Police, Death, and Writing

On December 27, 2017, I started penning my crime thriller where a writer encounters a sinister website that leads to a game of cat-and-mouse with a serial killer. The idea was bouncing around in my head for two full years before I eventually started writing anything. All I had was the opening scene and the closing scene. Now, for obvious reasons, I have so much more.

However, as part of writing this novel, I’ve had to do extensive research into how Atlanta PD does things, how they’re structured, as well as getting my head around some interesting aspects of US law and criminal investigations. It’s been a testimonial to my mad research skills, because I live in New Zealand, and almost all of my research has been via the internet, and the occasional reference book. My research led me to police department websites, FBI public pages, state department documents, forensics magazines, YouTube channels for various cops, and a whole range of other resources. In some cases, I had to make generalizations, using what only made logical sense. In other cases, I was able to pull on specifics. Regardless, I was learning something new every day.

Stories need to contain that element of real, and I think I got there. However, as every writer knows (or at least they should know), not all research will find a manuscript. Sometimes, the writer needs to know that little detail just to add the realism, but the reader doesn’t get all the knowledge.

Below is just some of the interesting facts that I’ve discovered along the way. Some of them have found the manuscript; some have not. 

Common misunderstanding: not all homicides are murder.

Homicide detectives don’t always work murder cases, simply because not all homicides are murders. However, to confuse matters, all murders are homicides.

I, like so many others, had come to believe that the words homicide and murder were interchangeable. They’re not.

It turns out that the word homicide is a medical term for any death that is caused by another person. This doesn’t mean that it was a murder, which is a legal term for any death illegally caused by another person.

(This is where I need to be a little careful.)

A soldier on the battlefield will likely commit homicide at some point, i.e., kill another person. However, that death will not be deemed murder, unless it was an illegal act that resulted in a person’s death. It’s a subtle distinction, but one that makes all the difference.

Working a Death Scene

Death SceneFor those who are reading this and are screaming at me going, “It’s a murder scene,” reread above. Just because a dead body is there doesn’t mean that it was murder. Homicide detectives are called in to investigate the death of any person whose death is suspicious in nature. A body plummeting out of a high-rise building to the pavement below is suspicious in nature, until the manner of death is determined, i.e., was it suicide or homicide.

Okay, now that we can all agree that it’s a death scene, something that I had no idea before I started doing my research for this novel: the chief investigator at a death scene is not to touch the body. It makes total sense when you discover the reason why.

Just think of all the TV shows and movies where the chief investigator searches the pockets of the dead guy for his wallet (or some other vital piece of evidence), all while the crime scene is being worked by others. Then you cut scene to the morgue, where the body has been cut open.

Well, it turns out that the fact that the chief investigator searched the dead guy’s pockets is a big fat No-No. The reason: what if by some miracle that person is still alive? The simple act of searching his person could make whatever condition he’s in worse. “But he’s dead!” Actually, he’s not dead until the medical examiner or coroner say he’s dead. The chief investigator is unlikely to have the medical expertise to actually pronounce a person as medically dead. If there is ANY chance that a person is alive, the chief investigator is to stay clear of the body.

If I think about it, the TV show Bones is one of the few that has always gotten this particular little detail right.

Coroner vs Medical Examiner

I, like so many, always thought that the two terms were interchangeable, but their not. They may have the same responsibilities, but there is one distinctive difference.

coroner is an elected official. A medical examiner is hired into the position.

To put this in other words, because a coroner is elected, there is a possibility that he or she might not actually be qualified to do the job. To add complication to the matter, only a coroner or medical examiner can sign the death certificate, but only one with medical training can pronounce a person as dead. So a coroner could easily find themselves in a position where they need to sign a death certificate, but they can’t declare a person as dead. (So many plot possibilities with this one.)

On the flip side of this, ALL medical examiners are trained in what they do. They are hired based on their qualifications and experience.

A significant number of coroner’s offices now insist on a minimum level of training and qualifications before one can stand for election, but not all. And there is no consistency as to whether a region uses a coroner or medical examiner. It turns out that the state of Georgia, where my novel is set, uses a combination of both systems. This added another whole tier to my research that was fun within itself.

(FYI, New Zealand, my home country, employs a coroner system, with a funky medical examiner system underneath it, yet I don’t recall ever electing a coroner into office. I wonder if it really is just a medical examiner’s office pretending to be a coroner for namesake only. Yet another rabbit hole that I’ll need fill in for the sake of my mental sanity.)

Chalk Bodies is a Thing of the Past

Body OutlinesHow many of us have seen movies or TV shows where there is a chalk (or tape) outline of a dead body? In some cases, it was a comedy gag of the film. However, chalk outlines is something that isn’t done, and hasn’t been done for many years. The details about where a body was in a crime scene is left to photographs. They say that pictures can speak a 1000 words. Well, in this case, it’s perfectly true. The information obtained from photography is much more accurate than a chalk outline could ever be.

With the development of digital technologies, photography now plays a huge role in crime scene investigations, with most of the investigation done based off the photos. It makes perfect sense to me. And of course, now my brain is curious to know how holographic technologies will be integrated into police investigations.

So many things to learn, and at every point, I can see how a little detail can alter a plot.

Time to get back to writing.

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© Copyright, Judy L Mohr 2018

Posted in A Writer's Journey, Crime Fiction Tidbits, Personal Favourites, Random, Writing and tagged , , , , .

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