Written by Douglas A.
THIRTY YEARS AGO, when I
began my career in the forensic field, I often wondered how the senior crime scene
investigators were able to construct such complicated and sizable cases in a
way that seemed so methodically seamless. The enormous amount of evidence and
information was neatly compartmentalized and flowed effortlessly as the cases were
presented in court. As my career as a CSI progressed and my education, training,
and experience expanded, I learned that my early mentors were using a
systematic and methodical process that I would later come to know as Crime
I quickly realized that
in order to become an expert in crime scene analysis and reconstruction, my
focus on the science required a wider scope. My interest and desire to learn
more about the reconstructive process and to immerse myself in the subject only
became increasingly intensified. I found myself wanting to reconstruct every
scene I investigated—a daunting task to say the least, even for the most
experienced crime scene analyst. In this article, I will attempt to ease your
fears of the complications and stresses in reconstruction by sharing some of my
experiences and expertise, and by simplifying the information in a way that is
beneficial to both new analysts and seasoned CSIs.
Reconstruction of major
cases not only demands a systematic and methodical approach, but also bears the
requirement of passing judicial muster. One of the judicial questions always asked
is, Was the method used scientifically valid? The methodology used in crime scene
reconstruction is the Scientific Method. This methodology allows the analyst a
systematic, structured approach to analyzing an occurrence by:
The Scientific Method
helps the reconstructionist be more objective and reduce assumptions and bias. The
structured approach allows for maintaining focus and being more effective. As
analysts investigate an occurrence, they use the data found within to drive the
conclusion and, as they refine the data, the conclusion is refined.
Objective data, evidence,
and information drive an investigation from the beginning. An officer’s or investigator’s
education, training, and experience all affect whether they may recognize
something as probative within a scene. As reconstructionists, we must ask
ourselves how we can help hone an officer’s or an investigator’s evidence-recognition
skill set so that they can gather data in an investigation that results in a
final reconstruction product that is the very best that it can be. We must
always support our conclusions with evidence, be critical thinkers, and refuse
to accept any evidence or conclusion without sufficient proof (Chisum & Turvey 2011).
At the onset of a case,
the reconstructionist needs to understand that he or she will be faced with a
large volume of information. This information or data may come from the crime
scene, forensic reports, photographs, or a myriad of other sources. The task of
organizing and filtering this information may seem overwhelming. What is done
with all of this objective data? Whenever possible, this information must be
placed into a framework that allows for organization and establishment of the
event’s chronology. While reconstructionists have varying methods for the
organization of their thoughts and observations (Post-it notes, 3x5 index
cards, dry-erase boards, etc.), it is always important to remember that the
goal of reconstruction is the same: breaking down complex problems and information
into their component parts.
No matter how this
information is organized, one theme rings true—the use of flowcharting. Flowcharting
provides the investigation with an organized, concise overview of data points,
and helps the investigators, the judge, and the jury understand the data and
chronology associated with a specific case.
reconstruction requires investigators to “explain complex phenomena in areas
where different theoretical laws and sets of causes intersect” (Nordby 1999). The reconstructionist is
challenged to answer very complex questions in the face of large amounts of
data. To demonstrate the intricacies of this statement, the analogy of
assembling a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle comes to mind. Each piece of the puzzle
is a piece of data. Each piece tells us something about the whole. However, not
every piece always tells us something that we need or want to know about the
question. We must consider the whole—every single piece of the puzzle—all the
while remaining objective. We must also synthesize the incoming information in
the pursuit of explaining the questions posed to us.
The contextual component
in which these pieces of data are found must also be considered. Context—that
is, the circumstances that form the setting for an event and the terms in which
it can be fully understood and assessed—is also needed. Each piece of evidence
is considered on its own, and then as part of the whole. The reconstructionist
must always consider context when a new piece of evidence or information is
discovered. Without context, the importance of the evidence or information
cannot be fully understood.
When looking at evidence
and information gathered within an investigation, not only is the contextual
component important, but the reconstructionist must also look at these items in
a holistic, unbiased, and generalist mindset. The reconstructionist should not
be invested in the outcome of an investigation, but instead should focus on
continually basing investigations and analyses on sound scientific methods and
principles. The reconstructionist must recognize that biases exist, and continually
guard and fight against them. Peer reviews by qualified reconstructionists and
audits of the information assist in safeguarding against these biases and
Events that occur within
a scene cause change. These changes occur as the result of an actor (who
initiated change by their action) and an action (what the actor did) (Benner & Carey 1975). The order of actions
can be recognized in three basic relationships. These relationships involve
something that precedes an action, something that follows an action, and
something that occurs simultaneously with an action. Every event that occurs
within a scene is the result of an action and every action has a cause (Gardner & Bevel 2009). It is absolutely
necessary that the reconstructionist understands the concept of this cause-and-effect
process begins when the first call for service in a case is initiated. The
first step in the chronological process, which is initiated with this call for
service, is known as absolute chronology. Examples of absolute chronology
would be a time/date stamp on body-camera footage or a 911 call. Absolute
chronology deals with specific points of time.
The second chronological
process is relative chronology. Relative chronology is synonymous with
the concept of the sequencing of actions, which sometimes becomes a difficult
task. Here’s an example of relative chronology: I am punched in the nose, my
nose begins to bleed, and it continues to drip onto the floor—creating a drip
pattern. As the reconstructionist, relative chronology is used to sequence
these actions. The relationships between actions help us to create a sequence:
As a young investigator,
I was always told by the senior investigators that I needed to be able to
answer the five W and one H questions (who, what, where, when, why, and how). During
my career, I have found it a lot harder to answer the why question more times
than not. Why is not always answerable, as it goes to a person’s
reasoning for committing a crime; this question cannot be supported objectively
by case evidence and information.
Whatever the assigned
role one takes in the investigation of a case, it is imperative to use the
following questions to navigate the reconstructive process:
These questions are
foundationally strong and help accomplish several reconstruction goals. First,
they provide for looking at particular pieces of the whole and asking what can
be learned from the particular piece (taking a complex problem and breaking it
into its component parts) as well as determining how it relates to the bigger
picture. Second, how is it linked to other pieces of information or evidence? Finally,
can it be used to sequence the event?
At this point in the
process, we have most likely been able to refine our data, information, and observations,
and we have provided some answers to the questions listed above. Remember, data
drives our conclusions and with refined data comes refined conclusions. By this
point in the investigation, it is highly probable that case theories have been
developed by all parties to the case. The reconstructionist cannot become
invested in the outcome of the investigation. The reconstructionist must follow
science, remain objective and impartial, and always base their investigations
and analyses on sound scientific methods and principles.
We are now ready to
employ the scientific method for each of the investigative questions in the
case. As stated earlier, the scientific method provides the analyst with a systematic,
structured approach to analyzing an occurrence, while also helping the
reconstructionist be more objective, reducing assumptions and bias, maintaining
focus, and being more effective.
Below are the steps the
analyst would follow for each of the variable/investigative questions in the
1) Define the
investigative question. Be cautious of broad investigative questions.
2) Collect data to
resolve the investigative question. The more refined the data, the more refined
3) Identify variables
and posit hypotheses. We are identifying a viable explanation for the
investigative question as well as the counter-argument to this viable
4) Make predictions
about what would be found if each hypothesis were true.
5) Test each hypothesis
against evidence and information collected in the case. This is done in the
form of “if this, then that”.
6) Define the conclusion
and repeat the process for each variable or investigative question. This is the
reconstructionist’s opinion as to the best explanation to the investigative
question. This opinion is based on data and evidence.
I hope that this article
has not only stoked interest in the area of crime scene investigation, which I
hold near and dear to my heart, but also an interest in crime scene reconstruction.
Additionally, I hope the article serves as a tribute to those scientists and reconstructionists,
past and present, who have—through their hard work and sacrifice—provided a
collective body of knowledge from which the rest of us may draw from and build
upon for years to come.
About the Author
Doug Young began his law enforcement career with the Gibson County Sheriff’s
Department in southwestern Indiana. While working at the sheriff’s office, Young
attended Vincennes University, where he majored in Law
Enforcement/Criminalistics, graduating cum laude. He began his training
as a crime scene technician with the Gibson County Sheriff’s Department and
held that position from 1991–1998. In December 1998, Young moved to Texas and
took a job with the Austin Texas Police Department as a Sr. Crime Scene
Specialist. While in Texas, he became certified as a Crime Scene Investigator
through the International Association for Identification.
In November 2002, he
took the position of Chief of Police with the Oakland City Police Department in
Indiana, where he served until May 2007. That same month, Young moved to
Thornton, Colorado where he took a position as a Crime Scene Investigator. In
August 2009, he was promoted to Sr. Criminalist and continues to serve in this
capacity. Young has lectured both domestically and internationally on various
forensic topics and has been qualified as an expert witness in both federal and
He is a past president
of both the Indiana and Rocky Mountain Division of the IAI and is still an
active member of both the parent body IAI and the Rocky Mountain Division. Young
served as the regional representative for the RMDIAI until 2019. He is a member
of the Association for Crime Scene Reconstruction (ACSR) and is currently
serving as the president elect for ACSR. Young started the Colorado Forensic
Investigators Group (COFIG) and is the owner of Triad Forensics LLC, a small
forensic training and consulting business located in Longmont, Colorado.
Benner Jr, L., and W. D. Carey. 1975. Can
accident investigation tools help crime scene reconstruction. Journal
of Safety Research. 7(2).
Chisum, W. J., and B. E. Turvey. 2011. Crime
Reconstruction. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Gardner, R. M., and T. Bevel. 2009. Practical
Crime Scene Analysis and Reconstruction. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
Nordby, J. J. 1999. Dead
Reckoning: The Art of Forensic Detection. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.