How Should You Investigate a Death?
Follow @sarah_childressNovember 23, 2013, 4:04 pm ET
Nearly 100,000 Americans die each year of unnatural causes. But the investigations of most of these deaths don’t happen the way they do on TV, where experts scour the scenes for clues and gather evidence for a sharp investigator who can solve the case.
Post-Mortem: Death Investigation in America, a 2011 FRONTLINE investigation with ProPublica and NPR, found a frighteningly different picture: a dysfunctional system lacking oversight and consistent standards, and plenty of deaths that go unexamined.
That’s in part because most law enforcement agencies are small — according to the 2008 Law Enforcement Census, roughly 95 percent of law enforcement agencies across the nation employ fewer than 100 people. They don’t always have the resources or expertise to conduct thorough investigations, Marcella Fierro, a retired Virginia state medical examiner, told FRONTLINE.
“There are people out there trying to carry out death investigations and they’re trying to do them the best they can, but they don’t have the training, they don’t have the money, they don’t have the infrastructure and they don’t have the skill,” she said.
To help guide investigators across the country, the U.S. Justice Department released a report via the National Institute of Justice with recommendations for best practices – how a death investigation ought to be conducted.
Here are their key guidelines:
Securing the Scene: Before the investigator begins to search for evidence, they need to ensure that the scene is safe for investigation.
Dangerous circumstances may still exist at the scene that must be resolved before the investigator proceeds.
Preventing contamination: Contaminated evidence can blow a whole case, because it won’t hold up in court.
An investigator should:
Preserving the evidence: It’s important to create permanent records to build a strong case file.
When a police officer is involved, an accurate death investigation is important, especially from a liability standpoint, says Vernon Geberth, a retired New York police lieutenant commander who wrote the widely used textbook, Practical Homicide Investigation.
To make sure it’s done right, an outside agency should be called in to take on the case immediately, he said.
“You can’t possibly investigate a member of your department the same way you investigate an average case,” Geberth told FRONTLINE. “Because people know each other as friends, you leave yourself open to criticism.”
He added: “You do it right the first time. You only get one chance.”
Crime scene tape marks off the area law enforcement investigators are working outside the house of a fatal shooting on Aug. 8, 2013, in DeSoto, Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
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