assessment of priorities: Should officers concentrate on an immediate search for a suspect?  Should officers at an airport, bus terminal, or train station be alerted to watch for a suspect? 
  10. Photograph/videotape crime scene.
  11. Detectives assigned to the case will make a quick determination of the victim and the scene to assess the motive for the killing.

Homicides Are Simple

US Army CID agents at crime scene (image is in public domain)

US Army CID agents at crime scene (image is in public domain)

One of our favorite research books is Criminal Investigation by Dr. John Macdonald and Lieutenant Tom Haney, former commander of the Homicide/Assault unit of the Denver Police Department. 

In Criminal Investigation, a seasoned homicide detective, Joe Russell, speaks about the simplicity of homicides:

Homicides are simple; don’t make them hard. It’s seldom an insurance fraud with a hired killer. There are few Mafia killings. They leave their mark, they throw the gun. They know it’s clean, it can’t be traced.  Drug killings will be hard to solve [because] you’re working with a criminal element. Most homicides are within the family, within friends. Keep it simple, look at the people the victim knows. It’s family or friends.

I get upset when I see detectives leave the crime scene and say, ‘I don’t know what happened.’ You’ve got to read the crime scene. You should stay there until you figure it out.

[For example] There was a body of a woman in the hallway by the stairs in an apartment house. People there said someone from upstairs or downstairs must have dumped the body there. She had not been dragged and her body was too heavy to have been carried upstairs or downstairs.  She must have been killed by someone in one of the two apartments on that floor. There was an old man in one apartment, and he would not have been able to carry the body. In the other apartment was a young man who was known for picking up girls. He was the one.

Time of Death

Just as private investigations are both an art and a science, so is predicting the time of death, which requires both technique and observation to make an estimate. The sooner after death a body is examined, the more accurate this estimate will be.

Time of death does more than tell when someone was killed. It can also predict how far the suspect might have traveled after the killing, or it can tell where the victim might have last been seen alive. Your fictional PI will always look at this sometimes inexact calculation. Factors used to estimate time of death include the following indicators.


When the heart stops beating, the blood stops flowing and is then pulled by gravity to the lowest parts of the body where it discolors the skin. This red/purple discoloration is called lividity, which is usually perceptible one-half to two hours after death and reaches its maximum by eight to twelve hours.

Note for writers: Within the first six to eight hours after death, this discoloration can shift along with the body being placed in a different position. But after that, the discoloration becomes fixed and further moving the body will not change its lividity.

Lividity usually has a cherry red color in carbon monoxide poisoning, cyanide poisoning and when the body is refrigerated/exposed to low temperatures.

If lividity shows in the upper surfaces of a victim’s body, the body has been moved. Proving movements after death can help disprove a suspect’s statements.

Rigor Mortis

Soon after death, the body begins to stiffen, which is called rigor mortis and is due to chemical reactions within the muscle cells.  Typically, this can be detected first in the small muscles of the face, neck and hands before progressing to the larger muscles.

Rigor mortis is an unreliable indicator of the time of death because so many factors affect its onset, duration and disappearance.  Usually it begins within two hours after death and becomes perceptible within four hours.  Generally, a body becomes fully rigid around twelve hours after death before the process begins to reverse itself, with rigidity loss beginning again with the smaller muscles before the larger ones.  This is referred to as the flaccid stage of rigor mortis.

Prolonged muscular activity right before death hastens the onset and disappearance, as well as electrocution and heat (from disease/climate). It then disappears when body decomposition begins.

When death occurs during great emotional tension, particular muscles (such as the hand holding a gun) or the entire body can be frozen in position at the moment of death.

Rigor mortis can tell a story about the crime. For example, if parts of an otherwise stiffened body are in an illogical position as they relate to the rest of the body (for example, a body lying on a sidewalk has a raised hand), then the body was most likely moved twelve to thirty-six hours after death. 

Body Temperature

One formula for estimating the time of death is:

Normal body temperature – rectal temperature / 5 = number of hours since death

Another calculation is that, under normal circumstances, a corpse loses body heat at a rate of approximately 1.5 degrees per hour.

Of course, such calculations have limitations as many things can affect body temperature: cocaine (other accelerant drugs), strangling, hanging, brain hemorrhage, exercise and fever all raise the body’s temperature.  Warm surroundings, clothing, bedding and extra body fat delay the rate of cooling.  Exposure to cold lowers the body’s temperature, both before and after death.  Also, environmental temperature may change, due to such things as nighttime and wind chill, thereby affecting the body’s temperature.

Ultimately, the corpse will lose or gain heat until it stabilizes with its environment.

Stomach Contents

The following descriptions of the digestive tract can provide clues about a decedent’s activities, psychological state, whereabouts and time frame prior to death:

  • Empty stomach=death probably occurred at least four hours after the last meal.
  • Small intestines empty=Death probably occurred at least twelve hours after the last meal.
  • Small meal=Gone from stomach within one or two hours.
  • Large meal=Gone usually after five hours.
  • Gastric contents may tell what the subject has eaten, which may provide a clue to where he/she ate.
  • Stress stops digestion.
  • Other factors affecting digestion: Drugs, alcohol, disease, type of food.

Vitreous potassium

Post death, the potassium level rises in the vitreous humor, which is the watery fluid in the eyeball between the retina and the lens.  There are tests that detect the time of death based on this potassium level.  Errors of up to 10 hours are possible when the test is done within 24 hours, with increasing rates after that.


The following shows the general stages of the corpse’s decay process:

  • One to five days after death: greenish discoloration of the skin of the lower abdomen, followed by in order of occurrence:
  • Purple, red, blue discoloration over the body
  • Bloated face, distended body
  • Blisters/vesicles appear on the skin (as body swells, it smells)
  • Bloodstained fluid from orifices.

Insect infestation

In warm to hot weather, it takes only a few seconds for the first flies (blow flies) to land on a dead body outside in a wooded area.  Other insects include ants and beetles.  Maggots hatch from fly eggs in 18-24 hours.  Entomologists studying the eggs, larvae, pupae and so forth may be able to determine time of death.

Footwear impressions left at a crime scene (photo in public domain, photo attributed to Zalman992 on wikipedia).

Footwear impressions left at a crime scene (photo in public domain, photo attributed to Zalman992 on wikipedia).

Types of Wounds

We’ll briefly discuss some general types of wounds: shootings, stabbings and blunt force.


At the scene of a shooting, a detective will look for:

  • The weapon (if can’t be found, detective will analyze the type of weapon and ammunition)
  • The location of the shooter, his distance from the victim, the direction of fire, his intentions/actions after the shooting. Many times certain marks on the skin can tell how close the weapon was to the victim when shot. Stippling and burn marks tell detectives that the shooter was proximate when the killing took place. 
  • Clues (gunshot wounds, anything struck by bullets heading to and after hitting victim, spent bullets and casings, bloodstains, blood spatter and splatter, gunshot residue, witness observations).


Knife wounds occur in close encounters and usually leave a trail of blood.  A cut or slash is longer than it is deep; a stab is deeper than it is long. A person who is dying as a result of exsanguination survives the killing wound much longer than one who is shot. Knife wounds reflect the condition of the blade. As a very general rule, cuts from a knife look smooth and straight whereas cuts resulting from blunt trauma are tattered and ragged.

Homicidal stab wounds are usually on the neck, left chest (as most people are right handed), back or abdomen. Defense wounds (on the palms, fingers and outer aspects of the forearms) point to homicide, indicating the victim tried to either grab the knife or to fend off the blows with his wrists, knuckles or forearms.

If the wounds are concentrated within a small region of the body, it may be that the victim was immobile at the time of assault (for example, held down, asleep or intoxicated). Many severe stab wounds suggest anger, sex homicide or psychosis.

Blunt Force

Attack by a blunt object (such as a revolver, iron bar, baseball bat, piece of wood) may leave its mark and may contain trace evidence.

Blunt force injuries may include abrasions, contusions and lacerations.  Similar injuries result from being struck by a vehicle or falling.

Keep in mind that law enforcement has personnel, departments and equipment set up to handle homicide investigations. As mentioned earlier, information in this section is very high level and meant as an overview only.  For more books on homicide investigations, check out

This ends class 3. In the next class, which I'll post next week, we discuss why a PI might get involved with a homicide investigation. 

All rights reserved by Colleen Collins and Shaun Kaufman. Any use of this content requires specific, written authority.

Writing Lessons from the 1949 Film Adam's Rib, Starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy

In Lawyer's Primer for Writers: From Crimes to Courtrooms, we cover the in's and out's of trials, lawyers, courtrooms and a whole lot more, including a chapter dedicated to ten of our favorite legal films and what they can teach writers. Today we're offering an excerpt about the classic film Adam's Rib that featured Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn as married lawyers who face off as opposing lawyers in a murder trial.

Book Excerpt

One of Our Top Ten Legal Films: Adam's Rib

Adam's Rib (1949): Starring: Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn; directed by George Cukor. A courtroom comedy, with a heavy dollop of drama, that features Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy as husband and wife attorneys who are on opposite ends of a criminal prosecution: Hepburn is defending a woman who shot her husband; Tracy is the prosecutor.

Note: It’s highly questionable that a district attorney’s office would allow one of its prosecutors to try a case if his wife were the defense attorney. More likely, the DA’s office would cite a conflict of interest and have another prosecutor try the case. Nevertheless, Hepburn’s and Tracy’s opposing counsel roles provide wonderful story conflict. 

Oh, what are you gonna do, object before I ask the question?
— Tracy confronting Hepburn in the courtroom
Adam's Rib Movie Trailer (image in public domain)

Adam's Rib Movie Trailer (image in public domain)

Adam’s Rib, interestingly enough, was based on the real-life story of actor Raymond Massey and his wife Adrianne Allen's divorce. They had hired married lawyers William and Dorothy Whitney, who, after the divorce was finalized, divorced each other and married their clients! Keep in mind that William and Dorothy Whitney were divorce attorneys in private practice — unlike the setup in Adam’s Rib where the husband represented the government, and the wife was in private practice. 

To prepare for the role, Katharine Hepburn and the director, George Cukor, spent time in different Los Angeles courtrooms to pick up details to help make the acting and story authentic. 

Tip for Writers: In general court hearings are open, which means the public may attend. This is an excellent way to learn about the court system, and watch lawyers, judges, witnesses and others in the course of a trial. At times, the court might close a court proceeding to the public if the judge wishes to protect someone’s dignity, such as a child’s or a distressed witness’s. 

Historical Perspective on Adam’s Rib

In 1940, 9 years before Adam’s Rib was filmed, the United States Census identified only 4,447 female attorneys in the US, or 2.4 percent of all lawyers in the country.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the US entering WWII, many male lawyers enlisted in the military, which created a void in American law schools. The sudden need for students was filled by women. By 1942, women law students were 4.35 percent of all law students; by 1943, the number of women had increased to 21.9 percent. During WWII, some law firms began hiring women lawyers for the first time, such as the New York firm of Cahill Gordon in 1943, and Shearman & Sterling in 1944. 

According to the article “Adam’s Rib as an Historical Document: The Plight of Women Lawyers in the 1940s,” the number of women in law school began decreasing significantly after WWII, and many women lawyers lost their employment positions to returning American solider-lawyers who were given back their former jobs. Also, many returning serviceman obtained funding via the GI Bill for law school, and by 1947 law schools were again churning out a much higher number of male than female attorneys.

So by 1949 when Adam’s Rib started playing in movie theaters, women lawyers like Hepburn’s character Amanda Bonner were already vanishing in the US.

Click on image to go to book's Amazon page

Click on image to go to book's Amazon page

Private Investigators And Crime Scene Investigations, Part II

Welcome to the second part of "Private Investigations and Crime Scene Investigations," based on a series of classes my husband and I taught four years ago for Kiss of Death, the mystery-suspense arm of the Romance Writers of America. 

As explained in the first class, PIs typically investigate crimes scenes after law enforcement/others have finished their investigations and re-opened the area back to everyday use. I gave several examples of re-opened crime scenes that my husband and I have investigated in the first class. Other examples are provided in this second class, too.

Our bios: We co-owned a private investigations agency, specializing in legal investigations, for over a decade. I still conduct investigations for several law firms, and my husband has returned to being a criminal defense lawyer, which he's practiced for 22 years.

Convention: Sometimes a PI is referred to as "he" or "she" rather than always using the more awkward he/she.

Now, let's kick off class II with the question...

After Police Have Completed a Crime Scene Investigation, What Might a PI Do?

A PI might be called on to visit, photograph and document a crime scene after the police have processed the crime scene. During this visit, she may be on the scene to look for evidence not found/collected by the police in their work-up. Your fictional PI could easily be at the scene to look for “things not done” by the police, which is a fruitful area for defense lawyers in criminal cases to exploit when critiquing the government’s case in trial.

Tire marks (image in public domain, attribution Robert Kroft)

Tire marks (image in public domain, attribution Robert Kroft)

In one of our experiences, we re-visited the scene of an attempted vehicular assault at least a month after it occurred. What evidence did we gather weeks after the event? For starters, the tire marks were still clearly seen on the pavement -- we photographed these marks for the attorney. We also measured the area where a complex set of vehicular maneuvers were alleged to have occurred.Additionally, we videotaped the pattern of vehicular travel at the exact speeds alleged by the police.

When Police Don’t Want to Process a Crime Scene, What Might a PI Be Asked to Do?

There are many instances where the police don’t perform testing or otherwise process an entire crime scene because to do so doesn’t help their side of the case. To be fair, the police may feel that they’ve gathered enough evidence (by perhaps taking witness statements).

In such scenarios, criminal defendants often complain because the police didn’t perform a certain test or search an area. It is an old axiom of criminal law that the police have no duty to gather evidence helpful to an accused. This often results in criminal defense attorneys retaining a PI to perform crime scene testing so as to gather the evidence omitted by the police.

Following up with an example, our agency was once retained to find slugs from bullets fired as warning shots in the general direction of, but not directly at, a couple who claimed they were the victims of attempted first-degree murder (which requires a substantial step toward a deliberate and premeditated homicidal act). If found guilty, our client faced a possible 48-year prison sentence.

According to the accused (our client), the bullets would be located on a portion of his 886-acre ranch where it would have been impossible for him to aim at the “victims” and have the slugs land. As the sheriff's office had done a cursory, on-foot search of the ranch land for these four .357 slugs, we decided to do a more in-depth search, using metal detectors. By the way, the sheriff’s office did not own a metal detector.

Meanwhile, our client was being held in a local jail in lieu of $300,000 bail.

Using our client’s characterization of the trajectory of the bullets and factoring in the nature of the load, we were able to map out a possible area approximately a half-mile from where the incident occurred. Braving cold winds, an unusually large amount of scrap metal in the ground (which kept setting off the metal detectors), and burrs that came up through the soles of our shoes, we burned approximately 16 man hours before locating the four slugs.

The first slug we found

The first slug we found

When we found that first slug, we whooped and hollered like a couple of miners who'd just hit gold. Our client's mother, who was staying at the ranch to watch over her grandkids, heard our yells and came running across the fields to us, crying as she knew our happy yells could only mean one thing: We had found the evidence that proved her son was innocent.

After the slugs were found, we carefully photographed the site. The slugs were then shipped in evidence bags to the police, where ballistic experts matched the slugs to the firearm seized from our client on the night he was arrested.

In this example, because of the evidence obtained by PIs (several months after law enforcement had finished processing the crime scene) the D.A. reduced the charges and our client was released (on Christmas Eve, after spending over three months in jail). You can imagine how meaningful that Christmas was for his family.

Postscript: A few months later, the rancher called, said he'd like to do something special for us. He visited our home and checked our roof, water heater and fence, looking for something to repair. There wasn't anything that needing fixing, but the visit was a heartwarming reunion. Soon after, he sold his ranch and moved back to his hometown in another state so he and his kids could be near the rest of their family.

This wraps up class 2.

In the next class we cover the basics of homicide investigations, from key tasks covered by law enforcement, to an overview on estimating time of death, to how a PI might be called upon to aid in a homicide investigation. We also describe a case when a criminal defense lawyer retained us to investigate a former homicide scene, and what we learned.

All rights reserved by Colleen Collins. Any use of this content requires specific, written authority.

Private Investigators and Crime Scene Investigations, Part I

Four years ago, my husband and I taught a series of classes for Kiss of Death, the mystery-suspense arm of the Romance Writers of America. We focused our workshop on private investigations, a field we know well after being co-owners of a private investigations agency for years. In fact yours truly still conducts legal investigations for several law firms. My husband has since returned to the practice of criminal law, which he practiced for 18 years before we opened our PI agency.

This post is part I of the class on crime scenes (with some information updated). A point we make throughout the class is that PIs mostly investigate crime scenes after law enforcement/others have finished their investigations and re-opened the crime scene back to everyday use.

You'd be surprised how much evidence can still be mined days or weeks later at a crime scene -- for example, this last weekend we visited a former law enforcement crime scene and took photos of a strategically placed surveillance camera, not documented in the D.A.s discovery, that provided key evidence in a legal case. Years ago, we investigated a crime scene, 800 acres of ranch land, that the sheriff's office had investigated and returned to everyday use two months earlier. Our goal (as had been the sheriff's office) was to find 4 bullet slugs from a shooting, whose placement could prove a man's innocence. We doubted we could find those slugs, yet with the help of metal detectors, we did ("Finding Four Bullet Slugs in the Middle of Nowhere").

Now let's kick off this class material with the question...

Why Do Crime Scenes Matter?

In some crimes there are no witnesses and in the absence of self-incriminating statements by a suspect, the only means of obtaining a conviction may be through physical evidence (such as evidence with viable DNA, a blood sample or a fingerprint). In any crime, sharing knowledge of physical evidence with suspects may loosen tongues and stimulate confessions. DNA, fingerprints or serologic evidence are tough to debate and bring many criminals to a place where their lips move easily.

Note: A comment regarding an investigator sharing knowledge of physical evidence with a suspect. Interestingly enough, private investigators work under a burden created by ethical constraints that police detectives do not labor under. While courts have consistently held that police may lie to a suspect to stimulate a confession without tainting that confession (we once saw this in an episode of the TV series The Closer), very few private investigators can credibly present statements obtained by deceptive means. By “very few” we mean in the few instances where the PI has investigated an individual who’s extremely unsavory or has committed a particularly heinous act, jurors are more likely to trust that PI’s statements, even if the PI lied to obtain them. This is great fodder for a story.

In a crime scene, the area searched and the evidence sought will depend on the crime under investigation. In crimes of violence, the crime scene tells the detective what happened but the detective has to be able to read the signs left by the evidence (signatures of crime include fingerprints, blood stains, bullets, bullet holes, tool marks, fibers, hairs, glass fragments, fingernail scrapings, DNA samples, as well as items added, overturned, removed or displaced).

Bullet casings are one signature of a crime

Bullet casings are one signature of a crime

Keep in mind that the suspect is also part of the crime scene. What does she leave at the crime scene and what does she take away from the scene? Such evidence helps to prove that she was there. If the police take her back to the crime scene after her arrest, the evidence of her presence at the scene, when presented in testimony in the courtroom, may serve only to prove that the police took her there. This may cause your fictional PI to think twice before taking a possible suspect to a crime scene.

It's important to make the distinction between what crime scene investigators for the police consider a crime scene and what the rest of us, including PIs, consider a crime scene. In the latter instance, a crime scene is really just the place where a crime happened, which has returned to everyday use. However, what police and crime scene investigators consider a crime scene is that area where, such as the space inside the yellow tape, careful protocols for evidence recording and extracting are followed.

Processing a Crime Scene

Let’s cover some important concepts about how the police process a crime scene. Your fictional PI might be called on to critique how a crime scene was processed in the course of his investigation, or he might be called on to process his own. 

The steps any investigator should follow, including law enforcement, are the following:

  1. Check condition of victim and arrange medical treatment if necessary.
  2. Secure and protect the crime scene (keep in mind the possibility of a multiple series of crime scenes).
  3. Is further search legal? If not, need consent. If a law enforcement officer, obtain a search warrant, especially if a major felony.
  4. Search, sketch and document. Precise measurements of the crime scene should include an accurate sketch containing a key, a scale and a legend noting the day, time, location and conditions (weather, lighting). Compass directions should be noted on the sketch. Remember that a measuring tape provides a wonderful standard of comparison especially when photographs or video are employed.
  5. Document the crime scene and its physical evidence. In law enforcement, a videographer typically accompanies an assigned officer on the initial walk-through. Overall as well as specific photographs are taken of the crime scene.  Close-up photographs should be taken of important items of evidence (for example, footwear impressions).
  6. Handle the evidence so as to not contaminate it.
  7. Collect, mark and catalogue evidence.
  8. Preserve the evidence in a central, organized location.

When Police Aren’t Available: What Might a PI Do?

 A PI investigating a major crime scene risks being charged with obstruction of justice and/or tampering with evidence.

 A PI investigating a major crime scene risks being charged with obstruction of justice and/or tampering with evidence.

If a private investigator was called on to process a crime scene for evidence of any nature, he/she would follow the same above steps. However, it cannot be stressed enough that a PI would call on police to handle a major crime scene, like a murder or arson. To handle, test and collect evidence could easily result in charges of obstruction of justice and/or tampering with evidence. For that reason, any PI who wanted to avoid jail would call 911, and would scrupulously avoid touching anything at the scene of a crime other than to assess a victim’s medical condition. On the other hand, having a sleuth character charged with several crimes after exploring a major crime scene would certainly bump up the story tension!

There are times when a PI does handle evidence, and the best protocol is to collect the evidence with gloves, place it in a plastic/paper bag, seal that bag with tape and initial the bag with the PI’s initials and the date it was collected. Your fictional PI may collect evidence for admission in court when that evidence was not collected by the police (or the opposing side in a civil case) and the evidence supports his client’s case.

For example, several years back Colleen and a group of PIs from other states worked together to trap a seller selling fraudulent products via an online marketplace. The evidence collected were the products being sold (and, in a sense, the online marketplace where this buyer sold his fraudulent products was the crime scene). After Colleen purchased the products (using another identity to not tip off the seller), she’d place the products in a plastic bag, initial the bag with her name, product name and date, then seal the bag and mail it to the attorney handling the case. These products were used as evidence in a court case against the seller.

We'll wrap up part I here. "Private Investigators and Crime Scene Investigations, Part II" will be posted in a few days. 

Happy writing! Colleen

All rights reserved by Colleen Collins. Any use of this content requires specific, written authority.

In Honor of National Library Week: Keith Richards, Rock-n-Roll Librarian

Keith Richards, Rolling Stones Voodoo Loungue World Tour, Rio de Janeiro, 1995 (photo is in public domain, courtesy of Machocarioca)

Keith Richards, Rolling Stones Voodoo Loungue World Tour, Rio de Janeiro, 1995 (photo is in public domain, courtesy of Machocarioca)

When you are growing up there are two institutional places that affect you most powerfully: the church, which belongs to God, and the public library, which belongs to you. The public library is a great equalizer.
— Keith Richards

The Rolling Stones' Keith Richards: Rocker outlaw...guitar god...bookworm

This will either surprise you or make you jealous: Keith Richards has extensive personal libraries in both of his Sussex and Connecticut homes. In fact, he has so many books that he once considered "professional training" to better manage his vast collection. Yes, dear reader, rock-n-roll bad-boy Keith Richards dreamed of becoming a librarian.

Keith and the Dewey Decimal System

Once upon a time, Keith was painstakingly arranging copies of rare books about the history of early American rock and World WarII. He was applying the standard Dewey Decimal classification system (possibly fortified with a glass of vino or a little ganja -- although he no longer does "the hard stuff" Keith is quoted as saying he's still fond of wine and weed). Whatever he might have been imbibing, he nevertheless felt overwhelmed with his massive book classification project, at which point he seriously considered becoming a librarian.

Can you imagine being shushed by Keith Richards?  Or what it would be like going to the reference desk...and there's Keith Richards?

Although he'd probably be super cool about books turned in late; after all he once owed libraries 50 years worth of fines.

The Saga of Keith and the Overdue Library Books

Keith Richards Owes '50 Years' of Library Fines (Huffington Post)

Library offers to waive Keith Richards' £3000 fine if he drops in for visit (Mirror)

Keith Richards pardoned by library for books overdue for more than 50 years ( 


Rock on. Read on.