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JBP: Vol. 1 No. 3, December 2000

   

Brent E. Turvey, MS 1

Title: "Staged Crime Scenes: A preliminary study of 25 cases"
Part 1 of 2

Reference: Turvey, B., "Staged Crime Scenes: A preliminary study of 25 cases," Journal of Behavioral Profiling, December, 2000, Vol. 1, No. 3

Abstract: This paper contains both a literature review of the subject of staged crime scenes and a study of 25 such cases. The purpose of the literature review is not only to assess the current state of the subject, and raise questions of it relevant to courtroom use, but to lay a practical foundation for the original research published within. This combination is intended to provide investigators and forensic scientists with some preliminary tools to assist in accurately recognizing, investigating, and reconstructing staged crime scenes, while preparing the ground for further and better research into this subject.


1 Brent E. Turvey, MS is a forensic scientist, criminal profiler, and a full partner of Knowledge Solutions, LLC. He is currently serving as Secretary of the Academy of Behavioral Profiling, and is a member of their Board of Directors. He can be reached for comment, consultation or reprints of this article by contacting: Knowledge Solutions, 1961 Main St., PMB 221, Watsonville, CA 95076; Phone (831) 786-9238; bturvey@corpus-delicti.com


In a recently published decision, the court of appeals reversed and remanded a defendant's aggravated murder conviction for the 1994 bludgeoning death of a victim at his home in Clark County, Washington (Washington v. David Wayne Kunze, 1999). The court of appeals held that the state had not established that latent earprint identification, used to implicate the defendant, was generally accepted in the forensic science community, as required for admissibility under the Frye test for admissibility (Frye v. United States, 1923). However, the court of appeals let stand the trial court's discretion in allowing two police officers to testify, based on their observations of crime scene photographs and their experience, that the crime scene in the above case might have been staged to look like the homicide was the result of a burglary.

While the purpose of the research presented in this paper is not to debate whether staging may have been involved in Kunze, the court’s decision does remind us of the apparent probative value of such opinions, while raising some important issues. First, how abundant is the literature on staged crime scenes? Second, what defines a staged crime scene, and are there any agreed upon evidentiary thresholds? And third, what skills are involved in assessing the staged crime scene that may be voire dired by the court? The purpose of the literature review presented in this paper is to address these questions, and also to lay a practical foundation for the original research published within. This will hopefully provide investigators and forensic scientists with some preliminary tools to assist in accurately recognizing, investigating, and reconstructing staged crime scenes, while preparing the ground for further and better research into this subject.

A Literature Review

One definition of the simulated, or staged, crime scene is that in which evidence has been purposefully altered by the offender to mislead authorities and/ or redirect the investigation (Geberth, 1996, p.20). Despite their regular occurrence and importance1, criminal investigators and forensic scientists have neglected to devote adequate efforts to its study in their published works (Douglas & Munn, 1992; Geberth, 1996; Gross, 1924; O’Connell & Soderman, 1936; Svensson & Wendel, 1974; Turvey, 1999). Most surprising, however, was that, apart from the infrequent case study, this author could find no published research involving staged crime scenes.2

Gross

It was the renowned Austrian jurist, Dr. Hans Gross, who wrote (Gross, 1924, p.439):

So long as one only looks on the scene, it is impossible, whatever the care, time, and attention bestowed, to detect all the details, and especially note the incongruities: but these strike us at once when we set ourselves to describe the picture on paper as exactly and clearly as possible.

…the ‘defects of the situation’ are just those contradictions, those improbabilities, which occur when one desires to represent the situation as something quite different from what it really is, and this with the very best intentions and the purest belief that one has worked with all of the forethought, craft, and consideration imaginable.

Here, Gross is referring to the critical role that exact, deliberate and patient efforts at crime reconstruction3 play in the investigation and resolution of simulated, or staged, crime. Specifically, he is stating that just looking at a crime scene is not enough, and that there is utility in reducing one’s opinions to the form of a report. Further still, he is discussing the regular fallibility of offender’s efforts to stage crime scenes by virtue of their failure to leave behind the necessary, logical evidence of that crime. This occurs, Gross observes, even when an offender has carefully planned the staging. One is left to infer that this may occur from a lack of actual experience with crime on the part of the unskilled offender, but as we will address later this may not be entirely the case.

Early on in his work (Gross, 1924, pp.13-15), Gross warns strongly against investigators being lulled in by what he refers to as their preconceived theories about a case. He discusses those who provide false reports of rape, assault, or injury, who may even engage in self-mutilation, for the purpose of extorting damages or concealing consensual sexual activity that has led to pregnancy. He then opines on the variety of staged crimes, the eventuality of false reports, and the subsequent duty of the Investigator, stating (p.14):

Among wrongs to property, theft and arson are the most frequently simulated. In the first ease, loss of fortune and breach of trust are must frequently sought to be accounted for by the pretence of theft; as a rule it is not very difficult to prove the falsity. The most important point is for the Investigating Officer to remind himself continually that the theft may have been a sham. In many cases the point must be elucidated; it is not necessary to make a noise about it straight away, but let him keep this idea ever before him and examine from this aspect each of the circumstances. Alter considering what any fact would signify if there had been a real theft, let him ask himself what the fact would signify if the theft were only concocted. The Investigating Officer ought never to permit himself to abstain from making this examination by the rank and situation of the supposed victim of the theft, by the cleverness of the mise-en-scene, or by any other consideration. Not only must the self-made victim be exposed, but innocent people who may be suspected must be protected.

Later on in this work, Gross provides readers with several illustrative examples of what he refers to as simulated crime scenes. These include a suicide altered to appear as a homicide for profit (Gross, 1924; p.432), a homicide altered to appear as suicide to conceal the homicide (p.437), and a natural death altered to appear as a suicide to conceal caregiver neglect (pp.439-440). The case studies are presented outside of the context of formal research, as anecdotal evidence of the existence of various simulated crime scenes.

It is of interest to note that while O’Connell & Soderman (1936) and Svensson & Wendel (1974) list Gross (1924) in their respective bibliographies (without direct citation in the body of their texts), the modern texts reviewed as a part of this study did not mentioned Gross’ work at all.

O’Connell & Soderman

In their work on the various methods of criminal investigation, written primarily for the police detective, O’Connell & Soderman (1936) dedicate a lengthy section of their Chapter 17 on the “Investigation of Homicide” to the question of distinguishing suicides from homicides (pp.260-277). Here they discuss the simulation of a suicide by hanging to conceal the crime of homicide, stating, “By hanging a murdered person practically the same marks as those caused by a strangulation may be produced.” (p.264) They specifically discuss the importance of carefully reconstructing crime scenes to establish the facts of a case, including the employment of Goddefroy’s method in hanging cases:

The examination of the rope used may reveal most important information. This question has been studied by the Belgian Detective, E. Goddefroy, and such examinations have led, in the last few years, to the solution of quite a few crimes on the Continent. The fibers of the rope will lie in the opposite direction of that of the pulling. If the person slides down a rope the fibers will be directed downwards. If what appears to be a voluntary strangulation is in fact a murder and murderer has pulled the body up, the fibers will be directed upwards on that part of the rope which was pulled by the murderer, because of the contact of the rope with the substructure.

O’Connell & Soderman (1936) go on to relate the importance of investigating inconsistencies in injuries and wound patterns, stating (p.266):

Traces of violence found on other parts of the body [other than the part normally associated with the apparent suicidal act] and not brought on by previous, unsuccessful attempts at suicide indicate homicide.

O’Connell & Soderman (1936) do provide readers with brief examples of what they have referred to as simulated crime scenes. These include a simulated fall from a height staged to conceal a homicide (pp.269-270), and a short section on simulated burglaries (pp.322-324). The subject is subsequently treated anecdotally, without the presentation of, or reference to, any published research.

Svensson & Wendel

In their work on the various methods of examining crime scenes, written primarily for detectives and forensic scientists, Svensson & Wendel (1974) discuss simulated burglaries and the question of distinguishing suicides, homicides, and accidents. Primarily, they are concerned with the systematic analysis and comparison of the different kinds of physical evidence involved in each type of crime.

On the subject of the simulated burglary, Svensson & Wendel (1974) state (p.265), harkening back to Gross:

To create a successful imitation of a burglary, which will deceive the police officers, the simulator must strive to carry it out as naturally as possible. Otherwise there will be gaps in the sequence of events.

This passage seems to suggest that meticulous and dedicated investigators will set upon every crime scene. These investigators will then reconstruct the physical evidence, establish the facts, and discern the truth. Thus, “simulators” must be equally meticulous and dedicated in their alterations to the evidence in a crime scene. Though not the focus of this research, one begins to wonder just how little alteration of evidence at the scene is required to throw an investigator off the track. As with many things, it is surely variable and surely deserving of study.

On the subject of distinguishing suicides, homicides, and accidents, Svensson & Wendel (1974) make a similar statement (p.293):

A clever murderer may very well arrange an accident, or make the death appear to be due to a suicide. Such a murderer has every opportunity of arranging matters to deceive those who treat the task of investigating the circumstances too lightly. But a systematic and accurate investigation will reveal the homicidal intent.

…The following questions must be answered immediately: 1. What are the causes of death? 2. Could the person himself have produced the injuries or brought about the effect which caused death? 3. Are there any signs of a struggle? 4. Where is the weapon, instrument, or object which caused the injuries, or traces of the medium which caused death?

The authors then begin a detailed discussion of the importance of crime reconstruction as is relates to answering the above questions, and others. Topics range from bloodstain pattern analysis, to wound pattern analysis, to the importance of determining the movement and/ or disturbance of furniture. Again, the subject is treated anecdotally, without the presentation of, or reference to, any published research.

Douglas & Munn
Published in one of the most widely available investigative texts (Burgess, Burgess, Douglas, & Ressler, 1992), Douglas & Munn (1992) cover the concept of staging from a behavioral and motivational point of view.

Douglas & Munn (1992) begin by defining the concept of staging in a way that none of the other literature agrees is acceptable, that is to say they include the actions of those altering evidence to protecting the victim’s reputation or that of their family (p.251):

Staging is when someone purposefully alters the crime scene prior to the arrival of the police. There are two reasons why someone employs staging: to redirect the investigation away from the most logical suspect or to protect the victim or the victim’s family.

What makes this definition so problematic for other researchers is that the actions of those individuals with the intent of protecting the victim or the victim’s family do not involve criminal intent. Rather, their actions involve the concealment of behaviors or events. For staging to occur, implicit in the historical literature reviewed here, a whole new set of circumstances must be intentionally rendered through the actions of an offender, not merely the concealment of evidence and/ or circumstances. For example, if an offender rapes and strangles a victim to death, and then burns the victim’s body inside of their own vehicle at the end of a dirt road, this would generally be referred to as a precautionary act.4 If that same offender, rather than using fire, places the victim inside of their vehicle, loosens the brake line and then pushes it over a cliff to make it appear like a single vehicle accident, then this would be referred to as staging, which is a particular kind of precautionary act.

Douglas & Munn (1992) offer their own checklist to assist with the identification of staged crime scenes, which include the following (below adapted from p.253):

Questions

  1. Did the subject take inappropriate items from the crime scene?
  2. Did the point of entry make sense?
  3. Did the perpetration of this crime pose a high risk to the offender?

Red Flags

  1. Fatal assault of the wife and/ or children by an intruder while the husband escapes without injury or a nonfatal injury.
  2. The offender does not first target the person posing the greatest threat.
  3. The person posing the greatest threat to the offender suffers the least amount of injury. 

Douglas & Munn (1992) present no data to support any of the above opinions; rather they adduce case examples as needed. They also engage in a similar presentation on the subject of staged arson crime scenes (pp.255-257). No internal citations are offered for this chapter, or for any of the chapters presented in this text. Rather, all generally referenced works for all chapters are presented in one long alphabetized list near the end of the text (Burgess et al, 1992, pp.357-360).

It is of interest that Douglas & Munn (1992), when discussing how to apply these investigative red flags, state (p.253):

An offender who stages a crime scene usually makes mistakes because he stages it to look the way he thinks a crime scene should look… Inconsistencies will begin appearing at the crime scene, with forensics, and with the overall picture of the offense. These contradictions will often serve as the “red flags” of staging and prevent misguidance of the investigation.

This language is highly reminiscent of Gross (1924), who also discussed at length identifying “contradictions” of the scene, and rendering a picture of the scene through physical evidence.

Geberth

In the third edition of his text on homicide investigation, written primarily for the homicide investigator, Geberth (1996) discusses various types of crime scene staging by describing five separate cases (pp.20-37). He states that:

The death investigator needs to be cognizant of the possibility that a crime scene may in fact be staged to mislead the authorities and/ or redirect the investigation.

Geberth (1996) offers his own ten-item checklist of investigative strategies, provided to benefit those investigating a potentially staged crime scene (p.37):

    1. Assess the victimology of the deceased.
    2. Evaluate the type of injuries and wounds of the victim in connection with the type of weapon employed.
    3. Conduct the necessary forensic examinations to establish and ascertain the facts of the case.
    4. Conduct an examination of the weapon(s) for latent evidence as well as ballistics and testing of firearms.
    5. Evaluate the behavior(s) of the victim and suspects.
    6. Establish a profile of the victim through interviews of friends and relatives.
    7. Reconstruct and evaluate the event.
    8. Compare investigative findings with the medicolegal autopsy and confer with the medical examiner.
    9. Corroborate statements with evidential facts.
    10. Conduct and process all death investigations as if they were homicide cases.

This checklist is not only vague at times, but it is redundant. For example, 1 and 6 are essentially the same thing; 2 and 4 are part of 3 and 7; 3 and 7 are essentially the same thing; 2 is likely going to be part of 8; 5 and 7 are the same thing, and can only be accomplished by doing 2 - 4, 8, and 9. As offered, this checklist has greatly diminished utility to the detective. That is not to say that any one item taken by itself is bad advice. Rather this list, to have more internal integrity, should be either shorter and more general, or longer and more specific.

It is of interest that Geberth (1996) ultimately concludes that the increased number of staged crime scene cases is positively correlated with increased public access to information about homicide investigation though the news, true crime books, television, and movies. He presents no evidence to support the notion that such cases are actually on the increase, let alone that such offenses positively correlate with increased offender knowledge gained from the media sources described. In fact, there are no citations presented in this section at all, only three selected readings offered from Geberth (1996) at the chapter’s end.5 Conspicuously absent from this work is any reference to those who originally developed the formal concept of crime scene staging, such as Gross (1924) and/ or O’Connell & Soderman (1936).

Turvey

In this work on the subject of deductive criminal profiling, written for forensic caseworkers and their students, Turvey (1999) dedicates only a single page to the subject of the staged crime scene (p.142). Rather than a detailed treatment, this text presents a brief overview of conclusions reached in the two most current publications dealing with the subject of staging: Douglas & Munn (1992), and Geberth (1996). This is done without the benefit of providing the reader with case examples, or presenting original opinions on the subject.6

Literature Review Summary

Very little of substance has been published on the subject of staged crime scenes outside of insights gained from the anecdotal case experience of the various authors reviewed. Yet, the pronouncements of Dr. Hans Gross, given more than a century ago, still resonate through this literature with conspicuous agreement: In each case examine the forensic evidence carefully, corroborate/ compare victim and witness statements with the evidentiary findings, reconstruct the crime meticulously, and assume nothing.7 The concept of what constitutes staging is also fairly consistent across the literature, with the single deviation noted (Douglas & Munn, 1992), but without the development of tangible evidentiary thresholds. And finally, it is most clear that the determination of whether or not a crime scene has been staged hinges mainly on opinions born out of a reconstruction of the physical evidence. In terms of courtroom qualification, this places such determinations in the realm of the forensic scientist (generalist, criminalist, forensic pathologist, etc…), who is best qualified to engage in crime reconstruction, or perhaps even the investigator with advanced and specialized training in crime reconstruction.8 To allow others to engage in rendering such expert opinions, for the purposes of the court, would seem a dangerously misplaced practice.

to Part 2 of 2 (Journal subscribers only)
References are listed in Part 2


Footnotes

  1. The comment that staged crime scenes occur regularly comes from this author’s experience with staged crime scenes in his own work, which primarily involves rapes and homicides. It also comes from conversations this author has had with fellow investigators and forensic scientists in the preparation of this study. It is not meant to suggest that staged crime scenes occur frequently. However, they do happen often enough to merit our attention.
  1. By research, the author is referring to an actual sample of cases formally studied and compared to each other. The author is not referring to the publication of case studies, although this is certainly a worthy form of publication that enables research. On the subject of published case studies, the following two issues beg mentioning:

Firstly, a survey of published journal articles on the subject of staging reveals a recently published case study of suicidal hanging staged as a homicide from the renowned Journal of Forensic Sciences by Adair & Doberson (1999). In this article, the authors make the claim that no other cases of suicidal hangings staged as homicides can be found in the forensic literature, but Gross (1924; p.432) presents precisely such a case.

Secondly, European literature commonly uses the term simulated rather than the term staged, which may explain, at least to some extent, why Adair & Doberson (1999) were unaware of Gross (1924). A search of the literature for this term revealed two relevant journal articles:  The first, a case study, was published as Hayase, Matsumoto, Yamamoto & Yamamoto (1998), which involved the strangulation death of a woman and three young girls. In this case, the woman was found hanging and it was suspected that she may have been the victim of a homicide staged to look like a suicidal hanging death. Staging was ultimately determined not to have occurred in this case; The second, also a case study, was published as Mallach & Pollak (1998), which involved the staged suicidal hanging of a 58 year old man following homicidal strangulation with an electric cord by his 23 year old son.

  1. Crime reconstruction is the determination of the actions that surround the commission of a crime (Chisum, 1999). It is a skill born out of an advanced understanding of, and training in, the forensic sciences. As discussed in Chisum & Turvey, 2000: “Because of the varied evidence and circumstances involved, the ability to reconstruct crime requires broad forensic knowledge, an objective if not conservative disposition towards the examination and interpretation of evidence, and what the fictional Dr. Watson of Sherlock Holmes fame referred to as a ‘peculiar facility for deduction.’”
  1. Precautionary acts are behaviors committed by an offender before, during, or after an offense, and consciously intended to confuse, hamper, or defeat investigative or forensic efforts for the purposes of concealing their identity, their connection to the crime, or the crime itself (Turvey, 1999, p.445). It is a general term, inclusive of many different types of actions that may be taken by an offender. Staging, for example, is a type of precautionary act.
  1. Geberth (1996) advocates only three selected readings to accompany this chapter. The first reading is the second edition of the very same textbook, which contains nothing about staged crime scenes. The recommendation of the second edition is confusing as it contains either redundant or dated material in comparison with the third edition, which is necessarily in hand. The second reading is an article about staged crime scenes (Geberth, “The Staged Crime Scene,” 1996), authored by Geberth and published without any internal citations or bibliography whatsoever. At the end of the paper it does state, after the copyright information, “This material is excerpted from THIRD EDITION of PRACTICAL HOMICIDE INVESTIGATION….” Not only, then, is this redundant material, and hardly necessary as additional reading (as it comes straight from the text that recommends it), but it seems almost inappropriate for Geberth (1996) to suggest it as additional reading material, as each work is apparently being used to buttress the other. The third reading is again a paper written by Geberth (1996) on the subject of homicide supervision and management.

  2. In retrospect, a combination of converging elements led to the author’s interest in preparing this research. These elements primarily included an increased number of staging cases in the author’s caseload, and the dearth of original work and study on the subject since the publication of Gross (1924). The latter being evident in the brief treatment of the subject afforded in Turvey (1999), in light of this literature review. Suffice it to say, the Crime Scene Staging coverage in Turvey (1999) will be greatly enhanced in all future editions, owing in no small part to the findings presented here. 
  1. Curiously, references to the insights provided by Dr. Gross and others early on in the literature have escaped mention in more modern works, where authors seem generally hesitant to cite anyone in specific at all when discussing the staged crime scene. This may have the effect of leaving modern students with the impression that these thoughts and insights are original to the modern authors presenting them, when indeed we have shown this to be anything but the case.
  1. This is to say that being a police officer with basic academy training, or experience being a police officer and/ or detective, does not by itself meet the minimum threshold of knowledge evidently required for one to make a competent interpretation relating to whether or not a crime scene has been staged. It is a specialty born from crime reconstruction, and thus is subordinate to an advanced understanding of the application of Locard’s Exchange Principle, the concept of critical thinking, and the employment of the scientific method (hypothesis testing) to the interpretation of crime scene evidence. As Kirk & Thornton (1974) remind us, “…the amount of experience is unimportant beside the question of what has been learned from it.”


References

References are listed in Part 2

 

Journal of Behavioral Profiling: Volume 1, Number 3, December 2000
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