By Kotie Geldenhuys
Investigating crime can be compared to assembling a jigsaw puzzle. Investigating officers gather and assemble all the pieces to get a clear picture of what happened and to enable them to identify suspects. However, sometimes, investigating officers may be missing a few puzzle pieces when they are lacking important pieces of evidence, a confession, etc.
Despite these missing pieces, some investigating officers may still believe that they know who the perpetrator is. But the question is: How would they go about proving the link between the perpetrator and the crime if they don't have all the puzzle pieces?
When there is a likely suspect, but little evidence and no confession, one has a circumstantial case. Circumstantial cases are often quickly stigmatised as being too difficult to prove in court, but there are some ways in which a very strong circumstantial case can be built. There is no reason to see it simply as an open-and-shut case and allow perpetrators to get away with murder.
What is an open-and-shut case?
An open-and-shut case is regarded as a very simple and straightforward case with little to no complications. Such a case most commonly relates to a criminal case where the evidence is easy to find and can be used to convict the person who has been accused of the crime. This can also be used more figuratively to describe a type of situation which has no complications and is very straightforward. It is a phrase used by investigating officers to refer to those cases that don't require much further investigation. Labuschagne (2015) argues that it is typically those cases:
- where the offender is arrested at the scene, often with multiple people having witnessed the crime taking place, or
- which appear to be suicides.
In these cases, as well as with staged crime scenes (see below), there are some pieces of evidence that are much more compelling than others and various loose ends need to be tied up to come to a conclusion.
The staging of crime scenes
When investigators approach a crime scene, they should look for behavioural "clues" left by the offender to find answers to critical questions such as: What happened during the encounter between the offender and victim? Did the suspect ambush the victim? Did the suspect use verbal means (the con) to capture the victim? Did mutilation take place before or after death? While investigating crime scenes, there may be facts that baffle investigating officers. This confusion may be the result of crime scene behaviour referred to as staging, which is what happens when someone purposely alters the crime scene prior to the arrival of the police (Douglas and Munn, 1992).
According to Labuschagne (2015), there are two main reasons for staging. The first is to mislead the police and the other is to protect the victim's name or family from embarrassment/shame - for example, in cases of auto-erotic fatalities or rape-murders. Douglas and Munn (1992) stress that this type of staging is performed by the family member or another person who finds the body in an attempt to restore some dignity to the victim.
Offenders who stage crime scenes usually make mistakes because they arrange the scene to resemble what they believe it should look like. They do not have the time to fit all the pieces together logically and, as a result, there will be inconsistencies in forensic findings and in the overall "big picture" of the crime scene. These inconsistencies can serve as indications of possible staging (Douglas and Munn, 1992).
Dangers in open-and-shut cases
The dangers of such cases are that the investigating officer and crime scene personnel become complacent when they:
- record and gather physical evidence at the scene;
- photograph evidence; or
- take statements from witnesses.
Labuschagne (2015) gives an example of a case in which there were witnesses during a murder, but mistakes were made early in the investigation, which might have simply been because the investigating officer and crime scene personnel became complacent. In this case, a man and his wife agreed to separate. The man then went to his place of work and stole an assault rifle, before he went to the guesthouse where his wife was staying. After confronting her about her "affair", he took the assault rifle from the vehicle and shot her. When the police arrived at the scene, they found the man in the room with the barrel of the assault rifle in his mouth. Following negotiations, he was arrested at the scene. The problems arising in this case were that statements from witnesses at the scene who overheard the argument were not collected until the trial had already started, almost two years later. Furthermore, the crime scene was not completely photographed, so it could not be determined whether the suspect had broken down the door to gain access. In this case, the accused's defence was based on temporary non-pathological criminal incapacity (NPCI) (see more below). In a statement taken after the trial had commenced, a witness described hearing the deceased begging for her life and the accused saying "goodbye" before the final shot was fired. This indicated his presence of mind, which is typical of someone acting on "autopilot". The kicking open of the door would indicate a rationally-thinking person who realised he had to overcome an obstacle blocking him from achieving his goal. But since the door frame was not photographed, there was no indication of what the condition of the door frame was like after the incident, and the handyman who had repaired the door could not be traced.