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Collecting Crime Scene Evidence

In this report I will discuss the importance of collecting evidence at a crime scene. The evidence can make or break a case. There are specific duties assigned to each member of the CSI team who investigates a crime scene. Strict protocols are followed when securing the crime scene, collection evidence and interviewing witnesses. There are 5 main steps in processing a crime scene; interview, examine, photograph, sketch, and process. The gathering of evidence falls within the guidelines of processing the crime scene. The CSI personal has to have a keen eye to assess what is normal in the scene and what is evidence. Whenever there is a question as to what may be evidence, it is best to collect it and sort it out at the lab. Many people have a stake in what the CSI gather as evidence at a crime scene. Some evidence will clear persons involved, while others could be prosecuted by the same evidence. It is very important to take this training and job seriously. The balance of justice can be swayed so easily by the collection, processing and interpretation of evidence. Then there are cases that go to trial, get convictions with no evidence at all. Not because there was evidence and it not collected but because there was no evidence to prove a crime had been committed and the case was judged purely on made up stories with no facts to back them up. Later we find there in fact was no crime committed.

Collecting Crime Scene Evidence

Crime Scene Investigators are becoming more and more important to large law enforcement agencies. The purpose of crime scene investigation is to help establish what happened and who is responsible for the crime. This task was left to the local law enforcement officers who were and still are the ones to get to a crime scene first. As crime has grown in this country, the need for a special investigative team has become a necessity. The police departments in most large cities are not staffed nor equipped to do the amount of work required to thoroughly investigate a crime scene. One crime scene may take up to days or weeks to go through every inch of it to gather and tag evidence to be processed by the crime lab. Keeping this in mind, the smaller cities, towns and communities still rely on the local law enforcement agencies to carry out the task of securing the crime scene, gather evidence and question witnesses. Detectives assigned to the case in the smaller populated areas can help the police department to do in-depth questioning of witnesses, following up on leads and other things that may need to be done in assisting the police with the crime. (Aggrawal, 2004) (Layton, 2005)

The first step when getting to the crime scene is making sure the scene has been taped off and clearly marked. Next the crime scene technician will talk to the first officer who arrived at the crime scene. At this time the tech will gather information as to how this incident occurred, about what time it happened and all other basic information. The tech may also question any witnesses, or victim. If the CSI team has 2-4 people there may be several things going on at one
time such as examining the area of the crime, numbering or tagging pieces of evidence where it is for photographing, sketches may be started by the person assigned to that duty and then the process of gathering the evidence may begin after the first four steps are completed. It is important that all evidence that can be found at that time be processed by tagging, sketch, and photographing before it is actually collected into proper containers. (Baldwin, 1990)

The second step is to examine the crime scene inside and out. It is important to determine how the crime occurred and document it accordingly. Number markers will be placed by each piece of evidence for photographing. This is true of all evidence at the scene. It is very important for the CSI to be able to tell what was normally placed in the house/building and what seems out of place. When there is a question as to what may be or not be evidence, it is collected anyway and the lab will process it to see if it is connected to the crime. (Baldwin, 1990)

Next the photographer will proceed with the utmost of care to photograph the crime scene, being mindful where the evidence is and not disturbing it so it can be documented. Photographs may be taken from different angles to better understand what happened during the time the crime was being committed. The photographer will start with a wide spectrum of the crime scene, narrowing his shots as he processes the scene until he is focusing on the smallest of the evidence. (Baldwin, 1990)

The fourth step is the rough sketching of the crime scene. The crime scene technician will note the layout of the area as well as making sure to identify exactly where the evidence was or the position of a deceased victim. A sketch may not be used in every crime scene but in most cases they are a major step in processing the crime scene. (Baldwin, 1990)

The final step is to process/gather evidence from the crime scene. This involves the collection of evidence, properly tagging, and sealing the contents. Then they sign their name so it is known who collected that evidence. The processing involves making sure none of the evidence gets contaminated by other pieces of evidence. All personal involved will wear rubber gloves and sometime have to wear disposable booties over their shoes. Each piece is placed in a paper bag, for small evidence, and larger types of evidence may be placed in larger bags or boxes, clearly marked, depending on the size and material of the evidence. Liquids and blood evidence can be transported easily in non-breakable, leak proof containers. If there is arson evidence, it is usually collected in air-tight, clean metal cans much like gallon paint cans. Wet evidence can be transported in plastic or metal but should not remain in that container for more than two hours. Wet objects sealed in plastic or metal containers will start the growth of microorganisms that could either destroy the evidence or alter it. It is best to let the wet items dry out completely after getting to the lab and then be placed in dry paper-type containers. As the evidence is being collected more photographs may be taken as levels of evidence are gathered and may have not seen before. (Baldwin, 1990)

Fingerprints are one of the most venerable pieces of evidence that can be lost if not properly secured for transport. Any prints on a body should be covered with clear adhesive tape so the lab technician can process them under laboratory conditions. All surface fingerprints, hand prints and other body prints left at the scene can be lifted for identification by dusting them with black powder and using clear adhesive tape-like material. For prints that are not easily lifted a black and white photo can be taken of the print for more study at the lab.

Bite marks are another source of identifying a person who committed a crime. Sometimes during a sexual assault, the perpetrator will bite the victim leaving a distinct bite pattern. They should be photographed by using ABFO No. 2 Scale under normal lighting conditions. Color slide as well as black and white film should be used. The lab has special techniques for processing and comparing bite marks. (Aggrawal, 2004) (Layton, 2005) (Saferstein, 1990)

Blood and body fluids, hand writing samples, firearms, bullets, broken fingernails, hairs and fibers, shoeprints and tired tracks along with broken pieces of a car in an auto accident can be very important types of evidence to collect. Listed were only a few that might be found at a crime scene. Trace evidence is any piece of transfer such as blood, fibers, hair, paints etc. that the perpetrator came into contact with and carried from the scene on his clothing, body or shoes. For more guidelines as to what to look for at a crime scene it would be best to consult the lab for a list of potential evidence items. (Aggrawal, 2004) (Layton, 2005) (Saferstein, 1990)

These five steps can be going on at the same time as the sketches and photos are taken the gathering process can start in an orderly fashion. It does not matter how significant the crime is, whether it is a stolen car or a multiple homicide, these five steps of protocol should be followed in each case. Every crime scene has evidence or the lack of evidence to support the validity that a crime has been committed. In cases where no evidence can be found to stand up in a court of law usually means a person or persons cannot be brought to trial. Saying this does not make it so. Many protocols of evidence collection and processing are ignored more than we may know. In doing a search on the internet I found a case I well remember where there was no evidence a crime had been committed but many people ended up in prison because the judges allowed testimony of very young children, ages 3-5, to be entered in as “evidence.” It seemed harder to prove a person innocent in these cases than guilty. Evidence protocols were not followed and the convection was made by relying on the testimonies on these very young children, one of whom was the grandson of a prominent local judge. This case I chose to write about in my research paper is just one of those cases among many that convicted caregivers at daycare centers across America and several in other parts of the world during what is now referred to as “The Great Witch Hunt of the 80’s.” The report from The New York Times newspaper article written by Seth Faison on March 27, 1993, sums up the overturned conviction of Kelly Michaels:

“The New York Times”
“March 27, 1993”
“Child-Abuse Conviction Of Woman Is Overturned
By Seth Faison” (Faison, 1993)

“A New Jersey appeals court yesterday overturned the conviction of Margaret Kelly Michaels, who was accused of sexually abusing 19 children at a day-care center in Maplewood, and who was sentenced to 47 years in prison after a celebrated trial in 1988.” (Faison, 1993)

“A three-judge panel ruled that Ms. Michaels had been denied a fair trial when she was convicted on 115 counts of sexual abuse of the 3- to 5-year-old children in her care,” said Robert Seidenstein, a spokesman for the state court system.”

“The panel ruled that the prosecution of the case had relied on testimony that should have been excluded because it improperly used an expert’s theory, called the child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome, to establish guilt.” “The impact of error was overwhelming,” the judges wrote in their decision.” (Faison, 1993)

“The decision does not mean that Ms. Michaels, who is now 30 and in a state prison in Clinton, N.J., will automatically be released, said Mr. Seidenstein. Her lawyers must file an application for release, he said, and it could be blocked if prosecutors appeal the decision.” (Faison, 1993)
“One of Ms. Michael’s lawyers, William M. Kunstler, said yesterday that he would apply for her release.” (Faison, 1993)

“This was a terribly unfair trial, something I likened to the witch hunts in Salem,” “Mr. Kunstler told The Associated Press last night. He said he did not believe a new trial would be held because the children, some now teenagers, could not be expected to remember events so long past.” (Faison, 1993)
“Reactions Differ Greatly” (Faison, 1993)
“Mr. Kunstler said Ms. Michaels broke into tears when he told her about the reversal.” (Faison, 1993)
“Clifford J. Minor, the Essex County Prosecutor, said in a statement, “We are disappointed but we have not had an opportunity to read the rather lengthy opinion and until we do, we’re unable to make an informed comment.” He did not hold that position at the time of the trial.” (Faison, 1993)
“Ms. Michaels was 22 when she started work as an aide at the school, the Wee Care Day Nursery, in September 1984. She was there until the following April. Prosecutors asserted that in those eight months, she engaged in bizarre sexual activities with the children, including playing in the nude and encouraging them to lick off peanut butter that she smeared on her body.” (Faison, 1993)

“Ms. Michaels consistently denied all the charges and her lawyers argued that the children had been coached in their testimony. The trial lasted 10 months, and the families of the children often filled one side of the courtroom while Ms. Michaels’s family and friends crowded the other.” (Faison, 1993)

“She was convicted of molesting 19 children and endangering the welfare of a 20th. The jury returned guilty verdicts on 115 counts, including 34 counts of first-degree aggravated sexual assault.” (Faison, 1993)

“In Ms. Michaels’s appeal last February, her lawyers’ argument was based on a New Jersey Supreme Court decision the previous month that the child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome could only be used to explain why child victims frequently delay reporting sexual abuse.” (Faison, 1993)

“Panel Agrees” (Faison, 1993)

“Yesterday, the court agreed that when the children in the Michaels case were discussed, the prosecution’s expert witness went beyond what is allowable under the ruling.” (Faison, 1993)
“The judges concluded that the witness’s testimony “validated the children’s reports of sexual abuse to the jury by demonstrating an alleged scientific process of determining whether the children were actually sexually abused.” The expert “was permitted to lead the jury to believe that the process was rooted in science and thus was a reliable means of determining sexual abuse,” the decision says.”

“The court also criticized Judge William F. Harth for the way in which he allowed the children to give televised testimony from his chambers.” (Faison, 1993)

“The trial judge, in his zeal to make children feel at ease so that their testimony might be obtained, failed to recognize that he could be perceived as crossing the line between an impartial judge and the prosecution.” (Faison, 1993)

“The judge, in the televised view of the jury, played ball with the children, held them on his lap and knee at times, whispered in their ear and had them do the same, and encouraged and complimented them,” the decision says. “The required atmosphere of the bench’s impartiality was lost in this trial.” (Faison, 1993)

This case cost over 3 million dollars to prosecute and in the end no evidence was ever found to support the convictions of these people. The importance of crime scene collection protocol was more defined and practiced after these cases were tried in court. Hysteria caused this case to snowball down hill and not use good judgment in gathering crime scene evidence. Not once was any one of the daycare centers processed for evidence or were any part of their homes according to established protocols. (Manning, 2007)

As we move forward into the future of crime scene investigation the need for Crime Scene Units are becoming more in demand. These are specially trained CSI units by an individual state that can be sent to any city within that state to assist in crime scene investigation when manpower is at a minimum. Small towns usually do not have an established CSI team so calling on a state CSU is very valuable to them. They bring their own equipment with them, process the scene and turn all evidence to the law enforcement agency they are working with at that time. The state of Illinois has had special CSU’s in operation since the mid 1990’s. If the CSU’s were adopted nationwide they would provide non-biased crime scene investigation, ease the amount of man hours required by local law enforcement and provide a needed service in assisting crime scene investigating. (Rutherford, 2010)

In the state of Illinois, 4 Crime scene Field Supervisors report directly to the Assistant Bureau Chief and supervise 22 field agents. This team of CSU’s can be dispatched to any part of the state to assist or do the full crime scene investigation 24/7. These people have had over 720 hours of training throughout the state of Illinois. The hopes of this becoming nationwide is growing slowly with Jacksonville, Florida reporting they have established 3 CSU’s with 27 CSI’s available to be utilized within the state of Florida as needed aside from their daily services the city of Jacksonville and the surrounding area. (Rutherford, 2010)
The importance of crime scene investigation and following the 5 main protocols of evidence gathering cannot be stressed enough. In the prosecution of criminals and in clearing those accused of crimes that are innocent, the gathering of evidence is most valuable. We do not need a repeat of the witch hunts of the 80’s.

Aggrawal, A. (2004). Crime scene investigation special issue. Internet Journal of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology, online version (ISSN:0972-8074). Retrieved from
Baldwin, H. (2001, May 2). Crime scene investigation network. In Crime scene resources. Retrieved March 29, 2010, from
Faison, S. (1993, March 27). Child-abuse conviction of woman is overturned. The New York Times (NY).
Kish, P. E. (1996, March 7). Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Journal of Forensic Identification, 46(No.2).
Layton, J. (2005, December 2). How crime scene investigation works. Retrieved 16 March 2010, from
Manning, L. (2007, January 14). Nightmare at the day care: the wee care case. Retrieved 22 March 2010
Rutherford, J. (2010, April 11). Jacksonville sheriff’s office crime scene unit. Retrieved April 11, 2010, from State of Florida:
Saferstein, R. (1990). Criminalistics, an introduction to forensic science. New York: Prentice Hall.