During her session at Sleuthfest 2018, Sharon Plotkin, a Certified Crime Scene Investigator in Miami, Florida, talked about CSI failures and mistakes that can and have ruined cases. During her talk, she focused on two high-profile cases: OJ Simpson and JonBenét Ramsey.
Her first point was readers are jurors, and a writer needs to keep it real; nevertheless, Murphy’s Law (anything that can go wrong will go wrong) can occur and the police and CSI investigators do make mistakes.
One of the biggest problems, she said, is law enforcement personnel who have been on the job a long time. They will sometimes jump to conclusions. They slip into a “Been there, seen it” mentality.
- They need to handle each case as if it’s a first, but that doesn’t always happen.
She gave an example of a crime scene that looked like a suicide: The body was badly decomposed when discovered and the victim was holding a gun. The officer’s first impression was it was a suicide.
Having a gun in hand, however, does not prove it’s a suicide, and when they looked around, they discovered there were no shell casing. If the man had shot himself, there should have been at least one shell casing. It ended up, that in the process of planning on shooting himself, the man died of a heart attack.
Ms. Plotkin emphasized how important the first responder is. Crime Scene Investigators must get what’s meaningful and important, and they have only one chance to do it right. That means they should work a scene as long as it takes (not be rushed) and it’s better to document more than you think you’ll need. (You never know when something will end up being important.) She said 19 to 20 hours is the longest stretch she’s worked a scene.
She then went on to relate how evidence was messed up in the O.J. Simpson case.
- Until the crime scene is released, it must be protected, and that didn’t happen that night.
- Officers walked around the bodies and through the blood, spreading bloody footprints and other evidence.
- There was a conflict between agencies (who was handling the scene), that created problems.
- How people were interviewed was mishandled.
- The glove
Plotkin emphasized, CSI must keep everyone, including other officers, out of the area so the evidence is not contaminated. (There must be no smoking in the area, no food, etc.)
Plotkin also gave an overview of the JonBenét Ramsey case.
In her opinion, CSI did a great job.
- Even though the family said someone had broken in through a basement window, photographs of that window showed a spider web in the window frame that clearly had been there for a long time and would have been damaged if someone had passed through the window.
- Pineapple in JonBenét’s stomach showed it had been eaten within a 20 minute window of time.
- All items used in the murder were from inside the house.
Sharon Plotkin’s conclusion was the mother did it.
Other points Plotkin made were CSI gathers the evidence but does not process it, that’s the job of the lab techs.
- One person doesn’t do it all.
- Analysis takes time.
- Evidence is fragile.
Final comment, if you, in your writing, need the police or CSI to screw up, it can and does happen.