Tag Archive for: investigation

A homicide case is a puzzle, and it’s the job of the investigator to put the pieces together until they see a picture emerge. They may not always complete an entire image, but there should be enough there to clearly know that a crime was indeed committed and that the face that emerged from the puzzle is definitely that of the suspect.

Here are some of the major points/puzzle pieces to consider when investigating a murder.

1. When conducting a homicide investigation always take time to look at the case from the point of view of the defense attorney. What holes are in the case? What does your case lack? What’s missing? What areas could a defense attorney attack? Find those things and then locate the evidence needed to fill the voids. If there’s evidence out there, find it. If it’s not, then know the reason(s) why it’s unavailable. If details are left open-ended, a good defense attorney will use untidy loose ends as a means to indicate their client’s innocence. “If the detective had simply gone one step further they’d have discovered that my client could not be guilty of the crime!” Besides, the things you discover while approaching the case from this angle will almost always help build a better and stronger case.

2. Direct Evidence and Circumstantial Evidence.

A woman is standing at the counter of a dry cleaning store waiting for the clerk to come from the back room. She’s startled by a loud bang. The door to the room opens and a bald man holding a gun in hand runs out and then continues running outside through the open front door. The woman goes into the back room and sees the female clerk lying on the floor. She’s dead from what appears to be a gunshot wound to the head. There is no other entrance or exit from the room. The customer calls the police.

Direct Evidence is something actually observed by the witness, or clear evidence of fact. In the case above the direct evidence is:

a) The sound of the gunshot. The customer actually heard the sound.

b) The customer saw a bald man emerge from the room and he was holding a gun in his hand.

c) The clerk is lying on the floor with what appears to be a gunshot wound to her head. Blood, or what appears to be blood, is on the floor around the head of the victim.

Above image is from the Writers’ Police Academy’s “Treating the Trauma Patient” workshop. It is a staged photo and no one was harmed. The smile on the “victim’s face, however, was very real. She enjoyed teaching writers.

*Officers may not testify that the reddish-brownish liquid substance on the carpet was blood because at the time the material had not been tested and identified by laboratory experts. They may only testify to what they actually know, not what they think.

Circumstantial Evidence relates to fact or a series of facts that infers, but does not implicitly prove, another fact. In the case above we can infer, circumstantially, that the bald man who ran out of the room was indeed the killer because no one else was there, and there was no way anyone could have escaped other than by exiting the front door.

Now let’s revisit the case of the Washed Up Dry Cleaner, but from the defense attorney’s point of view. We, as investigators, know this … The clerk was killed by a gunshot wound to the head. A customer saw a bald man holding a gun run out of the back and then escape out into the street.

The defense attorney is already thinking of angles to defend their client, such as … It’s possible the clerk had tried to kill the bald man who managed to grab the gun, which accidentally discharged during a struggle. Or, the bald man, fearing for his life, fled from the business while still clutching the pistol. Suppose the bald man had witnessed the clerk shoot herself as an attempted suicide, so he panicked, grabbed the gun, and ran to get help? Was there a romantic tie between the two that could’ve resulted in a “heat of the moment” act of violence?

These are puzzle pieces that must be located in order to prove the “maybe this, maybe that” theories wrong, and that the bald man indeed killed the clerk, or not.

3. Proving Fact. 

We have the evidence, both direct and circumstantial, so how to we prove the bald man killed the clerk, or that he did not commit the crime? Let’s start by proving the defense theories wrong. Suicide? We’ll check for close contact powder burns and/or stippling, and gunshot residue on the hands of the victim. None there, so suicide is most likely not an option. The same is true for a struggle over the weapon (the self defense claim). No signs of a struggle—defensive wounds, items in the room overturned. Again, no close contact powder burns and/or stippling.

It’s safe to conclude the shooting took place from a distance, not at close range.

Through our investigation, we’ve learned there was no connection between the victim and her killer. Security video shows no one else entered the store other than Bald Man and the witness.

By proving the potential defense theories wrong, we’ve now bolstered our murder case against the bald man.

4. MOM – Motive, Opportunity, and Means

Now that we’ve definitely set our sights on Bald Man as the probable killer, it’s time to dig deep into the box to begin pulling out the puzzle pieces featuring specific details. So let’s call on MOM to help.

M = Motive. At this point, we don’t know the motive so we have to begin a search of the suspect’s personal history (gambling debt, robbery, infidelity, etc.). Detectives will attempt to learn the motive as the investigation progresses.

O = Opportunity. Check. We know that Bald Man was there at the scene of the crime.

M = Means. Check. Bald Man definitely had a gun.

In addition to MOM, there are a few other considerations on our handy checklist, such as:

Intent – Did Bald Man intend to kill the clerk? Ties to motive.

Plan – Did Bald Man plan to kill the clerk? Was this a premeditated act? If so, why? Ties to motive.

Preparation – Did Bald Man take steps to carry out his plan? Did he stockpile ammunition. Did he try to hire someone to commit the murder for him? Get his affairs in order in case he’s caught and goes to jail.

All of these details will be revealed during a thorough investigation.

5. First Responders.

It’s important to alert, train, and beg first responders—patrol officers, EMS, fire, etc. to not muddy up the crime scene by moving, tainting, disrupting, contaminating, or handling evidence.

6. The Crime Scene.

The back room of the dry cleaners is where the shooting took place, therefore it is the primary crime scene, or scene of the crime.

Suppose Bald Man hides the pistol in a dumpster down the street and it’s found by garbage collectors who alert police to their discovery. The dumpster is then a secondary crime scene, or simply a crime scene. Anyplace where evidence of a crime is found is considered to be a crime scene or secondary crime scene. Investigators should label each of those locations appropriately and orderly (Secondary Crime Scene A – dumpster at corner of Main and Killer, Secondary Crime Scene B – top dresser drawer in master bedroom of Bald Man’s residence at 666 Manson Lane, etc.).

7. Sometimes it’s best to work a case in reverse by ruling out potential suspects who couldn’t have committed the crime. Then, when all is said and done, the last man standing, so to speak, is the killer.

So there you have it, a few of the basic steps to solving a murder puzzle.

Finally, click the link for a detailed list of Homicide Investigation Do’s and Don’t’s. 


In case you’re still concerned about the “victim” in the above photo, here she is again enjoying a bite to eat between classes at the Writers’ Police Academy.


The makeup used in these workshops is extremely realistic.

What does MOM have to do with catching bad guys? We all know our moms have super powers. They can see through walls, hear a whisper at 100 paces, and they have the unique ability to silence us with a mere glance. But could those unique qualities help nab a serial killer?

In the world of cops and robbers, to learn who committed a crime and why, investigators must first find MOM – the acronym for Motive, Opportunity, and Means. Normally, the suspect who possesses all three is indeed the true bad guy.

The Investigation

I’ve always felt it best to approach a crime scene in a systematic method, in four very basic steps: the initial evaluation, develop and expand the case, narrow the leads (witnesses and evidence), and present the case to the prosecutor and court.

The first two steps in the investigation—initial evaluation and developing the case—are where MOM first begins to appear. In a detective’s initial approach, they should look at the scene as a whole, taking in everything they see, not just a dead body, or an open safe.

Many clues are quite obvious but are often missed because the inexperienced investigator immediately begins collecting the trace, hoping forensics will solve the case for them. Trace and other forensic evidence is actually icing on the cake. Most crimes are still solved the old fashioned way, by knocking on doors, talking to people, and listening. In fact, the best investigators are really good listeners.

When investigating a murder I first looked to see who had:

Motive – The person who would benefit the most from the crime (life insurance beneficiary, jealous spouse, etc.)

Opportunity – The person who had no alibi for every single moment during the commission of the crime and its subsequent acts, including the planning stages of the crime. This stage of the investigation takes an enormous amount of time, lots of leg work, tons of phone calls, door-knocking, and many cups of coffee and hours of thinking. Again, be a good listener is key.

Means – The suspect must have had access to the murder weapon (includes a killer for hire) and all evidence in the crime.

Remember, complex criminal cases are most often solved by eliminating the people who could not have committed the crime, which eventually leads to the last man standing – the perpetrator.

The compound

This blog is coming to you today from our secure compound where we’ve been hunkered down now for eight weeks. All groceries and other supplies are delivered and sanitized and then stored in the garage for a period of time prior to bringing them inside. Then they’re washed with soap and water. We don’t touch mail with our bare hands. This is a process that’s necessary due to my suppressed immune system and the fact that Denene (my wife) is a microbiologist who’s very protective of me and takes no chances with my health.

Speaking of sanitizing items and the reasons for doing so, per request, we’ve added a new session to the 2020 MurderCon lineup. It’s called “A Microbiologist’s Perspective of Covid 19 and the Spread of Disease.” Denene will present this Thursday evening session. The presentation serves two purposes. One, to address covid-19 from its beginning through vaccine. Two, attendees will learn details necessary when writing about bioterrorism and the spread of diseases.You will not want to miss this incredibly important session.

Denene Lofland, PhD, FACSc, is an expert on bioterrorism and microbiology. She’s managed hospital laboratories and for many years worked as a senior director at biotech companies specializing in new drug discovery. She and her team members, for example, produced successful results that included drugs prescribed to treat cystic fibrosis and bacterial pneumonia. Denene, along with other top company officials, traveled to the FDA to present those findings. As a result, those drugs were approved by the FDA and are now on the market.

Calling on her vast expertise in microbiology, Denene then focused on bioterrorism. With a secret security clearance, she managed a team of scientists who worked in an undisclosed location, in a plain red-brick building that contained several laboratories. Hidden in plain sight, her work there was for the U.S. military.

She’s written numerous peer reviewed articles, contributed to and edited chapters in Bailey and Scott’s Diagnostic Microbiology, a textbook used by universities and medical schools, and she taught microbiology to medical students at a medical school. She’s currently the director of the medical diagnostics program at a major university, where she was recently interviewed for a video about covid-19.

Denene is a regular featured speaker at the annual Clinical Laboratory Educators Conference, and she’s part of the faulty for the National Board of Osteopathic Medical Examiners.

MurderCon is moving forward as planned. We have carefully detailed plans in place for proper social distancing and we’re furnishing masks and hand sanitizer will be readily available. Sirchie, our host, is in the loop with state and local health officials since they’re in the business of making PPE equipment, including hand sanitizer and masks, for 1st responders. Between Sirchie officials and our in-house microbiologist, Denene, we’re closely monitoring the situation and making preparations. Your safety, as always, is our priority.

Sign up today to reserve your spot!

MurderCon 2020


AAFS – American Academy of Forensic Science

Abandonment:  Knowingly giving up one’s right to property without further intending to reclaim or gain possession. Abandoned property can be searched by police officers without a search warrant. Most states deem it illegal to abandon motor vehicles, and the owner may be summoned to civil court to answer charges, pay fines, or to receive notice of vehicle impoundment and disposal.

Abduction:  The criminal act of taking someone away by force, depriving that person of liberty or freedom. A person who has been kidnapped against their will has been abducted. This definition does not apply to a law-enforcement officer in the performance of his duties.

*FYI writers – Local police agencies can and do investigate kidnapping/abduction cases. I’ve worked and solved several. The FBI does NOT have to be called for abduction cases.

Abscond:  To covertly leave the jurisdiction of the court or hide to avoid prosecution or arrest. A suspect who “jumps bail” or hides from police, while knowing a warrant has been issued for her arrest, has absconded from justice. Film director/producer Roman Polanski absconded to France before he could be sentenced for having unlawful sex with a minor.

Adipocere – Waxy substance found on decomposing bodies (consisting of fatty tissue). Also known as grave wax.

Affidavit – Written statement of facts given under oath.

ALS (Alternate Light Source): Lighting equipment used to enhance/visualize potential evidence.

APIS – Automated Palmprint Identification System.

Armed Robbery:  Robbery is the act of taking, or seizing, someone’s property by using force, fear, or intimidation. Using a weapon, such as a gun, knife, or club, to carry out the same robbery constitutes an armed robbery. You have NOT been robbed when someone breaks into your home while you’re away and steals your TV.



Badge Bunny:  Nickname given by police officers to females who prefer to date only police officers and firemen. Many of these badge bunnies actively pursue recent police academy graduates to the point of actually stalking the officers. Some have even committed minor offenses and made false police complaints to be near the officers they desire. Many police academies mention badge bunnies near the end of the officer’s academy training to prepare them for the possible situation.

BDU – Battle dress uniform (often worn by crime scene investigators, SWAT, canine officers, and entry teams).

BioFoam – A substance used to make impressions.

Bond – Money or other security posted with the court to guarantee an appearance.



Case File: Collection of documents pertaining to a specific investigation. The case file specific to a particular homicide investigation is sometimes called the “murder book.”

Case Identifiers: Specific numbers or alphabetic characters assigned to a specific case for the purpose of identification. For example – Case #ABC-123 or #987ZYX

Chalk Outline – This is a myth. Police DO NOT outline the bodies of murder victims. Why not? Because doing so would contaminate the scene. Tracing around the body could also move vital evidence. Crime scenes are photographed, not color-in with fingerprints or pastels.

Chase: Empty space inside a wall, floor, or ceiling that’s used for plumbing, electrical, and/or HVAC ductwork. A chase is a common hiding spot for illegal contraband and/or evidence (murder weapons, narcotics, stolen items, etc.).

CI – Confidential informant.

CSM – Crime scene management.

Complaint – Statement given under oath where someone accuses another person of a crime. Officers may also refer to a call as a complaint. “Man, I caught two loud music complaints in one hour last night.”

Complainant – Person who accuses another. Or, someone who called the police. “Go to 1313 Mockingbird Lane. The complainant’s name is Herman Munster.”

Cook – Make crack cocaine or methamphetamine.



Dying Declaration: Statement about a crime made by a person who is about to die.



EDTA – Anticoagulating agent (tubes containing EDTA have purple tops).

Electrostatic Dust Lifter: Device that electrically charges a piece of plastic film that’s placed over a print made in dust (a shoe or palm print, for example), which in turn causes the dust to adhere to the film. The result is a perfectly captured print that’s ready for photographing.

Fire triangle – Three must-haves for a fire to burn—heat, fuel, and oxygen.



Floater – Body found in water.



Hit – Outstanding warrant, or stolen. “We got a hit on that car.”

Hook ’em Up – To handcuff a prrisoner.

Hot – Stolen.



IABPA – International Association of Bloodstain Pattern Analysis.

Information – Paperwork (document) filed by a prosecutor that accuses someone of a crime.



Knock and announce – Requirement that officers knock on the door and announce their presence when serving a search warrant. “Police. Search warrant!”



Latent Print: Print that’s not readily visible to the human eye.



OIC – Officer in charge.



PC – Probable cause. “Do you have enough PC to get a warrant?”

Patent Print: A fingerprint that’s easily seen/visible with the naked eye, without the use of powders and/or chemical or other enhancements.

Plastic – Credit card.

Priors – Previous arrests.

PPE – Personal protective equipment.

Projectile Trajectory Analysis: The process used to determine the path traveled by a high-speed object (bullets, arrows, etc.).



Ride the chair – Die by electrocution.

Ride the needle – Die by lethal injection.

Roll up – Arrest someone.



Stripes – A sergeant’s patch or insignia.



Tache noire – Drying of the eye that results in a black line across the cornea.

T-Bone – Broadsided in an crash.

Trace Evidence: Small bits of evidence, such as fibers, hairs, glass fragments, gunshot residue, etc.



UC – Undercover officer.



V Pattern – Pattern formed by fire burning on or against a wall. Usually the fire’s point of origin is at the peak of the V.

Verbal – A warning. “I gave him a verbal, but next time his butt’s going to jail.”

VIN – Vehicle Identification number. (“Run the VIN on that car to see if you get a hit.”)

Visual – Able to see something or someone. “Have you got a visual?”



Walk – To get off a charge. Released without a record.

Write – Issue a summons.

“Did you write him?”

“Yep. 87 in a 55.”