Parallels Between Death Investigators and Homicide Survivors

By Jan Lewis Canty, Ph.D

Some might say this is a photo of death scene investigators and survivors of homicide – oil and water.  They’d insist the groups on either side of the yellow tape have little in common.  I beg to differ.

Using my experience as a “homicide survivor” and as a psychologist, I’d like to show what I mean.

To start with the obvious – we all have the same goal: an accurate, timely conviction of the perpetrator(s).  While the methods employed are different, someone is responsible for a non-accidental death and must answer for their actions.

As you know, death scene investigators accomplish this scientifically through identifying and processing the crime scene, documenting, preserving, packaging and transporting physical evidence in the field and performing detailed, specialty lab examinations which aid in a determination of the cause of death.

Those left to mourn reach this goal personally – through waiting, cooperating, testifying and hoping.  It’s out of our hands.  We know the outcome is dependent upon experts – and though we may never meet, we appreciate their difficult job.

A second parallel is we all rely on others to reach our mutual goal – no one accomplishes this single-handedly.  Our trusted networks help us get there.

Expert teams involve specialists in fingerprint analysis, trace DNA, law enforcement, ballistics, tire track evidence, blood spatter and so on.  Lab techs carry out their part professionally and quickly.  There is “a hum” to it.

Homicide survivor teams consist, first and foremost, of family and close friends.  Many rely heavily upon district attorneys, detectives, and victim advocates.  Some also turn to clergy and medical professionals. A very important role early on is the family spokesperson to buffer loved ones from their unfamiliar, invasive world.

Third, death triggers unwanted, necessary paperwork.  Investigators take detailed notes in the field, carefully document evidence and write detailed reports.

Those left to grieve face an avalanche of paperwork (at a time they aren’t sure they can recite their address).  A short list includes obtaining multiple copies of the death certificate, dealing with insurance companies, making funeral arrangements and formally withdrawing the deceased from school or work. For adult victims, additional tasks include stopping unwanted mail, closing credit cards, execution of the will, contacting the bank, DMV and so on.

A fourth likeness is, some of what we want admissible during the trial will never be heard. Crime scene investigators may find a valuable shoeprint stepped on by a first responder, a piece of evidence unthinkingly moved, or information obtained in advance of a search warrant.

Survivors may want to testify about the intrusiveness of journalists, how frightening it has become to fall asleep, or the anger and helplessness which crowds out normal thinking. Chances are good they won’t be asked to testify on that, nor how it feels to sit across from the accused or their opinion about the judicial system.

Fifth, television distorts the experience of death on both sides of the crime tape. The notorious “CSI Effect” (perhaps better described as “forensic science fiction”) is the gap between what is shown and what is feasible.  “CSI”, “Law and Order”, “Cold Case” and “The Closer” show the world as we want it to be: clean, neat, fast, unambiguous and somewhat glamorous.

Australian law professor Judith Fordham framed a newer concept called the “tech effect.”  Her studies of juries revealed they are willing to tackle complex forensic evidence if the witness makes it relatable and unpatronizing, especially if the expert is male.  She found it helpful to use common analogies for jury-neutral beliefs to explain complex mechanisms of action.  Fordham also found the “tech effect” is strongest for viewers/jurists who are comfortable with technology.  They expect it at trial but overestimate what technology can achieve (such as hacking into Interpol in minutes or recovering subsurface evidence in contaminated murk).

Crime shows gloss over tedious, time-consuming, decidedly unglamorous fieldwork, report writing and bench science (which is often returned within the hour from a stylish lab that looks for all the world like a trendy Tokyo nightclub).  These dramatizations ignore pesky details such as DNA microextraction, tread block pitch and microscopic particles of explosive primer.  Have you noticed these shows depict investigators working over 24 hours, one case at a time – sometimes in high heels and expensive suits?  More importantly, Hollywood teaches jurors that investigators quickly, accurately narrow the field of suspects and lead audiences to over-estimate the frequency of serious crime by 2 ½ times (raising public anxiety)and the number of those employed in the field.  That is, while attorneys and police officers make up only 1% of the actual workforce in the US, television crime viewers estimate it at more than 16%. 

Dramatic exaggerations of crime scene “science” prejudices jurors to the point where the voir dire process now often includes questions about viewing habits.

These programs depict almost nothing about the mourner’s life after the headlines and trial – when law enforcement, reporters and neighbors have gone. The reality is, of course, there is no ending.  Like trace DNA there is always a stain left behind.  Court verdicts do not return lives to normal, especially if the survivor witnessed the murder, bears scars from the attack, had multiple family members lost, if the death was highly publicized, investigators initially suspected them of the violence, if the deceased was a child, the perpetrator is a trusted relative or friend or if their grief is conflicted.  “Closure” is an offensive, unoriginal, ignorant cliché.

Sixth, defense attorneys are viewed with caution. No doubt some of you have had the unfortunate experience of being on the receiving end of defense counsel trying to discredit testimony based upon short tenure, or with questions such as: “Have you performed the specific evidence collection tested under conditions where the correct answer was known? If not, how can we be confident you are proficient?”  Defense counsel aims to show (if not amplify) limitations of forensic science (i.e. touch DNA has a track record of false positives, or asking details about the limitations of reliability, posing theoretical questions such as “Could there be differences between the samples that you are unable to observe?”)  Worse yet, some defense attorneys patronize. “Could you show me, in your findings, where you reference alternative approaches, assumptions or criticisms of your techniques?” or “Do you accept you could be mistaken?”  A skillful defense attorney will circle back to revisit the topic with similar questions, from a different angle, designed to get the other half of the truth, which makes the expert witness appear to contradict themselves. And they force a yes or no answer to a question requiring elaboration.

Survivors frequently feel the criminal justice system in general, and defense counsel in particular, leaves them marginalized and publicly revictimized.  They soon learn the trial belongs to the government.  It is repulsive to sit through a process where defense counsel puts the deceased on trial by emphasizing a drug problem, prior arrest, wealth, gang affiliation, psychiatric hospitalizations, brashness toward employees, CPS involvement, or any other behavior that puts them at odds with the jury. Defense attorney’s duty to zealously advocate for their client (buttressed by the Warren Court’s decision for due process and defendant rights) often speaks to mitigating factors to support leniency in sentencing. To the survivor, they sound like excuses – not reasons.

Seventh, we are at risk for acute stress disorder – even PTSD.  As British pathologist Richard Shepherd wrote in his book “Unnatural Causes”: “It’s a battle for detachment, a strategy of repression where you tightly screw yourself down.  You live in a cocoon of interpersonal professional detachment.  And that’s not all.  We do this incredible work in forensics – put reports together then stand up in court and some barrister has a go at you after you’ve given your heart and soul to a case.  It can be painful.  You must convince yourself that, in the end, you are doing good.”

Homicide survivors are also at risk for acute stress disorder and PTSD. The greatest likelihood are those who identify the remnants of their loved one, who are intruded upon by the media, who may had preexisting or comorbid conditions, who were injured/raped during the event, survivors who sleep under the same roof where the murder occurred, the very young, those without resources or people unable to return to work.

Eighth, what we have witnessed is not shared casually nor frequently with others. Why go there? It’s not a topic for entertainment or idle conversation and there is a code of ethics among scientists regarding the confidentiality of their work.

For families, the wish to dodge the topic is strengthened by social withdrawal, shame, fear, and exhaustion. This can and does set us apart from others socially, emotionally and sometimes physically.

We have lived in a world separate from others who have no close-up experience with violent death.   They do not know what it smells like.  They have never stood over a decayed, dismembered, burned or crushed body.  Worse yet, many “outsiders” believe they do understand – explaining they “saw it on television.”  Some cross the line with the sentiment “I know just how you feel.”

Ninth, the media is our ally and our nemesis.  For investigators, it can assist in real-time communication between the police, the public, and investigators.  There have been cases where the media helped solve a crime (such as the 2012 murder of Jill Meagher from Melbourne whose last moments via Facebook were preserved, and YouTube assisted in apprehending her killer). But, conversely, the media functions without a mandate to consider the repercussions of their stories, which can jeopardize the outcome.  With police scanners and other technology, journalists may arrive ahead of the investigative team. The evidence is compromised when a news helicopter stirs the air around an outdoor crime scene, drones record visual images at an altitude of only 150 feet causing significant distractions, or when friction between different officials on the scene is hastily posted on Twitter, only to become fodder for the defense later.

For families of the deceased, the media has been invaluable in tracking down suspects with Amber Alerts and accurate news broadcasts.  Publicity also nudges accomplices to turn themselves in (and become a witness for the prosecution in exchange for immunity).  But the ever-present rush to meet deadlines and grab headlines increases the likelihood of errors, which can derail, delay or even deadlock the investigation and increase stress for survivors.  The lengths to which the media will go to grab their story is legend and leads to further loss of control for those left to mourn. Shoving a camera or microphone at a family member while in initial shock (when trauma disrupts the normal blood flow to the speech centers of the brain) causes them to be speechless or incoherent and forever remembered that way. The adage “if it bleeds it leads” is just as true in the age of Twitter as in the heyday of radio.

And last, but not least, we belong to a small but growing group of people who have learned in 3D that life can be snatched without notice, that we are anything but invincible.  We know – first hand – that human beings are the greatest predators on earth. Death scene investigators and homicide survivors bear witnesses to the dangerousness of this world.  We are not oil and water.  Far from it. The yellow tape is where we meet.

Jan Canty, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist with over thirty years’ experience in the field. She became a homicide survivor in July of 1985 when she learned her husband of ten years had been dismembered and found in a shallow grave.  Today she is remarried with interests in photography, writing, traveling and weight lifting.  Dr. Canty has been a guest on several podcasts, completed a manuscript about life after homicide entitled “A Life Divided” and will be speaking at the annual IAI conference in Reno this year.