Evidence – we all should know how to handle it

There may be more to it than meets the eye! in SORTIE Vol. 1 no. 2 brings up the point that drowning can be homicidal, and that a body could be dumped in the water in an attempt to cover up foul play. A significant percentage of dive teams today are fire teams. These teams will often respond to both recovery and rescue operations. What happens to an investigation when proper information is not recorded and evidence is handled incorrectly? What happens during a trial when the defense attorney shows that there is no chain of custody, no paperwork, no photographs, nothing?

What happens when EMS personnel whisk away a drowning victim, before police arrive, with no understanding that marks on the body, foam in the airways, tiny red spots on the eye’s sclera, all could be important evidence necessary to initiate an investigation and win a conviction. Some states, such as Virginia, require autopsies for all drowning victims. This requirement may be the major reason a few drowning cases were investigated for foul play, and may be an important source of evidence for convictions. But what happens in states that do not have this law?

In the past few years we have recovered at least five weapons during training programs that we did not expect to find. Students are instructed at the beginning of programs that if they find a weapon, other than one we planted, they need to leave it and signal the tender to mark it’s location on the profile map. At that point it can be buoyed, and the scene can be photographed and measured for documentation, while the local law enforcement authorities are contacted. If these authorities ask us to recover the weapon we do so with a container made of a capped PVC pipe, which is then passed off to the local authorities. The area where the weapon was found is then further searched for any additional evidence.

But what happens when a fire fighter or EMS diver accidentally finds a weapon? As Joe Hurlburt, in SORTIE issue IV, tells us we all know of cases of divers finding weapons who then surfaced and waved the weapon overhead to show everyone top-side what they found. Besides the loss of fingerprints, other evidence, such a maneuver could result in an accidental shooting.

What happens when a dive team accidentally finds explosives underwater, or when they are asked to retrieve ordinances. As Ed Young in this issue tells us, his team was asked to recover blasting caps that were dumped in a lake. Often, submerged ordinances were involved in some type of crime. The handling of this evidence requires not only crime scene training and certification, but ordinance disposal training and certification, as described by Rockie Yardly in Sortie Vol 1, no. 1.

All dive team members should have at minimum awareness level training of what to do if they accidentally find evidence. If a dive team could be asked to recover evidence then they should have underwater crime scene certification beyond public safety diver training.

Consider the following not uncommon dive call. A boat with three young men overturns, two of the men make it back to shore, one man claims he tried to go back to save his friend but couldn’t find him, and both of these witnesses are drunk. They claim they were horsing around while fishing and the boat tipped over. They both are wet. The dive team arrives, finds the body and the operation is shut down.

Wait a minute, if the same incident took place next to a bar, and one man was found dead after supposedly falling off a roof wouldn’t the scene be examined for any evidence of possible foul play? Suppose the victim in each case has a head injury. Wouldn’t investigating officers want to search the incident for what could have caused the head injury? Was it really that the man hit his head on the boat gunnel as the boat tipped over or was it that he was hit in the head with a fish bat or bottle by one of the other men? Perhaps the victim was owed money by one of the witnesses, perhaps the victim was having an affair with the wife of one of the witnesses, or perhaps they got in a drunken brawl.

Just as a land incident would be searched for evidence, the underwater scene should be searched and secured as well. Divers should search for the contents of the boat that supposedly accidentally over-turned. If the victim does have a head injury, re-inact the witness statements of the boat flipping and see if such a head injury could have occurred on the gunnel as stated. The boat is evidence, as are the contents of the boat.

A Marine Patrol Officer in Rhode Island described, during a Lifeguard Systems Drowning Homicide Investigator course, a case in which a boat operator supposedly accidentally drove his boat over the water skier he was towing. The water skier had fallen and was supposedly in the operator’s blind spot as the operator came around to pick him up. Sounds plausible right? The investigating officers did not assume that the death was accidental based on the look of the wounds. They removed the boat’s motor from the water, took a mannequin, placed it against the prop, and ran the props in the forward direction. When the slash marks on the mannequin were compared with the victim’s body they showed that the victim was hit by a prop running in reverse, not in forward, as the operator stated. The victim had been having an affair with the instructor’s wife, and the instructor purposely backed over the victim. This Officer and his fellow investigators performed excellent police work. They did not assume accidental death, and they treated the vessel as possible evidence. Sadly, the majority of drownings and water-related accidents are treated as accidents, scenes are not thoroughly searched before being shut down, and possible evidence is not put in the chain of custody.

All dive team personnel should have crime scene training above and beyond public safety diver training. In the very least they should learn how to avoid destroying a scene, evidence, and the chain of custody. Law enforcement agencies may also find specific training in water-related incident investigations very useful.

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