3 things 'Making a Murderer' can teach EMS about evidence protection
Preservation of evidence and scene documentation can help bring the guilty to justice and also ensure an innocent person is not wrongly convicted
"Making a Murderer" has gone from important story to cultural phenomena. The lessons to be drawn from the 10-part Netflix documentary reach far beyond law enforcement and the criminal justice system. There is a plethora of lessons (or at least considerations) for EMS providers to take away and employ on every call, every day.
Every assault, battery, shooting, stabbing, and cardiac arrest (or plain old dead body) call is an actual or potential crime scene. Once you arrive, no matter what you do (or don’t do), you are now part of the story, part of the investigation, part of the case.
As a criminal defense attorney, I love when EMS providers trample all over the scene. Inadvertent destruction of evidence by EMS providers is very helpful when it comes to challenging the quality of evidence against a client and I will not hesitate to seize upon such gifts.
On the other hand, through my veins courses the blood of a paramedic and I have a very realistic understanding of just how important it is to exercise the utmost care when responding to crime scenes. The actions of an EMS provider — in the heat and chaos of a gnarly call — can make the difference, not only between life and death, but also between whether a crime is ever solved and perpetrators are ever prosecuted and families ever get closure. It’s an awesome responsibility.
When it comes to doing what needs to be done in a way that is least likely to adversely affect the solving of a crime, there are three simple rules to follow:
1. Recognize a crime scene
You already assess for scene safety, mechanism and how best to manage the situation at hand. These are all things that every EMS provider is (or should be) trained to do. The findings of these assessments do not simply exist in the abstract; they collectively answer at least one important question: What’s going on?
When the answer to that question raises so much as the possibility of criminal activity, you must recognize that fact immediately and switch into that mindset — this is a crime scene; I must do what I must do to manage the patient … but there’s more.
2. Preserve evidence
The most important thing an EMS provider can do at a crime scene — outside of patient care — is evidence preservation. Everything you touch, move, cut, step on, break or alter in any way is potential evidence.
A clever defense attorney (wink, wink) will look for whether anything was touched, moved, cut, stepped on, broken or altered in any way when mounting a defense for their client. You have the opportunity, in that moment, to maintain the scene in its most unmolested state, thus affording investigators the best possibility of connecting the dots which lead to the perpetrator and to justice.
Be mindful about where you stand, what you touch; be acutely aware of your surroundings. A pencil on a table is a pencil on a table until it’s a murder weapon. A bottle of cleaning fluid is a bottle of cleaning fluid until the same cleaning fluid is found in the patient’s liver during the autopsy. A scuff mark on tile is a scuff mark on tile until it’s a scuff mark from a Bruno Magli shoe worn by an NFL legend in a photograph from several months earlier.
Of course, it’s never this easy. Evidence preservation cannot come at the expense of patient care and certainly not in lieu of policy, protocol and procedure.
For example, there is the GSW to the head with brain matter on the wall of a patient with a faint pulse and agonal respirations. We all know how this one ends for the patient, but a pulse and respirations means the patient gets treated and transported. It means the crime scene gets trampled by the providers who will aggressively, but fruitlessly, try to save a life. Footprints, clothing fibers, fingerprints, forensic calculations, and maybe even DNA could all be obliterated in the effort to save the patient.
So be it.
The only thing worse for an EMS provider than being responsible for letting a bad guy get away, is losing a license or a life because he or she failed to properly assess, treat and transport a patient according to policy, protocol and procedure.
The battle you will have with law enforcement on this one is the subject for a separate column. For our purposes here, just be aware and be cautious.
3. Document scene observations
Lastly, your documentation from calls that are also crime scenes is exponentially more likely to wind up on a giant screen in a court room with you on the witness stand explaining what every single word and check mark mean.
In addition to the usual patient care documentation, you must take extra care to note what if anything was moved — from where to where. What condition were objects in before you moved it and after? You must also take added care in describing what you found. What was the condition of the blouse before you cut it off? Was it torn? Was there blood on it? Did something fall out of a pocket?
The list is virtually endless, but even if your documentation never ends up in court the narrative, especially, will be reviewed by investigators searching for any and every possible clue.
The other side of the coin…
As we learned from watching "Making a Murderer," what we recognize, preserve and document can not only help bring the guilty party to justice, it can also help, if not ensure, that an innocent person is not wrongly convicted of a crime he or she did not commit.
Simply put, everything we do is important to someone. Everything!