Law enforcement officers, crime scene investigators and medical professionals brushed up on field investigation techniques – such as how to catalog evidence at a clandestine burial site – at a workshop at N.C. State University this week.
“A lot of times, they’re trained in collecting evidence indoors,” said Dr. Ann Ross, NCSU professor of forensic anthropology, who led the workshop. Meanwhile, outdoor field investigation is sometimes left to forensic anthropologists, who are often not the first on the scene when a body is discovered.
The workshop aimed to teach field methods to local law enforcement.
“North Carolina is a wide state – we wanted to teach local police these techniques,” she said. Properly preserving evidence in clandestine burial sites is time-sensitive – forensic anthropologists may not be able to make it to a crime scene in time to ensure evidence is collected in a way that makes it the most useful in prosecution.
The workshop was set up by the Forensic Technology Center of Excellence, run by RTI International in collaboration with the National Institute of Justice.
Participants in the workshop were shown how to work the crime scene when a homicide victim is buried in the woods or a field to avoid being found. Those taking part included missing persons detectives, federal agents, coroners, CSI agents and medical examiners. Funding from the institute of justice allowed participants to travel to Raleigh for the workshop from as far away as Hawaii.
Ross showed how to identify and stake out evidence at a field near the NCSU agricultural field lab at Lake Wheeler. In addition to tagging bone, trash and metal evidence, she taught that potential burial sites can be found with a simple poker.
She explained that when a body is buried, soil is dug up but not completely replaced to make room for the body. Then, as the body decomposes, it takes up even less space and can cause the ground to slump. With enough practice, an investigator can identify differences in the soil compaction that could point to a burial site, without expensive equipment such as Ground Penetrating Radar.
Once evidence at the site was tagged, Ross showed how to map the crime scene. She stressed the importance of keeping a meticulous log of where each piece of evidence was found.
Another tip was to make the perimeter of a crime scene as close to a rectangle as possible. Ross said it is easier to convert a crime scene map to a digital format when it is a rectangle. It also will show lawyers involved in the prosecution of a case that the scene was handled with care. Mishandled evidence is a problem that can keep criminals from being prosecuted.
Law enforcement participants said one reason they attended the workshop was to keep up with changing expectations of what is acceptable evidence. They said learning from professional forensic anthropologists helps them do their jobs well and aid prosecutors.
After mapping the crime scene and locating the evidence, participants in the workshop excavated their mock body, a pig carcass.
Dr. Jason Byrd, an entomologist from the University of Florida, taught participants how to identify and trap insects common around a decomposing body. Participants were each given their own chicken carcass to measure its temperature and to capture the bugs feasting on it. Flies hovering around the “bodies” were caught with an insect net and put in vials. Next, participants collected maggots on the chicken carcass and crawling in the grass around it, a sign of more advanced decomposition.
Bird said one of the purposes of the workshop is to “show what [investigators] can get by with as opposed to what you can get.”
Criminal justice agencies can be strapped for cash. Donia Slack, associate director of the FTCoE, said private training for investigators can cost thousands. That is why it is so important to secure federal funding from the institute to “accomplish their main mission of disseminating forensic technology to investigators.”
Stephen Ginley: firstname.lastname@example.org