Colleen Collins is a professional private investigator and multi-published author. Her current novel, The Zen Man, is a murder mystery featuring a private eye man-and-woman team, which she calls a “21st-century Nick and Nora” story. When Colleen isn’t writing or investigating, she enjoys cooking, gardening, and trying to train a willful Rottweiler named Jack Nicholson.
Top 5 Mistakes Writers Make at a Crime Scene
Next to confessions, crime scenes contain the most first-hand evidence explaining the who, what and whys of a crime. Unfortunately, sometimes writers get aspects of a crime scene wrong, which puts a dent in the credibility of a story.
David Swinson, a retired Washington, DC, detective and author of A Detailed Man (available in most bookstores and Amazon), calls these dents “Aw c’mon, man” moments. “I have been to countless crime scenes,” says David. “When you respond to a scene that is related to a violent crime, especially homicide, even the smallest mistake can ruin the outcome of the case. I’m especially tough on some authors who write crime fiction -- it’s what we in law enforcement call an ‘Aw c’mon, man’ moment.’”
Let’s look at the top five mistakes, or “Aw c’mon, man” blunders, in no particular order, that writers make at crime scenes.
Using incorrect terminology. One popular misconception is that the words cartridges and bullets are synonymous. A bullet, the projectile that fires from a rifle, revolver or other small firearm, is one part of a cartridge. Two other words that writers sometimes use interchangeably: spent bullets and spent casings. A spent bullet, sometimes called a slug, is one that has stopped moving after being fired. Spent bullets are often pretty distorted after hitting objects on their way to a resting place. A spent casing is one from which a bullet has been fired. Although spent bullets and casings might be found at a crime scene, casings are more likely to be lying in plain sight.
Mishandling evidence. “First rule of any crime scene investigation,” says Swinson, “is when you observe what is obviously evidence, leave it where it is. Don’t move it!” An “Aw c’mon, man” crime scene scenario for Swinson: “Spent casings are visible on the floor beside the body, a semi auto is a few feet away, and a little baggy that contains what appears to be a white powdery substance is near the weapon. The detective picks up the gun and inspects it and then picks up the baggy, opens it and smells or takes a taste using his finger. This makes me crazy! A detective would never pick up crucial evidence before it is photographed or, if necessary, dusted for prints. This contaminates evidence and can jeopardize the prosecutor’s case. And a detective would never, ever pick up what might be illegal narcotics and taste it!”
Mishandling evidence includes placing it in plastic bags. According to Joseph L. Giacalone, a retired detective sergeant, former commanding officer of the Bronx Cold Case Squad and author of Criminal Investigative Function: A Guide for New Investigators (Looseleaf Law Publications, Inc.), “The biggest mistake I still see on TV and in movies is that evidence which may contain biological evidence is put in plastic evidence bags. I guess they want the viewer to see the item, but it is the worst thing you can do with that type of evidence. Plastic builds up moisture and degrades your evidence, even completely destroying it in most cases.” Types of paper containers for collecting evidence include packets, envelopes and bags.
Contaminating the crime scene: Detectives and others ambling about and speculating. Too often in stories, writers depict scenes where detectives and others meander onto a crime scene, then stand around the body and speculate what might have occurred. While they’re speculating, know what else they’re doing? Contaminating the crime scene. Or as one detective phrased it, “They’re creating a defense attorney's wet dream.”
Shaun Kaufman, a Denver, Colorado, criminal defense attorney, agrees. “Cross examining a detective or patrol officer about a crime scene is fun when it has been trampled on by officers, detectives, ambulance personnel and possibly fire personnel. I can ask about hairs and other biological evidence on their clothes as they sit there on the stand. I can ask where each hair, thread, crumb came from. After about five minutes it is pretty clear that the officers, detectives, paramedics and firemen can pick stuff up anywhere and leave it at a crime scene. This is why real-life crime scene investigators don paper booties and coveralls when they work a scene to minimize contamination with their own hair, fluids and whatever else they were wearing when they got to work.”
Contaminating the crime scene: Too many people. Giacalone says one of his pet peeves in stories is when a writer depicts too many people at a crime scene. “Wow, talk about contamination,” he says, “it looks like the policeman's ball in the crime scene. Very few people should be allowed in the actual crime scene: the case investigator, [his/her] partner, their boss, crime scene tech, the medical examiner and if necessary the assistant district attorney.”
In addition, Giacalone offers these tips to writers about crime scenes:
- Investigators should interview the first officer at the scene before entering the scene. They should also ask the first officer to take them through the crime scene so they do not contaminate the scene any further.
- Investigators should avoid going directly to the body in a homicide. They have to fight that natural tendency to go right to it because they may destroy evidence inadvertently when doing do. (Along these lines, an additional “Aw c’mon, man” mistake Swinson often sees in stories is when detectives respond to a homicide scene and immediately move the body, search the pockets and put certain items of possible evidence in their own pockets.)
- A gatekeeper (uniformed police officer) must be at every crime scene to prevent unauthorized members, as well as media, from gaining entry to the scene. The gatekeeper keeps a written record of who enters the scene and why they are there.
A private eye touching a dead body. Being a private investigator in real life, this is one of my pet peeves in stories. Can’t count the number of times I’ve read a scene (or seen in a film) where the private eye stumbles upon a body and rummages through its clothes or touches the body itself. Uh, tampering with evidence charges? Also, unless the private eye has snapped on a pair of latex gloves, he/she’s also leaving their DNA all over the crime scene.
Use these tips and techniques to add plausibility to crime scenes in your stories. Thank you to Novel Rocket and Kelly Klepfer for hosting this guest article!
Just as washed-up criminal defense attorney, life-long Deadhead and current PI Rick Levine decides to get relicensed as a lawyer, he’s charged with killing one and ends up in the slammer with a half-mil bail. Released on bond, Rick and his girlfriend Laura have 30 days to find the real killer. Dodging bullets, a kidnapping and the FBI, they eventually learn that true redemption begins at home.
"Move over Sam Spade, Nick and Nora; make room for a Denver who-dun-it, Colleen Collins’s The Zen Man. Brilliant and fast-paced writing. I couldn’t put it down." ~ Donnell Ann Bell, Award-Winning Author of The Past Came Hunting