Time to stand and stare . . .
By Helen Pepper
When I was a brand new CSI, desperate to start catching criminals with my enhanced forensic skills, my sergeant said to me that the first thing I should do at a crime scene was . . . nothing.
‘Hands in pockets, eyes open, mouth shut,’ he said. It was very good advice, because getting a feel for the layout of the scene and giving yourself a chance to notice anything significant is really
important. If you wade straight in but miss something vital it can be impossible to go back later and retrieve the situation.
Good observational skills – noticing the things that are out of place or that might help to progress an investigation – are vital. You don’t need Sherlock Holmes to find the murder weapon when there’s a knife sticking out of the victim’s chest.
But the ‘why’ is often a bigger clue to the perpetrator’s identity than the ‘how’ and sometimes the clues that point to ‘why’ can be much more subtle.
In one case I dealt with, a man dialled 999 to say he had found his wife dead when he got home from a night out. She had been strangled and their flat pretty much trashed: furniture upside down, possessions all over the floor, ornaments broken.
The wife was wearing pyjamas, and the first police responder’s theory was that she had gone to bed, and woke to find intruders in the flat. They panicked and killed her. My theory was that the police officer probably watched too many TV crime dramas . . .
- It’s very unusual for a burglar to hang around once he is discovered – they normally run away as fast as they can. If they’re cornered they may punch the householder or push them out of the way. But this victim was strangled, and any psychologist will tell you that strangling is a very ‘intimate’ way of killing someone.
- Most burglars don’t make much mess: they know what they’re looking for and where they’re likely to find it. Their aim is to get in and out as quickly and with as little fuss as possible.
So when I see a burglary where the place looks like a tornado has been through, I tend to think either it’s been done by kids (because that’s how it’s portrayed in TV dramas and they think that’s what burglars do), or it’s been staged by the householder to claim insurance.
In this case I didn’t think insurance was the issue, but the crime scene definitely seemed staged.
So I stood in the doorway, hands in pockets, and I looked.
I saw the mess, the shattered ornaments, pictures knocked off the walls, but on one of the walls in the living room there was an empty picture hook, but no corresponding picture beneath it. Which was odd.
And at a crime scene, anything odd merits further investigation. So before I even entered the room where the murder had happened I went outside and looked in the dustbin, and there it was – a picture frame, its glass shattered, and the wedding photo that it had held ripped into pieces and thrown on top of it.
Shown the wrecked picture, the man broke down and confessed. He had come home drunk, they had argued, and his wife said she wanted a divorce. The fight got violent, he’d killed her, and then staged a ‘burglary’ before calling the police.
The picture had been smashed and ripped up during the course of argument; he had thrown it away because it didn’t fit with the scenario of a burglary gone wrong.
No doubt the truth would have come out eventually, but taking the time to notice something amiss really speeded up the investigation.
Which is why, as a CSI, there is always time to stand and stare.