An Unusual Indicator of Scene-Staging
Written by Edward E. Hueske   

 

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An Unusual Indicator of Scene-Staging

 

INDICATORS OF STAGING are something every investigator should be on the lookout for at crime scenes. Common examples include placing a firearm in the hand of a murder victim to make it appear to be a suicide, or re-positioning homicide victims in an effort to throw investigators off track.

The case described here was unique in the way the perpetrator attempted to stage the scene to support his claim that his firearm unintentionally discharged—and subsequently killed his wife.

Introduction

A police officer called 911 from his residence claiming he had started to clean his service weapon, a Glock 17 9-mm pistol, but


Figure 1


Figure 2


Figure 3


Figure 4


Figure 5


Figure 6

decided to go on an errand first. He said that when he returned a short time later, he found his wife shot and the gun and cleaning materials lying on the bed next to her body. He said he had unloaded the gun before leaving, but the gun was found with a live round in the chamber and rounds in the magazine. He claimed that she had cleaned the gun for him in the past and must have been doing so again.

Investigators noted that the exterior of the pistol appeared to be soaked with cleaning solvent. An aerosol can of Break-Free CLP was lying close by with the cap off. A blood transfer was visible on the side of the can. Upon removal of the magazine, investigators noted that it too had a liberal coating of solvent.

Subsequent laboratory analysis confirmed that the blood-transfer stain on the can was consistent with the dead woman’s DNA profile. Other testing revealed that the residue on the pistol and magazine was consistent with Break-Free CLP, but that no similar residue could be found on either the woman’s hands or her clothing.

The obvious question to be answered was whether the solvent was applied before or after the discharge. Unfortunately, none of the investigators or analysts thought to inspect or swab the bore of the pistol or to even photograph the muzzle prior to test firing it. This type of inspection should always be requested by investigators so that the possible presence of blood or other trace evidence (cleaning solvent in this case) in the bore may be documented. This should also be a part of the standard examination protocol for the crime lab, whether investigators request it or not.

Although no photographs of the solvent present on the magazine were taken (the presence of solvent was described in a report only), there were photographs taken of both sides of the pistol. These photographs are shown in Figures 1 and 2. Two things can be seen in these photos:

  • First, there is an excessive amount of solvent present, particularly at the muzzle end;
  • Second, there is no evidence of any handling (i.e. there is no disruption of the solvent residue).

Testing

Because the bore of the pistol was not swabbed prior to the crime laboratory’s original examination and test firing, the author—called in by the county attorney’s office as a consultant—decided to use the crime-scene photographs of the solvent residue on the pistol to set up test firing with a similar weapon (the incident weapon was not available). A comparable amount of solvent was applied in order to evaluate what, if any, distinction might be possible between the appearance of the solvent pre-firing and post-firing.

An aerosol can of Break Free, like that found at the scene, was acquired and used to spray visually similar amounts of solvents onto the exterior of two weapons from the writer’s personal collection, a 9-mm Ruger P85 pistol and a 40-caliber Glock 23. These particular weapons were selected so that both the Glock platform and 9-mm ammunition (similar to that used in the incident) could be tested.

The hypothesis to be tested was that the heavy coating of solvent on the slide—particularly around the muzzle—of the incident weapon would have shown signs of disruption from a combination of the muzzle blast and the cycling of the action upon discharge. Secondarily, it was believed that upon discharge, solvent residue would likely be deposited on the clothing around the entry hole (no such residue had been found on the victim’s clothing). The two weapons were sprayed with Break-Free CLP to simulate the appearance of the incident weapon as photographed at the crime scene. Accompanying Image 3 shows the Glock test weapon just prior to discharge.

The crime lab had done distance testing, based upon gunpowder deposition on the victim’s clothing, and determined that the muzzle to target distance was between 3 and 6 inches. Accordingly, the pistols utilized for this testing were fired from a muzzle-to-target distance of approximately 4.5 inches. The target medium used was craft paper, a white, synthetic material typically used by this writer for distance determination testing.

Results

The test firing of both pistols produced similar results: there was obvious deposition of solvent droplets over the surfaces of the pistols and on the craft-paper targets. Repeated shots under similar conditions produced similar results. These results are illustrated in Images 4 through 6.

Conclusion

The absence of similar visible solvent droplets on the incident weapon and the victim’s clothing, along with the lack of evidence of handling and the absence of solvent residue on the victim’s hands, is inconsistent with the solvent having been present prior to discharge. This is indicative of the Break-Free CLP having been applied after the weapon was discharged.

About the Author

Edward E. Hueske is the Criminalistics Program Coordinator with the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of North Texas. He can be reached at: This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it


ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED:
"An Unusual Indicator of Scene-Staging," written by Edward E. Hueske
September-October 2010 (Volume 8, Number 5)
Evidence Technology Magazine
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