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From the July 2005 Issue ✔Officer
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By Douglas Page
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Advertise Late one Sunday night, a pair of local vandals steal a high-performance Click to Go
SUV parked in the driveway of a California mountain retreat belonging to
Link/Bookmark an Academy Award winning screenwriter. The incident is observed by the
writer's spouse, who notifies the Kern County Sheriff.
Contact
Within minutes, a deputy intercepts the stolen vehicle 18 miles away.
When the suspects attempt to evade, a high-speed chase ensues.

The suspects lose control of the vehicle on a curve. One suspect is killed.
The driver escapes serious injury and is apprehended later hiding in a rest
stop toilet.

The coroner and sheriff's investigators process the scene. A deputy finds a
notebook fluttering open in the wind against the fence containing what
appears to be an early draft of a movie script entitled "Indiana Jones: The
Miracle at Mecca." There are hand-written notes in the margin throughout,
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some of them signed by "Stephen."

The deputy drops the binder in the weeds, then conceals it by kicking
brush and gravel over it — so it can be retrieved later, after the scene is
released.

This incident is fiction. The dilemma of the deputy is not. This deputy, and
many others, is aware of the market for crime scene and serial killer
memorabilia on commercial Web sites.

Ted Bundy's fingerprint chart ($15), death warrant ($15), and his last
Christmas card ($1,200) can be purchased from the Web site www.
supernaught.com, as can animal bones and teeth from the Spahn Movie
Ranch affixed to a Charles Manson letterhead and signed by the individual
that obtained the items ($40). Items such as the clipped fingernails of
serial killer Roy Norris have sold on eBay as well.

The majority of forensic scientists realize it is illegal to remove objects


from a crime scene without proper authorization. For ethically uncertain
investigators, at least two state laws (Texas and California) now prohibit
profiting from material taken from crime scenes.

"It may seem obvious from both a legal and ethical point of view that one
must not remove objects from crime scenes, particularly items such as
televisions or jewelry, but it is less obvious when the items are deemed
lost, such as small change found on a sidewalk or objects not typically
regarded as private property," says Tracy Rogers, a professor in the
anthropology department at the University of Toronto. Rogers recently
published a paper titled "Crime Scene Ethics: Souvenir, Teaching
Materials, and Artifacts," which was featured in the March 2004 "Journal of
Forensic Sciences."

Rogers' paper points out that while police and forensic specialists are
ethically obliged to preserve the integrity of their investigation, and their
agencies' reputations, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS),
as well as the Canadian Society of Forensic Science, provide no guidelines
for crime scene ethics or the retention of items from former crime scenes.

"Guidelines are necessary to define acceptable behavior relating to


removing, keeping or selling artifacts, souvenirs or teaching specimens
from former crime scenes, where such activities are not illegal, to prevent
potential conflicts of interest and appearance of impropriety," Rogers says.

When the law is explicit, ethical decisions are not always required to guide
behavior, but the variety of crime scene types and circumstances facing
forensic investigators produces many ambiguous situations. Guidelines
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and protocols would help protect the credibility of the investigators and
the integrity of the case, Rogers says.

Tom Adair, a senior criminalist with the Westminister (Colorado) Police


Department, says professional ethics is the cornerstone of the forensic
scientist's integrity. Without ethical standards guiding conduct, there
really isn't much point in trying to maintain professional standards, he
said.

"Souvenirs or mementos should never be removed from crime scenes


simply because of their intrinsic value to the investigator," Adair says. "If
one were to process a crime scene at the residence of a celebrity or sports
icon, the removal of items for personal use would not only be unethical, it
would also be illegal."

Once items have been legally obtained as part of a criminal investigation,


their disposition is generally guided by local agency policies. Some items,
by law, must be returned to the owner, while other items may be deemed
contraband or too dangerous for release.

If an owner cannot be located, the item may be classified as "found"


property and thus subject to disposition options ranging from destruction
to conversion.

Adair recommends an ethical litmus test when converting legally obtained


items: Is the item being converted for the benefit of the individual or the
organization? "If the item is being kept for the benefit of the individual
then you may want to consider the ethical consequences of that decision,"
he says.

Class action

Investigators who might never consider removing artifacts from active or


inactive crime scenes for personal gain may have a different opinion about
collecting specimens for training or teaching purposes.

"Should the reason for wanting an object influence the ethics involved in
taking it?" Rogers wonders.

Suppose the items in question are natural, such as a rock, shell or


fragment of an animal skull. The rock may be of interest to an expert
because it is unusual, but the shell and skull are of interest for training
purposes.

"The potential benefits of obtaining these items may be significant, but

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does this justify the removal of objects from a crime scene?" Rogers asks.
"Is it more acceptable for the expert to remove animal bones intended for
teaching purposes than the rock that is coveted for beauty or profit?"

Where professional societies do not have specific principles or protocols


that apply to a situation, the investigator must rely on personal ethics for
guidance.

Provided there are no legal concerns about taking the objects from former
crime scenes, Rogers says factors to consider when deciding to take or
leave objects include the value of the item; whether there is a potential
claim to ownership, as opposed to items that have been lost, abandoned
or discarded; the purpose for taking (souvenir verses teaching aid); and
intent to profit.

Daryl Clemens, a crime scene technician in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has


an even simpler solution. "For teaching specimens, I just make them
myself," he says. "This is much easier, and ethically clear."

Rogers offers two remedies to crime scene ethical dilemmas.

One, apply a blanket rule that states: Never take/keep objects that are
found during the course of a search, recovery or investigation, even if the
object is of no forensic value, the scene has been released, and the
objects are not on private property.

"This conservative approach ensures that both the integrity of the site and
reputation of the investigator are preserved, but it would, however,
preclude opportunities to build valuable teaching collections," Rogers says.

An alternative approach would be to permit the retention of objects with


educational value, provided they are of no significance to the case, not
removed until after the scene is released, there are no other legal
concerns, and the item has no monetary value.

"Obtaining permissions is important even when objects appear to have


been thrown into the garbage or are not typically regarded as property,
such as animal bones," Rogers says.

Guidelines should strictly limit the type of object that may be removed
from a scene, when the item may be removed, and who must be notified
and grant permission for removal of the object, she says.

Curtis Shane, secretary of the International Association for Identification's


(IAI) Crime Scene Certification Board, has taken the lead in creating

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certification programs for some of the various forensic disciplines.

"The IAI as a member of the Consortium of Forensic Science Organizations


works to ensure the overall forensic profession has certain guidelines that
are followed within each organization," Shane says. "It would be
redundant to have the IAI, AAFS and others with individual codes of ethics
for crime scene personnel."

Forensic scientists are expected to perform their duties in a professional


manner, but to some degree the taking of souvenirs and teaching
specimens still depends on personal belief — where one draws the line
and how the terms "professional manner" and "professional behavior" are
perceived.

Rogers says it is important to keep in mind that when subpoenaed to


testify as an expert witness, the way others perceive the expert is more
important than the way experts perceive themselves. Once credibility as
an expert witness is compromised, it nearly impossible to recover in court.

Clemens says ethics are important to avoid being burned on the witness
stand.

"If a defense attorney can win a case by attacking your character, they
will," he says. "Why give them extra ammunition?"

Douglas Page writes about science and technology from Pine Mountain,
California. He may be contacted by e-mail at douglaspage@earthlink.net.

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