Top 5 Mistakes Writers Make at a Crime Scene ~ Colleen Collins

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

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
  • 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!  

Book Blurb

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