These Boots Were Made For Walking…

A desperate sounding 911 call had prompted them to the ranch. The century old mahogany door creaked open as the deputy sheriff’s entry team accessed the living room. At first glance, the deputies observed a phone was on the floor of the foyer. The woman lay motionless on her left side. She was a well-known rancher and clearly dressed the part in her Wranglers, blue collared shirt with rhinestones buttons, and accessories. A quick sweep of the house revealed no one else inside. The corporal immediately ordered the patrol units to hold a perimeter while the scene was processed and department investigators took over the case.

The investigator observed the victim was wearing one boot and looked around the immediate area for the match. He summoned the patrol units to search outlying areas. The other boot was not found inside nor outside the residence. It was a missing puzzle piece. Where was the other boot?

The crime scene at the victim’s residence rendered little clues and it appeared she was not killed in her home, but fled to the sanctuary while injured from blunt force trauma. Now it was up to law enforcement to solve the mystery. Who killed the woman?

The police radio noise drew the investigator’s attention to its broadcast. A cowboy boot had been located near the neighbor’s front steps, about a ½ mile away. The neighbor rancher had called the non-emergency dispatch number when he observed it returning to his home from his evening chores. He had tried to contact one of his hired hands on the phone to ask about it, but the foreman did not answer. When the rancher picked up the boot, he noticed the blood stain on it and called the police. It hadn’t been in his front yard when he left to go feed the cows. Something was amiss.

Preservation of physical items gathered at a death crime scene or alternate locations is vital to its integrity and its use in legal proceedings. How it is handled, packaged, stored, maintained, and tested has a bearing on its admittance into a trial. The methods and responsibility are up to the police. Testing is up to forensic scientists. In order to emphasize the importance of integrity in crime scene processing and physical evidence preservation, I will offer this oversimplified mock scenario and journey of one particle article of homicide evidence…

Let’s follow the boot. It had been on the ground at the neighbor’s home. Ideally, the police would like to have it left exactly where it was observed untouched. However, the rancher picked it up and moved it. Does that mean it will be excluded at trial? No. Is it contaminated? Possibly. However, the rancher can give DNA or fingerprints for elimination, provided he isn’t setting the stage to a crime he committed.

The first responding deputy immediately took photographs of the boot in place on the steps and the area the rancher pointed out to police where he initially found it. After donning rubber gloves, the deputy placed the boot in a brown paper bag, sealed it with evidence tape, and labeled the item.

Professionals tasked with crime scene processing and evidence preservation must insure items seized are contained and sealed in the proper type of container to maximize sample preservation. For example, liquids are placed in sterile plastic or glass containers in order to preserve them and prevent evaporation. Items which contain possible DNA and are very wet (such as bloody or water soaked) are often dried in a secure location before being placed in a paper bag to prevent mold. Paper packaging is ideal in these circumstances due to the porous nature of paper products which allows air to permeate without contaminating the sample. Documents, currency, jewelry, or other items are often put in clear plastic bags then sealed. Items are visible without breaking the packaging to examine them.

Once evidence leaves the hands of the collecting technician or officer, it goes into secure storage. Many times these items are sent for testing at a crime lab. Forensic scientists must not only test and examine evidence in their secure laboratories, but they must testify in court to their scientific merit, the lab results, and its integrity upon reaching their lab. It is also required they testify about their methods conducted during the testing process. Forensic scientists are required to have at least a bachelor’s degree in related science disciplines and often get lab and field experience through internships.

Crime labs sometimes employ scientists who have been deemed experts by the courts in one or more of the various categories of forensics. A professional with an expert status is a valuable resource to law enforcement. To develop and elevate a scientist to expert level takes years of practical experience.

Many law enforcement departments often have officers serve as an evidence technician, a specialty held while on duty as a peace officer. These positions are often filled by sworn personnel, requiring them to become a state certified peace officer first, then gain forensic training through textbook course work, field training programs, and intense crime scene training courses. In conjunction with regular duties as a peace officer, crime scene processing demands occur while on duty and a callout rotation. They are not scientists, nor criminalists unless they have the proper degree(s) and training.

Various careers are available in criminal justice with emphasis on forensics. Criminalist positions can be a permanent assignment dedicated only to forensics and crime scene processing, a component of a branch called the Crime Scene Unit. It is organizational specific whether these positions are sworn or civilian staffed and are common in metropolitan areas with heavy call loads and the demand for full-time positions. A bachelor’s degree is required in related disciplines including but not limited to: forensics, chemistry, or biology.

In this example homicide case which was discovered on a Saturday, the boot was bagged and sealed at the scene by an evidence technician (sworn peace officer), placed in a fleet van and transported to the local sheriff’s department. The initial deputy who responded to the neighboring ranch, signed the property receipt as the first custodian. In other words, he was the first official to document the evidence seizure. He marked on the form he received the property from the rancher.

At the station, the boot which was logged on the property receipt was then locked in a secure locker specifically assigned for evidence storage. On Monday, the evidence manager signed for the receipt of the evidence, removed it from the secure locker, and transported the item to the evidence storage vault. Additionally, she received a request from the lead investigator to send the item to the state crime lab for examination and testing. She did not break the seals nor examine any items, but just placed them from one secure location to another.

Now, the lead investigator could have conducted an examination of the boot prior to ordering the tests. However, he was able to observe photographs and reports, as well as reflect from his knowledge of the crime scenes in order to determine the boot was a piece of evidence which needed forensic testing.

Would his safeguarded examination have ruined the boot’s integrity and risked its exclusion into trial? No or maybe. It depends if you are the defense or the prosecution. He would have unnecessarily broken an integrity seal and certainly added another unnecessary link in the chain of custody. As a police detective, I was warranted to examine some articles of evidence before they were sent to the state crime lab. None of the items I ever examined were excluded in a trial nor challenged by the defense. All of my work was meticulously documented and time and date stamped.

The boot was transported along with other items to the state crime lab by the evidence manager and handed off to a lab official, who signed for receipt of the evidence. The boot was given to the scientist in charge of DNA testing to test the suspected blood. The boot was also assigned to another scientist to later test the fibers and another for the mud analysis. The seals on the bag containing the boot were examined for integrity breach by the scientists. Each scientist placed their initials on the packaging. Moreover, each person signed the evidence log and wrote reports.

Once the items were tested, the results were sent to the corresponding sheriff’s department and the prosecutor’s office. The scientists resealed the items, initialing the new seal and noting all processes in an official report. The evidence manager retrieved the items from the lab, drove them back to the station, and logged them into the evidence vault. She signed the corresponding evidence logs and wrote a brief report.

Within a few weeks, the suspected blood sample results yielded a DNA verification, overwhelmingly, 1 in 49 quadrillion, a probable match to the female rancher. The mud had a mineral makeup common and indigenous to the area. Furthermore, plant material was found on the bottom and side tooling of the sole- also indigenous to the area and identified as common species of prairie grasses and sagebrush. Blue fibers on the bottom of the boot matched a type of fabric used in the seating of Chevy and GMC trucks from 1980-1985. The neighbor’s foreman drove a 1981 Chevy truck with a blue fabric bench seat. He was questioned and subsequently confessed to the murder.

At trial, the prosecutor presented several items to the jury as evidentiary in value which were crucial to proving beyond a reasonable doubt the foreman committed the murder. The right Dan Post boot was labeled and displayed as “state’s exhibit 23.” The rancher testified about the boot as did the collecting officer, the evidence manager, and each scientist. Not everyone who handled the evidence testified because much of the chain of custody was stipulated to, allowing it into evidence without making each person who handled it give testimony. After deliberation, the jury came back with a verdict of guilty.

Evidence management and preservation is still valuable after a trial. Ergo, the boot was placed back into the secure evidence storage vault, awaiting the possibility of appeal. It joined the left boot on the evidence shelf marked Case No. 14-98238. After that incredible journey of one shoe, I suppose it brings a whole new meaning to “worn out boots.”