A Guide to Death Scene Investigation: Arriving at the Death Scene

When a death investigator first arrives at the crime scene, he or she must confirm the death and conduct a scene walkthrough. He or she should follow these steps:

Introduce and Identify Self and Role

Principle: Introductions at the scene allow the investigator to establish formal contact with other official agency representatives. The investigator must identify the first responder to ascertain if any artifacts or contamination may have been introduced to the death scene. The investigator must work with all key people to ensure command protocol and scene safety prior to his/her entrance into the scene.

Authorization: Medical Examiner/Coroner Official Office Policy Manual; State or Federal Statutory Authority.

Policy: The investigator shall take the initiative to introduce himself or herself, identify essential personnel, establish rapport and determine scene safety and security.

Procedure: Upon arrival at the scene, and prior to entering the scene, the investigator should:

  1. Identify the lead investigator at the scene and present identification.
  2. Identify other essential officials at the scene (e.g., law enforcement, fire, EMS, social/child protective services) and explain the investigator's role in the investigation.
  3. Identify and document the identity of the first essential official(s) to the scene (first "professional" arrival at the scene for investigative follow-up) to ascertain if any artifacts or contamination may have been introduced to the death scene.
  4. Determine the scene safety and security (prior to entry).

Summary: Introductions at the scene help to establish a collaborative investigative effort. It is essential to carry identification in the event of questioned authority. It is essential to establish scene safety prior to entry.

Exercise Scene Safety and Security

Principle: Determining scene safety and security for all investigative personnel is essential to the investigative process. The risk of environmental and physical injury must be removed prior to initiating a scene investigation. Risks can include hostile crowds; collapsing structures; traffic; and environmental, chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive (CBRNE) threats.

Authorization: Medical Examiner/Coroner Official Office Policy Manual; State or Federal Statutory Authority.

Policy: The investigator shall attempt to establish scene safety and security prior to entering the scene to prevent injury or loss of life, including contacting appropriate agencies for assistance with other scene safety and security issues.

Procedure: Upon arrival at the scene, the investigator should:

  1. Assess and/or establish physical boundaries.
  2. Identify incident command.
  3. Secure vehicle and park as safely as possible.
  4. Use personal protective safety devices (physical, biohazard safety).
  5. Arrange for removal of animals or secure (if present and possible).
  6. Obtain clearance/authorization to enter scene from the individual responsible for scene safety (e.g., fire marshal, disaster coordinator).
  7. While exercising scene safety and security, protect the integrity of the scene and evidence to the extent possible from contamination or loss by people, animals and elements.

Note: Due to potential scene hazards (e.g., crowd control, collapsing structures, poisonous gases, traffic), the body may have to be removed before scene investigation can be continued.

Summary: Environmental and physical threats to the investigator must be removed in order to conduct a scene investigation safely. Protective devices must be used by investigative staff to prevent injury. The investigator must endeavor to protect the evidence against contamination or loss.

Confirm or Pronounce Death

Principle: Appropriate personnel must make a determination of death prior to the initiation of the death investigation. The confirmation or pronouncement of death determines jurisdictional responsibilities.

Authorization: Medical Examiner/Coroner Official Office Policy Manual; State or Federal Statutory Authority.

Policy: The investigator shall ensure that appropriate personnel have viewed the body and that death has been confirmed.

Procedure: Upon arrival at the scene, the investigator should:

  1. Locate and view the body.
  2. Check for pulse, respiration and reflexes, as appropriate.
  3. Identify and document the individual who made the official determination of death, including the date, time and location of determination.
  4. Ensure death is pronounced, as required.

Summary: Once death has been determined, rescue/resuscitative efforts cease and medicolegal jurisdiction can be established. It is vital that this occur prior to the medical examiner/coroner's assuming any responsibilities.

Participate in Scene Briefing (With Attending Agency Representatives)

Principle: Scene investigators must recognize the varying jurisdictional and statutory responsibilities that apply to individual agency representatives (e.g., law enforcement, fire, EMT, judicial/legal). Determining each agency’s investigative responsibility at the scene is essential in planning the scope and depth of each scene investigation and official release of information to the public.

Authorization: Medical Examiner/Coroner Official Office Policy Manual; State or Federal Statutory Authority.

Policy: The investigator shall identify specific responsibilities, share appropriate preliminary information, and establish investigative goals of each agency present at the scene.

Procedure: When participating in scene briefing, the investigator should:

  1. Locate the staging area (entry point to scene, command post, etc.).
  2. Document the scene location (address, mile marker, building name, latitude and longitude coordinates) consistent with other agencies.
  3. Determine nature and scope of investigation by obtaining preliminary investigative details (e.g., suspicious versus non-suspicious death, multiple scenes).
  4. Confirm that initial accounts of incident are obtained from the first witness(es).

Summary: Scene briefing allows for initial and factual information exchange. This includes scene location, time factors, initial witness information, agency responsibilities and investigative strategy.

Note: Since current global positioning system (GPS) devices may have error, it is important to establish the location using other reference points (permanent landmarks) and distance/bearing from landmarks whenever GPS is used.

Conduct Scene "Walk Through"

Principle: Conducting a scene "walk through" provides the investigator with an overview of the entire scene. The "walk through" provides the investigator with the first opportunity to locate and view the body, identify valuable and fragile evidence, and determine initial investigative procedures providing for a systematic examination and documentation of the scene and body.

Authorization: Medical Examiner/Coroner Official Office Policy Manual; State or Federal Statutory Authority.

Policy: The investigator shall conduct a scene "walk through" to establish pertinent scene parameters.

Procedure: Upon arrival at the scene, the investigator should:

  1. Reassess scene boundaries and adjust as appropriate.
  2. Establish a path of entry and exit to include scene log.
  3. Identify visible physical and fragile evidence.
  4. Document and photograph fragile evidence immediately and collect if appropriate.
  5. Locate and view the decedent.

Summary: The initial scene "walk through" is essential to minimize scene disturbance and to prevent the loss and/or contamination of physical and fragile evidence.

Establish Chain of Custody

Principle: Ensuring the integrity of the evidence by establishing and maintaining a chain of custody is vital to an investigation. This will safeguard against subsequent allegations of tampering, theft, planting and contamination of evidence.

Authorization: Medical Examiner/Coroner Official Office Policy Manual; State or Federal Statutory Authority.

Policy: Prior to the removal of any evidence, the custodian(s) of evidence shall be designated and shall generate and maintain a chain of custody for all evidence collected.

Procedure: Throughout the investigation, those responsible for preserving the chain of custody should:

  1. Document location of the scene and time of arrival of the death investigator at the scene.
  2. Determine custodian(s) of evidence, determine which agency(ies) is/are responsible for collection of specific types of evidence, and determine evidence collection priority for fragile/fleeting evidence.
  3. Identify, document, secure and preserve evidence with proper containers, labels and preservatives.
  4. Document the collection of evidence by recording its location at the scene, time of collection, time and location of disposition, and by whom.
  5. Develop personnel lists, witness lists, and documentation of times of arrival and departure of personnel.

Summary: It is essential to maintain a proper chain of custody for evidence. Through proper documentation, collection and preservation, the integrity of the evidence can be assured. A properly maintained chain of custody and prompt transfer will reduce the likelihood of a challenge to the integrity of the evidence.

Follow Laws (Related to the Collection of Evidence)

Principle: The investigator must follow local, state and federal laws for the collection of evidence to ensure its admissibility. The investigator must work with law enforcement and the legal authorities to determine laws regarding collection of evidence.

Authorization: Medical Examiner/Coroner Official Office Policy Manual; State or Federal Statutory Authority.

Policy: The investigator working with other agencies must identify and work under appropriate legal authority. Modification of informal procedures may be necessary but laws must always be followed.

Procedure: The investigator, prior to or upon arrival at the death scene, should work with other agencies to:

  1. Determine the need for a search warrant (discuss with appropriate agencies).
  2. Identify local, state, federal and international laws (discuss with appropriate agencies).
  3. Identify medical examiner/coroner statutes and office standard operating procedures (discuss with appropriate agencies).

Summary: Following laws related to the collection of evidence will ensure a complete and proper investigation in compliance with state and local laws, admissibility in court and adherence to office policies and protocols.

Date Created: June 15, 2009