Many of my novels are based in fact. Nowhere is that truer than an incident that occurs in Against Flesh and Blood.
In 1981 I found myself investigating a terrifying rape that occurred on a back road. I took the event and fictionalized it to a point. Aside from changing the date, and a few minor circumstances, I wrote it exactly as it had happened.
An entire chapter has Detective Will Diaz and Deputy RJ Madril processing the crime scene. They’re on a back country road. It’s not exactly in the middle of nowhere but most certainly on the edge of it. What they’re dealing with is a well-developed crime scene. What that means is there’s plenty of evidence.
Now here’s where reality and TV part. On TV, the good looking detective (male or female) has a cadre of forensic experts to collect the evidence, photograph it (the nameless cameraman in NCIS), an out of work surveyor to plot everything, and the ability to lock a crime scene down.
The reality is that Will and RJ don’t have any real resources to draw from. Most police and sheriffs’ offices work under some very severe budget restraints. That makes the local cops the experts on whatever needs to be done. They’re at once the detective, the forensic guys, the photographer, and the surveyor who plots and draws out the crime scene.
With that in mind, let me use this case to educate you on crime scene processing.
First, the case I describe in the novel and in reality happened. I’ve taken some literary license with it, but again, it happened pretty much the way I describe it in the book.
So here’s the background. The colleges used to have a significant event in the mountains called the Smokies. it was an excuse to take a break, get high, bombed, beat up, and in this case raped. A couple of young ladies needed a ride home, and this guy offers them a ride. They get in the car with him, and the next thing the girls know, they’re turning down a back country road, and he has a gun and is demanding they “pay” for the ride by providing sex.
When he stops, they attempt to run. Somewhere in this, a single shot is fired. We don’t know if it was at them, up in the air, or into the ground. One gets away and runs to some houses a couple of miles away. The other falls, he catches her, and sexually assaults her.
By the time the deputy gets into the area, the guy’s long gone. The girl who got away tells him what happened, and they go to find her friend walking down the back road towards the houses. The deputy takes them to the Sheriff’s Office, gets statements from them, and calls their parents. In the report, the one girl never mentions anything about a sexual assault, and when asked, says she got away by running into the field.
Before their parents arrive, the girl they found walking asks to use the bathroom. After they’re gone, the dispatcher (who also cleans the bathroom at night – remember, this is a small department, so people wear a lot of hats), discovers a pair of women’s underwear in the trash.
This is a big red flag something happened we don’t know about yet.
At this point, the underwear becomes part of our crime scene, and we need to treat it as such.
This is the first hint that this is bigger than initially thought. After a sexual assault, the victim will often attempt to put some distance between them and the event. Ditching the underwear is a psychological ploy to do just that.
In a lot of instances, this might be the only evidence of what happened. The deputy or officer needs to collect the article of clothing as evidence. One of the many axioms of crime scene investigation is the perp (short for the perpetrator – the individual who committed the crime) always leaves something behind. In the case of the underwear, it’s a treasure trove of things he left behind.
First, there’s hair. At the risk of getting a little graphic here, during the process of the rape, pubic hairs from the bad guy can be caught up onto the body of the victim. These, in turn, could be transferred to the garment. A lab can collect the hair and examine it and determine if it came from the victim, the perp, or has nothing to do with the case.
The other thing that can be exchanged during a sexual assault is semen. Rather obvious, but there you are. This can leak out onto the material, and again can be retrieved and analyzed by a lab.
Now, there’s an actual protocol for the collection of the evidence.
First, the clothing was no longer in its “pristine” state. By placing the underwear into the trash, the girl had just contaminated it with anything else that happened to be in there. People had come in, washed their hands, dried them with a paper towel, and tossed that into the trash. In the process of that, they’ve transferred stuff like hair from their bodies, even skin cells that could have contaminated the item.
Since our evidence is now contaminated, we might think it’s useless. Not so. All we’re really looking for is two things. Anything that could belong to the victim and anything that could belong to the perp. Even so, the first thing that should be done before removing the item of clothing is to photograph it where you found it. This helps establish where it was found and the reason, if any, for outside contamination.
Next, while wearing surgical gloves, the item can be removed. Ideally, it should go straight from the trash to some container and might have a paper towel to help prevent further contamination and collect anything that might fall off.
The item is then photographed again. The officer who collected it should them mark it. An ideal way is to place your initials, date/time, and case number if you have one. Write small in a small corner of it. Ideally, you’ll want to get a picture of that as well.
Now to prevent further contamination, store the item and prepare it for the lab. An article of clothing, especially one that may have a body liquid on it, should be allowed to air dry. Ideally, it should be locked up somewhere and allowed to dry.
Then it goes into an everyday paper bag (the kind you get from a grocery store is fine). This allows it to continue to dry, but not become further contaminated. It is then sealed.
Across the top where it’s sealed, the officer should place date/time, his or her initials, and case number. Straddle both the fold and the bag with the identifier. A seal works just as well. The idea is to make sure no one opens it until it’s supposed to be opened.
The bag will now have some kind of label on it. These labels are adhesive and have places to write the case number, the officer doing the investigation, date, time, and possibly the charges and crimes the evidence relates to. It also has space for other names, dates, time, etc. This helps to maintain something absolutely critical for any case and that chain of custody.
I’ve now opened a big can of worms. Chain of custody is absolutely vital. This shows who handled the evidence, and so on. In our case, the chain of custody starts with the officer. He or she processes it and starts a form. A copy of this form always stays with the evidence (usually attached to it somehow). Every time it’s handed off, the person who received it signs for the evidence with their signature, printout their name, and date and time. And so it goes.
Failure to maintain the chain of custody is the quickest way to lose a case. Murphy’s Law dictates it will be a crucial piece of evidence that gets thrown out, and the perp walks. If that happens, it’s rarely anyone’s fault except the people who handled it.
There’s a couple of scenes where Will mails evidence to the CBI (Colorado Bureau of Investigation). While this might be seen as a break in the chain of custody, it isn’t. Mail is considered secure if it’s sent registered or certified. The officer should always add a copy of any documentation to demonstrate this, and it should always be annotated in case notes and on evidence custody logs.
One place where the chain of custody reared its head was with the robbery of the La Jara National Bank, mentioned here in my Bad Guys of the San Luis Valley series. Trooper Boss received the money (in pillowcases) taken from the bank and weapons. These were in his car. On one occasion, he left the evidence in his unlocked patrol car to apprehend a suspect.
The defense argued that the chain of custody was tainted because Boss hadn’t secured the car. The prosecution was able to demonstrate that no one was about, approached the vehicle, or interfered in any way with it. (Boss had a visual on his patrol car at all times).
Next time we get into the weeds with Will and RJ as they visit the actual crime scene.