Shooting incidents can range from fairly simple events, such as when a single weapon is used to fire a single shot, to very complex situations involving multiple weapons used to fire multiple shots. A wide and varied array of mitigating circumstances may further add to the complexity of the incident. Regardless of the complexity, the same basic principles are utilized to reconstruct the events before, during, and after a shooting. A careful, logical approach can often take some of
the "bite" out of what at first may appear to be a nearly overwhelming situation.
Shooting incident analysis and reconstruction are based on the application of a number of disciplines, some of which are firearms related and some of which are not. The firearms-related disciplines include external ballistics, firearms identification, and wound ballistics. Other disciplines, which are often utilized in shooting reconstructions, include bloodstain pattern interpretation, trace evidence, DNA, and footwear and tire tread examination as well as fingerprints. Shooting reconstruction also involves criminal investigation. Witness statements, business records, phone records, and other documentation are obtained through criminal investigation and help provide essential information for reconstructing the events of the crime.
It must be remembered that a shooting reconstruction is nothing more than a reasonable explanation, not a proposal of absolute fact. There is typically no way that the shooting reconstructionist will be able to state with complete certainty each and every detail associated with a shooting. There are simply too many variables involved. For example, the simple question as to how a shooter's feet or hands may have been positioned at some point during a shooting may certainly be approximated, but it is unlikely that their exact positions may be determined except in rare situations.
Reconstructions take into account all the available documentation (reports, affidavits, photos, videos, sketches, notes, and the like), the physical evidence, and witness accounts in order to develop a likely scenario that best fits all this information. It is critical that nothing be left without explanation in the proposed scenario if at all possible. Sometimes, of course, there are unexplainable things at scenes.
Reconstructions may be done at the scene or off-scene utilizing data collected by others. Obviously it is advantageous for the reconstructionist to have firsthand knowledge of the layout of the scene and the spatial arrangements of the various components, but this may not always be necessary or even possible. In the author's experience most shooting reconstructions have been done after the fact with no visit to the actual scene unless reconstruction was done well after the event in question. The success of this endeavor lies in the hands of the individuals who are gathering the information, documentation, and physical evidence at the scene and supplying it to the reconstructionist.
Reconstruction may incorporate reenactment. This reenactment may take on the form of live participants who are videotaped or photographed as they carry out a certain role, or computerized animations may be used. The obvious concern with any form of reenactment is that it pretty much fixes on a certain set of body positions and movements in order to provide the illustration being given. Sometimes it is a certain movement or body position that is the focus of a reconstruction. It is, in those instances, intended that no alternative positions be given equal consideration. This, however, is the exception rather than the rule.
Unlike some of their portrayals on television shows, actual firearms examiners and fingerprint examiners do not get involved in the interrogation and interviewing aspect of a case. Their role is strictly limited to working with the evidence. Firearms examiners might be called upon, for example, to determine the sequence of shots fired at the scene of a shooting. This could involve examining bullet holes in cars and looking at ricochet marks to determine the direction from which the shots were fired.
The presence or absence of fingerprints could play a key role in the reconstruction effort. For example, in the investigation of shooting deaths, the question of suicide versus homicide often comes up. If identifiable fingerprints actually happen to be present on a weapon and they do not belong to the victim, homicide might be indicated. On the other hand, if fingerprints are conspicuous by their absence, further investigation is warranted.
The reconstruction of a crime involves answering the following questions:
Reconstruction combines the results of the physical evidence examination and investigative efforts. A combination of crime scene observations and laboratory analyses are often necessary to solve the riddle. Firearms and fingerprint evidence, along with other types of physical evidence, play a key role in reconstructing the events associated with a crime.
In a case the author investigated in the 1 990s, the victim of a shotgun blast to the chest appeared to have shot himself. He was found on the floor of his residence with the shotgun lying nearby. A fired shot shell was found in the gun. A check of the gun failed to reveal any fingerprints. As previously explained, most of the time identifiable fingerprints will not be found on guns; however, in this case their absence was noteworthy.
The only way the victim could have shot himself was by grasping the end of the barrel of the gun with one hand and depressing the trigger with the other. The gun barrel was an ideal surface for leaving fingerprints: highly polished and covered in a light film of oil. It would have been impossible for the victim to grasp the barrel of the gun and not leave at least some evidence of fingerprints—partial prints, smudges, or smears. Investigators confirmed this by taking the gun and grasping the barrel in various ways and with varying degrees of force.
Further investigation revealed that the death was a homicide. Police later identified a suspect and obtained a search warrant for his residence. A search turned up items stolen from the victim's residence. The burglar apparently was surprised by the homeowner's early arrival from work, shot him with his own shotgun, then staged the murder to look like suicide. A hasty crime scene evaluation could have overlooked the critical missing fingerprint evidence to reach a conclusion of suicide.
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