The Recovery of Human Remains:
A Crime Scene Perspective
by M/Sgt Hayden B. Baldwin, Retired
Illinois State Police

Most recovery scenes are not thoroughly processed for evidence. Why not? Whether the recovery scene is the site of a surface recovery or a site containing buried human remains, most of these scenes are not thoroughly processed for evidence by the investigating law enforcement agency. Is it because of laziness on the officers' part or a lack of manpower? Or is it because of the lack of training in the proper procedures for the recovery of human remains? In most instances it is the latter, the lack of proper training.

The experienced investigator or evidence technician can handle a multitude of crime scenes from simple property damage cases to multiple homicides and do an excellent job gathering all the pertinent information and physical evidence from the "crime scenes". Why is it then that such experienced officers fail to properly process a recovery site? Very simply they have developed tunnel vision from repetitive processing of "fresh" crime scenes and simply do not have the experience and/or training to thoroughly process a recovery site.

What most officers fail to realize is that a recovery site for human remains should receive the same crime scene protocol as any other crime scene. Would these same officers process a scene without knowing the "theory" of the case, or without examining the scene, or without photographing and sketching the scene? An oversimplified protocol for processing crime scenes is as follows:

      1. Interview - Gather and verify information.
      2. Examine - Examine and evaluate the crime scene.
      3. Photograph - Photograph the crime scene.
      4. Sketch - Sketch the crime scene.
      5. Process - Process the crime scene.
The last step of this protocol formula is the one against which most law enforcement personnel have a mental block when it comes to surface recoveries or buried human remains. The recovery of human remains is no different than any other crime scene investigation. You still have a crime scene, a victim and a suspect. As at any other crime scene you are still going to examine and process the crime scene for physical evidence.

Would you arrive at a death investigation scene and remove the victim from the scene without processing the scene for evidence? Of course you wouldn't, but that is what is routinely done at most recovery sites by law enforcement officials. The concept seems to be to gather the remains and transport then to the morgue. What about the crime scene itself? It is a crime scene and should be handled as any other crime scene you process. There is evidence at these scenes that go undetected due to lack of training and thoroughly processing of the recovery scenes.

In processing a "normal" death investigation scene we are concerned with the primary and secondary areas of the crime scene. The primary area is where the victim is located and the secondary area is all avenues leading to the victim. For instance if we have a body in the middle of a room our primary area is in that room and well defined for us by the walls, floor, and ceiling. The secondary area is all other areas of the building and avenues of egress and ingress of that structure. If the body of the victim is located outside in an open field what are the dimensions of your crime scene? Again the primary area is where the body is located and the secondary area is all avenues leading to or away from the body. This victim most likely didn't just fall out of the sky and land there, therefor there must be physical evidence of tire tracks, footwear, drag marks, etc. left at the scene by the suspect. The physical evidence is going to be there; it is up to you to locate, evaluate and collect that evidence. Remember in all crime scenes there are two types of evidence found at the scenes, physical and testimonial. Physical evidence is anything you can hold in your hands and testimonial evidence is what you can determine from the reconstruction of the crime scene. One form of evidence is just as important as the other.

What types of physical evidence will you find at a recovery site? The possibilities are endless. Of course the factors that change or diminish the value of the evidence are time, weather conditions, and contamination by others. But these factors are the same for any crime scene!

The point here is that surface recoveries and excavations are relatively simple. They are processed as any other crime scene. You are still looking for physical and testimonial evidence. The same processing techniques are used - interview, examine, photograph, sketch and process. I would not expect you to process a multiple homicide scene with little or no information about the proper techniques for processing the scene, nor would I expect you to jump into a recovery site without the proper training. As in all crime scenes, you can do a poor job in processing or you can gather all the information available from the crime scene. That choice is up to you and your law enforcement agency.

At this point I must remind you of the team concept. The recovery of human remains requires a few more people than yourself or the team that recovered the remains. Besides the all important first officer at the scene, the crime scene technician, the coroner / medical examiner, the forensic pathologist, the investigator and the states attorney there are a few other people whose expertise you should at least take into account. They are the forensic anthropologist, a forensic entomologist, a forensic odontologist and perhaps a forensic artist. Without these experts many cases will remain unsolved due to a lack of positive identification of the deceased or the lack of an accurate time of death. The time to locate these experts in your area is now, not when you find the remains.

In summary, the recovery of human remains is not a difficult task. Using the team concept and your "normal" crime scene protocol, and seeking in advance the assistance of other experts, your agency will be able to gather all pertinent information and evidence from the recovery sites.

There is evidence at all crime scenes. If you don't know what you are doing, DON'T DO IT! Anyone can dig a body up but without training, few can find or identify the evidence in these situations.

The one investigator that can do everything himself usually has several unsolved cases, whereas the team effort of experts have few if any unsolved cases. The choice is yours.



A recovery of human remains course for police, investigators, crime scene investigators,
coroners and medical examiners.

30 year old homicide solved after victim is found buried by plumbing contractor.

(photographs of re-enactment of excavation site)

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