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 (examiner.com) 

 

Rock on. Read on.

Litigation Stress: How It Can Affect Characters in Your Story

Maximillian Schell, defense attorney in "Judgment at Nuremberg"

Maximillian Schell, defense attorney in "Judgment at Nuremberg"

Writing a story revolving around a lawsuit, or you have a scene or two set in a courtroom? People in litigation, especially those under the stress of being the defendant or even the plaintiff, are often portrayed as "stressed" in such scenes, but their reactions and symptoms are more complex than that.

In fact, there's a term, litigation stress syndrome, for the symptoms people might suffer from intense, especially prolonged litigation. But before that term was another, malpractice stress syndrome, that we'll look at first.

Medical Profession: Malpractice Stress Syndrome

Malpractice stress syndrome refers to the symptoms physicians, nurses and other health professionals have suffered after being sued for malpractice.

According to Karen Kohatsu, MD, she had been confident that she would prevail in a malpractice suit brought against her, but during the litigation process she experienced isolation, inability to sleep and other stress-related symptoms until the lawsuit was eventually dismissed. "Self-doubting occurs when you read the summons and depositions from the other side," Kohatsu said. "The other side makes it sound like you are a terrible person for missing a diagnosis. You feel really alone and have to turn everything inward because you don't have anyone to talk about it."

Litigation Stress = Stages of Grief, PTSD

handcuffed hands.jpg

Many of us have seen movies, TV shows or read books that depict people going through the upheaval of a lawsuit -- some psychologists compare those reactions and symptoms to the 5 stages of grief, others compare them to PTSD, or post-traumatic stress syndrome. "The feelings rank in intensity with the death of a loved one, going through a divorce or the onset of a life-threatening illness," said one physician.

Five Stages of Grief

These stages of grieving, as outlined by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, are:

  1. Denial

  2. Anger

  3. Bargaining

  4. Grief

  5. Uncertainty

Outcome of Lawsuit

If the outcome of the lawsuit is favorable: renewal, rebuilding, and personal growth.

If the outcome of the lawsuit is unfavorable, denial, bargaining, depression, and other complications can result.

Legal Abuse Syndrome

Karen Huffer, a therapist, has coined another term, Legal Abuse Syndrome, that occurs when people suffer through long, protracted litigation where their Constitutional rights were violated. For example, in a recent case in our state a judge failed to read instructions to the jury. When defense noted that the judge had forgotten to read the instructions, the judge countered that the defense was wrong. Later, in a review of the court transcripts, it was seen that the judge had never read the instructions. Can you imagine how the defendant felt, watching his Constitutional rights being trampled on by a judge?

Huffer describes the symptoms of legal abuse syndrome as including:

  • Feeling deeply disillusioned or oppressed by the legal system
  • Frustrated with efforts to effect justice
  • Experiencing nightmares, exhaustion, vulnerability

Family's Responses

Not Guilty" by Abraham Solomon, 1859, Getty's Open Content Program

Not Guilty" by Abraham Solomon, 1859, Getty's Open Content Program

It's not only the litigant who suffers from litigation stress, but also that person's family. Spouses and children can experience a deep sense of loss, devastation, and social awkwardness. Part of this is due to the restriction that no one can "speak about the lawsuit" to anyone else.

How Long Do the Symptoms Last?

In "The Psychological Impact of Litigation," a 2006 article in the DePaul Law Review, authors Edward J. Hickling, Edward B. Blanchard and Matthew T. Hickling, wrote the following statistics on lingering symptoms of litigation stress, which they too equate to PTSD:

In our research, we found that about forty-eight percent will show an improvement in symptoms by six months so they no longer meet diagnosis for PTSD, and by one year about sixty-five percent will show improvement. After that, our data shows that without intervention, there are very few people who will improve any further. Other studies have shown that for as long as six years, even with treatment, over forty percent of the victims will remain symptomatic.

Symptom-Free Litigants

Then there are those litigants who are symptom free. Sandra Tunajek, in her 2007 article "Dealing with Litigation Stress Syndrome," states that while such non-symptoms "may be a form of denial, further research is needed...to determine the factors (i.e., available peer support, shared disclosure by peers, previous claims, successful defense, etc.) that may offer protection against litigation stress syndrome."

Whether you're writing about a defendant accused of a crime, a plaintiff seeking financial compensation, or how a litigant's family is coping (or not), hopefully this article provides some background, stats and ideas!

Happy writing, Colleen

Put together with the user in mind, this intelligently organized handbook for practicing writers will make you sound like a practicing lawyer.
— Warwick Downing, former DA and author "The Widow of Dartmoor"

Colleen Collins's current nonfiction book, co-authored with Shaun Kaufman, is A Lawyer's Primer for Writers: From Crimes to Courtrooms. 

 

#WritingTips Guidelines for Testifying in Court

I originally wrote this article for PI Magazine's December 2010 issue. These guidelines were written with private investigators in mind and provide handy info if you have a private eye character who must testify in court.

The section under "To be most effective when testifying" has tips for any character who's taking the stand at a trial. Or turn a tip or two upside down and make a more conflict-filled situation in your scene!
 

Ten Tips for Testifying in Court

by Colleen Collins, All Rights Reserved

The ultimate presentation of an investigation is testifying in court, either before a judge or a judge and jury. The idea is to make an effective, articulate and organized impression on the fact-finder (the judge or jury).

If, as a PI, you were hired by an attorney, together the two of you will most likely prepare your testimony directly from the investigative reports you authored. Keep in mind that the reports themselves are not presented as evidence because they meet the definition of hearsay; however, well-written, clear, and informative reports support the testimony and help the lawyer immeasurably.

If you were hired by a citizen, you need to make sure they read your reports. The burden is on you to make sure your client’s questions are organized, written down, and that they have rehearsed their direct examination of you.

To be most effective when testifying:

  • Make eye contact with the jurors. If you look at the attorney when answering questions, it might look as though you’re unsure of what you’re saying or that you’re asking for help.

  • Answer yes or no whenever possible.

  • Never explain an answer, nor volunteer anything!

  • Provide adequate detail, but scrupulously avoid being mired in too much detail

  • Avoid equivocal or qualified answers.

  • Dress professionally. Studies have shown that the colors blue (for men) and black (for women) make them appear more believable. (For more tips on attire, check out "Tips for What to Wear to Court")

  • Use simple terms, common language.

  • Be mindful of a jury's sense of fairness.

  • Know the facts, but don’t repeat the testimony word for word as though it were memorized.

  • (This tip applies specifically to PIs) Don’t bring your investigative file to court. Anything you have in your hand (whether you’re on the stand or in court) can be admitted into evidence at the request of opposing counsel. On the other hand, think how it could bump up the stakes if a file carried into court becomes evidence...even more interesting, what if the PI-character had planned that all along.

    Perhaps the most important tip is to remain respectful of the court, the judge, the opposing counsel, and especially yourself. 

It's Saturday - Time for #SaturdayLibrarian!

I'm such a fangirl of #SaturdayLibrarian. I start my day reading them each Saturday, laughing and pondering and emitting more than a few "aw-w-w-w"s at librarians' stories.

I also added some pix of libraries taken by Carol Highsmith, a distinguished photographer who has donated all of her photos to the Library of Congress, copyright-free. 

Without further ado, here's a batch of the latest and greatest...

Best of Today's #SaturdayLibrarian (So Far)

From my fave @LousyLibrarian: The sun is shining, the birds are singing, the children's area is bedlam, the men's room is a biohazard. #saturdaylibrarian

And one more (although it's technically #FridayLibrarian)...@LousyLibrarian: Zayn is leaving One Direction and people cry. Very similarly, I realize that I'm probably never leaving this reference desk, and I cry.

Library on the Go and Read Rover, part of the mobile library serivice for the Public Library System in Baltimore County, MD (photo by Carol Highsmith)

Library on the Go and Read Rover, part of the mobile library serivice for the Public Library System in Baltimore County, MD (photo by Carol Highsmith)

And one more...@LousyLibrarian: "But what if I don't want to bring it back to the library?" "Then that's stealing, and let me welcome you to a thrilling life of crime."

From @amydieg: down 2 staff so only 3 staff in the building today. rainy out, which usually means a busy day. buckle down folks its #saturdaylibrarian time

From @ChardinTweets#saturdaylibrarian goals: set up new book display, locate missing Belgian ambassador, exorcise moveable stack shelving...

From @siouxieque: Computer system is down, movie party in the book sale room, firemen's pancake breakfast. Omg. #saturdaylibrarian

From @booklovergeek: "You probably won't know the answer to this" - You underestimate my powers...#saturdaylibrarian #StarWars 

From @vodalrymple: Snowing out and we are out of chocolate. Send help. #saturdaylibrarian

Once the main branch of the Palm Springs, CA, public library system - now a private, non-profit library run by volunteers (photo by Carol Highsmith)

Once the main branch of the Palm Springs, CA, public library system - now a private, non-profit library run by volunteers (photo by Carol Highsmith)

From @HeartofGoldLib: Surprise! No one cleaned the community room and we need to open early this morning for a senator's townhall meeting. #saturdaylibrarian

From @AaronWill13ms: You know it's a good day if you can successfully avoid calling the cops #saturdaylibrarian

From @lakesparrows: A couple just got married in special collections

From @librarianatrix: Now is the time of day when all the, er, "interesting" patrons appear. Porn-lookers, yellers, personal-space-intruders.  #saturdaylibrarian

From @theolibrarian: A big paper is due. Printing stations are few. Now the stapler is down. I repeat: stapler is down. #saturdaylibrarian #librarylife

The Carnegie Public Library in Bryan, TX - the oldest existing Carnegie Library in Texas (photo by Carol Highsmith)

The Carnegie Public Library in Bryan, TX - the oldest existing Carnegie Library in Texas (photo by Carol Highsmith)

More from @theolibrarian: Hour 6: Stapler still not stapling. Request submitted for new one but that won't save us now. #saturdaylibrarian

RT @catelibrarian: Patron thinks my shoes are too loud. Need to find tap shoes and wear them to work tomorrow. #saturdaylibrarian

From @CraftyMoni: ...there is a kid high on something singing along, loudly, to youtube videos. Imma hafta get shushy on his ass #saturdaylibrarian

From @lifeinoleg: Overheard child saying as he exited the library: "I LOVE these books." #librarylife #SaturdayLibrarian

Have a great Saturday, everyone...especially you #SaturdayLibrarians

#1000Speak Building from Bullying: Two True Stories

I learned today that tomorrow, March 20, is a blogging event for #1000Speak, an organization whose byline is "1000 Voices Speak for Compassion." Contributing bloggers are writing about looking at bullying from a positive viewpoint. My first reaction was, "Huh? How can bullying ever have a positive slant?"

I thought back to several incidences when my husband, or the two of us, dealt with bullies in our business life. After giving those experiences some thought, I realized that both ended up being constructive -- one in direct way, the other in a roundabout way.

Almost Caving in to a Bully's Demands

My husband practices criminal defense, and occasionally he will have a client who has a significant rap sheet. Sometimes Shaun isn't aware of the extent of these criminal histories until much later.

Mr. X was one such client. He wasn't happy that Shaun hadn't performed miracles in his case and demanded Shaun pay him back not only the full retainer, but three times that. We're talking extortion. Didn't matter that Shaun had worked many free hours above and beyond the retainer, Mr. X wanted money. A lot of it. Left a threatening message one day on my husband's car.

My husband grew concerned about our safety. I suggested he contact our good friend, a lawyer, and talk it over. This lawyer has practiced law nearly 40 years, just as his father had before him. After Shaun told him the story, the lawyer said, "He's bullying you. One thing about bullies, you need to call him on his bluff, not run scared and give in to his demands. Calmly agree to set up a formal mediation over the money he's attempting to extort. He won't like a reasonable, professional venue to air his threats because he likes working in the dark. Do this and he'll go away."

Which is exactly what happened. Just goes to show, no matter how old you are, you can still learn valuable life lessons.

Slipping, Sliding Toward a Bully

This is a lighter story, one that started out with what appeared to be a bullying situation.

My husband loves his cowboy boots. Wears them with his suits to court. One day he and a judge sang a Merle Haggard song together -- Shaun in his suit, the judge in his black robes -- both of them in their cowboy boots. Wish I'd been there to hear the song and to see the looks on people's faces in the courtroom!

A month or so ago, Shaun was walking downtown through snow and ice in his cowboy boots when he saw a police officer shove a man to the ground. Shaun didn't think twice, just starting running toward them, yelling "What's going on?" and waving his hands. He was on a mission to stop perceived violence. Problem is, those cowboy boots have slick soles.

He hit a patch of ice and and started sliding toward traffic, just as several police units squealed around the corner, lights flashing. Shaun kept slipping and sliding toward the busy street, unable to stop, his heart pounding, realizing he was going to be run over...at the last minute, he grabbed onto a parking meter...and fell face down in a pile of snow between two parked cars, the whoosh of cars and crunching tires a foot or two from his head.

Strong arms helped him to his feet. It was the police officer who'd shoved the guy.  "You okay?" he asked. As Shaun brushed snow off his face and clothes, they talked. Shaun learned that the guy who had been shoved was a felon with an outstanding warrant. He'd turned violent, resisted arrest, and the officer had been trying to subdue him, not abuse him. Meanwhile, in the background, the felon was handcuffed and being placed in the backseat of one of the units.

Then, to Shaun's surprise, he learned the officer is a sergeant in the police department of a nearby jurisdiction where Shaun is moving his law practice. Even more small world, the sergeant is a former private investigator who worked for the lawyer whose office Shaun is taking over! Their paths will be crossing even more in the months and years to come.

Shaun ran to halt what he perceived to be bullying, but instead ran toward a valuable connection in his future. 

To read more stories with positive outcomes and lessons regarding bullying, check out the hastag #1000Speak on Twitter.

My New Saturday Addiction: Reading #SaturdayLibrarian

I look forward to Saturday mornings because that's when I read #SaturdayLibrarian, the tweets of dozens of librarians, some of which are snarky-hilarious. For your amusement and entertainment, below are a few choice tweets from this morning.

#SaturdayLibrarian: Read 'Em & Laugh

From @LousyLibrarian: First rule of #saturdaylibrarian: don't talk to the #saturdaylibrarian.

Another from @LousyLibrarian: "Do you have the book 'How To Kill a Mockingbird?'" "I'll look it up. I assume it's instructional. And disturbing." 

(I'm cheating a little here -- these next two are from Friday, but they're too good to not include...plus they're from the one and only @LousyLibrarian):

From @LousyLibrarianShake your sillies out or as God is my witness I will shake them out for you.* *Why they don't let me do storytimes

From @LousyLibrarian: It became clear when she took out her phone: asking for cat books was just a pretext to show me pictures of her cat. This I can't forgive.

(Now back to #SaturdayLibrarian...)

From @FakeLibStats: 34% of today's #saturdaylibrarian wanted to have a Pi day program but library administration said it was irrational

From @amydieg: 3yr old girl, out of the blue: "Compost is SO IMPORTANT."  #saturdaylibrarian

Another from @amydieg: Same girl is now appalled we do not have blankets in the library. #saturdaylibrarian

From @niee87: Kid runs up to a decorative mirror and pushes against it before announcing sadly, "Not magical." #librarylife #saturdaylibrarian

It’s funny that we think of libraries as quiet, demure places where we are shushed by dusty, bun-balancing, bespectacled women. The truth is, libraries are raucous clubhouses for free speech, controversy and community. Librarians have stood up to the Patriot Act, sat down with noisy toddlers and reached out to illiterate adults. Libraries can never be shushed.
— Paula Poundstone

From @This_Journey: Sometimes getting my rant down to 140 characters is more frustrating then the actual patron/problem. 

From @sarazet: Child looking at a display of sparrow eggs: "Are these DUCKBILL DINOSAURS??" #saturdaylibrarian

From @thesubliminator: Doing an Instrument Petting Zoo program today. So. Many. Trumpets. #SaturdayLibrarian #librarylife

 

I really must stop reading #SaturdayLibrarian tweets now...I mean, I have a life, right? (Back to reading  #SaturdayLibrarian tweets)

Have a great Saturday, Colleen