How Crime Scene Investigations Really Work

Author and former U.S. Army forensic pathologist (and professional Santa) Bradley Harper led a fascinating seminar at the recent Killer Nashville conference that provided a bit of “the inside story” (you should pardon the expression) on autopsies and crime scene investigations.

His opening analogy was an interesting digression with a distinguished pedigree. He said Aristotle maintained there are only three arguments: Blame, Values, and Choice. Fixing blame is what forensics tries to do, and blame always relates to events that happened in the past tense. Values, he said, are always argued in the present tense (“we believe in. . .”), and choices are argued in the future tense. When two people are arguing, if one is using the past tense (blame), and the other is using present or future tense, they will never agree. This is a handy trick to remember next time you’re setting up a fictional confrontation!

Forensics is even older than Aristotle. It began in China about 3000 years ago when a murder occurred, with the assailant presumed to be part of a particular guard unit. The magistrate asked each guard member to lay his sword on a table. Then they waited. Before long, one and only one of the swords was covered with flies, attracted by the invisible traces of blood still on the sword.

Fast-forward to 19th century France and the efforts of numerous men of science to bring scientific methods to the analysis and systematization of crime investigations. Advances in photography, fingerprinting, and the standardization of autopsy procedures elevated the field. These pioneers’ accomplishments soon found their way into literature, starting with Edgar Allan Poe’s detective, C. Auguste Dupin. And then there was Sherlock Holmes. In 1910, a devoted Holmes fan, Frenchman Edmond Locard, set up the world’s first crime lab. You’ll remember Locard as the man who developed the exchange principle: “every contact leaves a trace.”

So what happens with in an autopsy? Harper said the steps include: verify the deceased’s identity (preferably with a thumbprint); take a full-body x-ray; make an external examination; U.S. pathologists use a Y incision and remove the top of the skull to reveal the internal organs and brain, any of which may be taken out for further analysis if necessary; analyze stomach contents, blood, urine, spinal fluid, the vitreous humor of the eye, etc; and take lots of pictures throughout.

Read More:
The Three Basic Issues (from Thank You for Arguing)
The Virtual Autopsy – explore online!
The Exchange Principle
Autopsy: A Screenwriter’s Guide
The Nutshell Studies of Frances Glessner Lee

1 thought on “How Crime Scene Investigations Really Work

  1. Sounds like an interesting presentation. I used to do a crime scene presentation at various libraries with my friend, who’s also a police officer. We covered a lot of the same topics you described. We also used to set up a crime scene and have people observe it and make notations on how they would process it. At one PSWA conference Steve Scarborough and I set up a “dead” body for our presentation. We left it in the conference room and the cleaning crew saw it that night and ended up calling the hotel security and the police it was so realistic. 😉 One thing I’d like to add about the autopsy is the awful smell.

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