Tag Archives: forensics

If a character were to fake their own murder (as in frame themself) would they be arrested after the ruse was discovered, or would there not be a good enough case against them? This is assuming that the person making the arrest is a model, law-abiding, cop and that the character hadn’t broken any/other laws.

Well, first, please keep in mind that I’m not a lawyer. But, I’m pretty sure framing yourself for your own murder while instead faking your own death is called “faking a suicide.” Or, more elegantly, “Psuedocide.” When you set out to kill yourself, that’s not generally called “murder.” I mean, the term kind of works, but not really.

Murder is where you kill someone else. Suicide is where you kill yourself. You can’t really murder yourself. (At least barring some kind of long-chain comedy of errors.)

Framing usually refers to setting someone else up for a crime they didn’t commit. In the modern world, for someone who is not directly involved in the investigation, they’re basically a fiction.

There’s two exceptions. It’s entirely possible to frame yourself for a crime you didn’t commit. By messing with the crime scene before the police get there, using the murder weapon on a wall before the cops get there, for example. Also offering a false confession is, unfortunately, a fantastic way to derail an investigation onto yourself. If your character’s goal is to take the (figurative) bullet for someone else, this is a real option.

If your character’s deception is exposed, they’d be subject to different criminal charges for obstruction of justice, filing a false police report, or even perjury, depending on the circumstances. They carry much lighter penalties than murder, but lying to the cops to interfere with an investigation is a crime.

The other exception is if the character doing the framing is formally involved in the investigation. If that’s the case, and they have an ulterior agenda, then they have a lot of leeway to manipulate the case towards a suspect of their choosing, and tragically, it works.

This ranges from steering the investigation initially, to unscrupulous actions in the courtroom. An unscrupulous ADA may withhold exculpatory
evidence in order to further pad their win record, or pressure plea
agreements out of innocent parties because they’re being graded on
winning, not on getting it right.

Juries are disproportionately trusting of presented forensic evidence. Even when those forensics really boil down to the expert on the stand presenting an opinion as fact. Which was the case with most of the FBI hair and bite matching forensics.

There was a major scandal back in 2013, where it was revealed that a chemist (Annie Dookhan) in a Massachusetts drug lab was faking drug test results rather than actually processing them normally, and reported false positives. In at least some cases, she actually added cocaine to samples to return positives. Very rough back of the napkin math suggests her evidence may have tainted over forty thousand cases.

On top of that, there’s research out there now, showing that drug and
bomb dogs are far better at responding to their owner’s non-verbal cues
then actually sniffing out, well, bombs or drugs. Which is incidentally
why they sometimes appear to be racist. It’s not the dog, it’s its
owner.

We even have what’s called “parallel reconstruction” where law enforcement officers will actually falsify evidence in order to convict someone because they “know” they have the right guy. Usually because of surveillance that originated with PRISM, Minaret or another intelligence operations. Until recently, the DEA operated a Special Operations Department (SOD) with the explicit purpose of taking surveillance from NSA operations and then constructing falsified cases around criminal activity that had been exposed.

What I’m saying is, today, in America, if you’re being framed for a crime, it’s going to be by the police, or someone in law enforcement. Not some random guy who pretended to die.

It’s probably worth stressing that this still isn’t the norm, nor is it intentionally malicious behavior (most of the time.) But, pressuring officers to deliver arrests (via quota systems), grading prosecutors on their win ratios, and evaluating everyone in Law Enforcement by how much work they do encourages people to apply their authority indiscriminately, rather than ensuring that justice is actually served.

But, it should illustrate how many tools a malicious cop, with an agenda, and some familiarity with the job, has to implicate the suspect of their choosing. If you haven’t seen James Duane and George Bruch’s Don’t Talk to the Police video you can find a copy here. Listen to what Bruch is saying, and keep in mind that all of this also applies doubly when dealing with an officer who has an agenda.

Also, keep in mind that an officer who is caught manipulating an investigation in this way will be crucified by their fellow officers. It’s easy to sit back and look at the state of law enforcement and say the blue shield protects all, but an officer who can’t pawn off their malicious actions as incompetence will not be accepted.

Now, someone who fakes their own death are going to be up for criminal charges. Those may range from wasting police resources to tax evasion. Which sounds a lot more amusing than the actual felony charge. Also anyone who claimed they saw the “victim” die could be charged with filing a false police report. Those will vary state to state, and it is possible in some states it’s illegal to fake your own death, (though, I know it’s not in California).

Unfortunately, overturning a murder (or any) conviction based on exculpatory evidence is not an easy process. So if your character was convicted for killing someone who later turned up alive and unharmed, it’s not as simple as saying, “well, clearly I couldn’t have done it, you should let me out now.” It’s going to take years bouncing in and out of appeals courts.

Worse, plea agreements actually preclude the possibility of appeal. So if your character pled to life in prison to avoid the death penalty, the part where the person they supposedly killed is up and alive won’t get them released.

At each step there is the possibility of the prosecutor and judge actually realizing how stupid the situation is and reversing their error, but in the case of a plea, the defendant actually can’t initiate that.

Anyway, as always, I’m not a lawyer, so take this with a grain or twenty of salt.

-Starke

I’m writing a murder mystery and in it the victims bodies are in the lake side under a bridge. It would be helpful if I knew how much time it takes for a body to decompose at that area. It would be very helpful since I am stuck there. :)

While I’m not a forensics expert, I do know enough to say, there isn’t really enough information to answer this definitively.

Decomposition is heavily affected by the overall warmth of the climate. If you’re talking about a tropical environment, you can realistically be looking at completely skeletonized remains in under a month, while if you’re talking about forested tundra, complete decomposition could take years. This is of course assuming nothing swings by for a snack.

One of the problems with bodies dumped in the wilderness is that you’ve added a free food source. So any of the local wildlife that aren’t squeamish about cold leftovers can make off with parts of your victim. A forensic tech can identify what kind of animals have been feeding, but that rarely provides useful information.

It’s also worth pointing out, the end result of decomposition is scattered bones, not a neatly laid out skeleton that’s a bleach wash away from hanging in some A&P class.

So, no idea. Sorry.

-Starke

So, today, I had the idea of a professional hitman who would routinely replace the barrel of his gun after a job in an attempt to keep the bullet’s rifling from being matched to his weapon. Would this be viable?

Yes, well, sort of. The ballistics on the bullets would change, but the markings on the spent shell casings wouldn’t. These are things like extractor, firing pin, and ejector all leave unique markings on the shell. This isn’t quite as accurate as bullet striations, but replacing the barrel won’t affect them. To get rid of those you’d basically need to rebuild the gun from scratch each time.

Swapping out weapons would create a situation where, “well, people are getting shot.” Swapping out barrels creates a situation where, “well, there’s this guy who really likes P99s/USPs/whatevers out there shooting people.”

As an investigator, digging through looking for someone who’s chewing through guns like crazy, you’re more likely to find someone who’s just going through the barrels constantly.

With shotguns (loaded with shot shells), there’s no real forensics from the shot, but the shell casing is the forensics. In those cases, swapping out the barrel would be pointless. (There’s a longer discussion on the subject here.)

With high end precision rifles, you can swap out the barrel, but the weapon’s accuracy will suffer for it. If the marketing claims are to be believed, anyway. Which means if you’re character’s a sniper, that’s out.

That wouldn’t matter with a cheap, off the shelf hunting rifle, though, again, replacing it wouldn’t really be that much more expensive.

With automatic weapons, and semi-auto pistols, policing his brass is going to be basically impossible, so the spent shells would expose that it was still the same weapon, even if the barrel was swapped.

Revolvers step around the spent shells issue nicely, since they only eject shells when you empty the cylinder, but you can’t replace their barrels, at least not in most cases. So that’s out.

Also, with some heavier automatic weapons, including LMGs, they actually ship with replacement barrels, because you will overheat them during normal combat use. So this isn’t that strange a concept, really.

Once the ruse is exposed, tying the rounds back to the same shooter in court wouldn’t be that difficult. He’d actually be making the prosecution’s case easier, because forensics with shell casings aren’t as precise, but then he wouldn’t be able to challenge that, “no, the ballistics on the rounds themselves don’t match.”

It’s just safer for your hitman to dispose of used weapons and get a clean one for each job. He might carry a personal backup, that he only uses and replaces in an emergency. But otherwise keeping a weapon around would be a liability. It’s one more thing that ties him back to a corpse, if something goes wrong.

-Starke

Would a shotgun firing shot have less identifying ballistic evidence than a rifled gun such as a pistol? (In terms of matching fired rounds to a specific gun)

If it’s loaded with buckshot? Yes and no.

When you’re trying to match a bullet to a gun, usually you’re looking at the pattern of striations (scratches) on the bullet itself. This is caused by the bullet moving through the barrel and scraping across the rifling. This is what gets the bullet spinning, and keeps it from tumbling in the air, but it also leaves a distinctive pattern on the bullet itself.

Keep in mind, lead is a very soft metal, so firing into a concrete wall, or even just pulling it out of the victim with surgical tools will destroy some of those markings.

With a shotgun, the shot itself won’t have striations that you can tie back to a specific weapon, but the spent shells can still be forensically useful in identifying a weapon.

Spend shell casings pick up scraping and indentations from the firearm that they’re fed through. The firing pin will leave an indentation in the back of the shell casing. The breach block (which seals the battery/chamber when firing) will impress on the shell when it’s fired. And, finally, the feeding system, the extractor and ejector, will leave markings on the spent shell. And, all of these things will apply to a shotgun.

Spent shells can be useful for identifying the make and model of a weapon, and in some cases actually identifying a specific weapon (the same way bullets are). Though, my limited understanding is, that it is less useful for identifying a specific weapon, unless there is some anomaly or defect in the components that handle the shell.

However, if the shotgun isn’t cycled after being fired (with a lever or pump action) or reloaded (with a breach loaded shotgun), then there wouldn’t be any casings left at the scene.

Also, breach loading shotguns and revolvers won’t leave extractor markings, and some don’t even have ejectors. The extractor is the mechanism that removes a round from the magazine and cycles it into the chamber. The ejector removes a round from the chamber and kicks it out of the weapon, so the extractor can load the next round.

If the shotgun is loaded with slugs, and the barrel is rifled, then it should leave striations, though I’m not completely certain this is the case. A smooth-bore shotgun probably wouldn’t, though, again, I’m not sure.

Although it’s not generally an issue with shotguns, suppressors will further scrape the bullet, meaning they can make matching striations much harder or impossible.

-Starke

Hey, hey! I’m not sure how well you can answer this though in your experience have any punches you’ve been dealt, left cuts? I’m assuming they have, I just am not sure where/how punches can possibly leave cuts. They’re not like nails, so I’m guessing they don’t scratch you open. Any advice would be awesome!

Yes. I’ve actually got a small scar from getting nailed in the face when I was training. Usually, abrasions occur in hand to hand in places where the bones are close to the skin. The head is a prime example. This isn’t incredibly common in training, you need to be hit with a substantial amount of force, but in actual fights, it’s a lot more common.

There’s actually an abstract level where bruising is, effectively, the same thing. Bruises are just sub-dermal hemorrhaging, so, somewhere down there, your tissue tore, and now it’s bleeding.

As far as I know, it’s extremely rare for the blood loss to be significant, but it’s still small cuts and scrapes.

On top of that, there are a lot of ways the skin can be torn in a fight. Forensics splits this between lacerations, abrasions and contusions. Contusions are your normal bruises, though, there can be tearing of the skin at a surface level. Abrasions are where the skin’s been torn at a surface level, either by a direct impact, or by being scrapped across something, this can result in bleeding, but it doesn’t always, if you’ve ever scratched yourself raw, that’s a, mild, abrasion. Finally, lacerations, are where the skin is sheared against something, tearing it. Lacerations always result in bleeding.

(If you’re wondering why I know this, it’s because I keep a forensics primer next to me, whenever I’m working.)

-Starke