Examination and Documentation of the Crime Scene
Examination and Documentation
by George Schiro
of the Crime Scene
Louisiana State Police Crime Laboratory
Examination of the Crime Scene
Before the investigators begin examining the scene of the crime, they should gather as much information as
possible about the scene. Once again, a slow and methodical approach is recommended. Information is
gathered to prevent destruction of valuable and/or fragile evidence such as shoeprints, trace evidence, etc.
Once all of the information is gathered, a mental plan is formulated as to how the crime scene will be
analyzed. Copious notes and relevant times should be kept on every aspect of the crime scene
investigation. The examination of the scene will usually begin with a walk through of the area along the
"trail" of the crime. The trail is that area which all apparent actions associated with the crime took place.
The trail is usually marked by the presence of physical evidence. This may include the point of entry, the
location of the crime, areas where a suspect may have cleaned up, and the point of exit. In some cases, a
walk through may become secondary if potential evidence is in danger of being destroyed. In that case, this
evidence should be preserved, or documented and collected as quickly as possible.
The purpose of the walk through is to note the location of potential evidence and to mentally outline how the
scene will be examined. The walk through begins as close to the point of entry as possible. The first place
the investigators should examine is the ground on which they are about to tread. If any evidence is
observed, then a marker should be placed at the location as a warning to others not to step on the item of
A good technique to use indoors on hard floors is the oblique lighting technique (also known as side
lighting). A good flashlight with a strong concentrated beam is the only tool needed. The room should be
darkened as much as possible. If a light switch which a suspect may have touched needs to be turned off,
then make sure the switch has been dusted for fingerprints first. Do not close any blinds or shades until
after all general photographs have been taken. In the side lighting technique, a flashlight is held about one
inch from the floor. The beam is then angled so that it just sweeps over the floor surface and is almost
parallel to the surface. The light is then fanned back and forth. Any evidence, such as trace evidence and
shoeprints, will show up dramatically. Under normal lighting conditions, this evidence may be barely visible
or completely invisible.
As the walk through progresses, the investigators should make sure their hands are occupied by either
carrying notebooks, flashlights, pens, etc. or by keeping them in their pockets. This is to prevent depositing
of unwanted fingerprints at the scene. As a final note on the walk through, the investigators should examine
whatever is over their heads (ceiling, tree branches, etc.). These areas may yield such valuable evidence
as blood spatters and bullet holes. Once the walk through is completed, the scene should be documented
with videotape, photographs, and/or sketches.
Documenting the Crime Scene
Videotaping the Crime Scene
If available, a video camera is the first step to documenting a crime scene. Videotape can provide a
perspective on the crime scene layout which cannot be as easily perceived in photographs and sketches. It
is a more natural viewing medium to which people can readily relate, especially in demonstrating the
structure of the crime scene and how the evidence relates to the crime. The video camera should have a
fully charged battery as well as date and time videotape display functions. A title generator and "shake
free" operations are also nice options. If a title generator is not available, then about 15 seconds at the
beginning of the tape should be left blank. This will allow the addition of a title card with any pertinent
information to the beginning of the crime scene tape. The condition of the scene should remain unaltered
with the exception of markers placed by the investigators and any lights turned on during the walk through.
These alterations can be noted on the audio portion of the tape. Before taping, the camera range should
be cleared of all personnel. Any people in the area should be forewarned that taping is about to
commence and they should remain silent for the duration of the tape. This prevents recording any
potentially embarrassing statements.
Once the video camera begins recording, it should not be stopped until the taping is complete. The key to
good videotaping is slow camera movement. A person can never move too slowly when videotaping, yet it
is all too easy to move the camera fast without realizing it. This is why videotaping is not ideal for viewing
detail. People have a tendency to pan past objects in a manner that does not allow the camera to properly
capture the object. This is why slow panning of an area is necessary and it should be panned twice in order
to prevent unnecessary rewinding of the tape when viewing.
The taping should begin with a general overview of the scene and surrounding area. The taping should
continue throughout the crime scene using wide angle, close up, and even macro (extreme close up) shots
to demonstrate the layout of the evidence and its relevance to the crime scene. If videotaping in a
residence, the camera can show how the pertinent rooms are laid out in relation to each other and how they
can be accessed. This is sometimes lost in photographs and sketches. After the taping is complete, it is
wise to leave about 15 seconds of blank tape to prevent the crime scene tape from running into anything
else previously recorded on the tape. The tape should then be transferred to a high quality master tape.
The recording tabs should be removed from the master tape after transferring the crime scene tape and
the master should be stored in a safe place. This is to prevent accidental erasure of the crime scene tape.
Copies can then be made from the master tape.
Whether a video camera is available or not, it is absolutely essential that still photographs be taken to
document the crime scene. If a video camera is available, then photographs will be the second step in
recording the crime scene. If video is not available, then still photography will be the first step. Photographs
can demonstrate the same type of things that the videotape does, but photographs from the crime scene
can also be used in direct comparison situations. For example, actual size photographs (also known as
one-to-one photos) can be used to compare fingerprint and shoeprints photographed at the crime scene to
known fingerprints or shoes from a suspect. This is the advantage of photographs over videotape.
Almost any type of camera with interchangeable lenses and a format of 35mm or larger will do in crime
scene photography. The lenses should include a 28mm wide angle lens, a normal 55mm lens, and a lens
with macro capabilities (1:4 or better). The flash unit used with the camera should be one that is not fixed to
the camera. It should be able to function at various angles and distances from the camera. This is to allow
lighting of certain aeras to provide maximum contrast, place the flash in hard to reach areas, and reduce
flash wash out which can render the item photographed invisible. Print and/or slide color film (25-400 ISO)
should be used. A tripod, a level, and a small ruler should also be available for one-to-one photography. It
may be of help to the investigation to have a Polaroid camera handy for instant photographs. For example,
an instant photograph of a shoeprint found at a crime scene can be provided to investigators who are
running a search warrant on a suspect's residence. The photo will tell them the type of shoe for which they
The photography of the crime scene should begin with wide angle photos of the crime scene and
surrounding areas. When shooting the general overall scene, the photos should show the layout of the
crime scene and the overall spatial relationships of the various pieces of evidence to each other. A good
technique to use indoors is to shoot from all four corners of a room to show its overall arrangement. The
next set of photos should be medium range to show the relationships of individual pieces of evidence to
other pieces of evidence or structures in the crime scene. Finally, close up photos should be taken of key
pieces of evidence. A ruler should be photographed with items where relative size is important or on items
which need to have one-to-one comparison photographs. The object should first be photographed as is,
then photographed with the ruler. It is important that when doing one-to-one photography that the ruler is
on the same plane as the object being photographed and the film plane is parallel to the ruler. This is why
a level and a tripod are necessary. Notes should also be taken as to what the investigator is photographing
or wishes to demonstrate in each photograph. This is to prevent the investigator from getting the picture
back at a later date and trying to figure out what he or she was trying to accomplish with the photo. The
same areas should be photographed in the same sequence as mentioned above in the paragraphs on
Crime Scene Sketching
The final phase in documenting the scene is making a crime scene sketch. The drawback of photographs
is that they are two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional objects. As a result, most
photographs can distort the spatial relationships of the photographed objects causing items to appear
closer together or farther apart than they actually are. If spatial relationships of the evidence are important
or if something needs to have proportional measurements included in it for calculations (such as bullet
trajectory angles, accident reconstructions, etc.) then a sketch must be made of the crime scene.
A sketch is usually made of the scene as if one is looking straight down (overhead sketch) or straight ahead
(elevation sketch) at a crime scene. A rough sketch at the scene is usually made first on graph paper in
pencil with so many squares representing so many square feet or inches. Directionality of the overhead
view is determined by using a compass. Using a tape measure or other measuring devices, measurements
are taken at crime scene of the distances between objects and/or structures at the crime scene. These
measurements are proportionally reduced on the rough sketch and the objects are drawn in. Two
measurements taken at right angles to each other or from two reference points will usually suffice in
placing the objects where they belong in a sketch. Double measurements should also be taken to make
sure they are correct. This is especially true where calculations will later be used. A final sketch can be
made later using inks, paper, and ruler, or a computer. The original rough sketch should be retained and
preserved in case it is needed at a later date. Once the scene has been thoroughly documented then the
evidence collection can commence.
- Moreau, Dale M. "Fundamental Principles and Theory of Crime Scene Photography" Quantico: Forensic Science Training Unit, FBI Academy.
- Redsicker, David R. The Practical Methodologv of Forensic Photography, Elsevier: New York. 1991.
- "Sketching Crime Scenes" U.S. Dept. of Justice, FBI.