The first step to ensure justice for victims
By Kotie Geldenhuys
Every crime scene tells a story which is why it is of utmost importance that proper crime scene management is implemented to prevent the destruction of any evidence that might be found at a scene. A crime scene should always be treated as “holy ground” simply because it is the first step in bringing justice to crime victims.
In the murder case against O J Simpson, a poorly managed crime scene, evidence that was mishandled and the subsequent chain of custody requirements that were not adhered to, resulted in the acquittal of the accused. O J Simpson, a former American football player and actor, was accused of murdering his former wife, Nicole Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman in June 1994. He was arrested, but later acquitted as it was revealed in court that the police did not follow proper crime scene investigation procedures (Abdollah, 2014).
The first problem arose when police first responders used the victim, Nicole Simpson’s telephone at the murder scene to report the crime. Through this action, they compromised fingerprints and DNA evidence. The next flaw was when detectives covered Nicole Simpson's body with a blanket which compromised evidence such as fibre and/or hair that could have been used as evidence. The detectives also did not wear any personal protective gear at the scene. A police video taken of the crime scene further showed how investigating officers dropped blood swabs and wiped tweezers with their hands. Approximately three weeks after the murder, a blood stain found on a gate, was swabbed. During the trial, the defence also objected to the fact that crime scene experts did not change their protective gloves between the handling of exhibits and blood samples. According to the defence, this negligent behaviour of crime scene experts was the reason why O J Simpson’s blood was mixed with that of the victim (Innes, 2003).
According to Henry Lee, the forensic expert who testified for the defence during the Simpson trial, there was no lack of evidence but the source of evidence was not always explained and it was not closely tracked. Blood on a pair of socks which was collected from O J Simpson's bedroom, was only noticed two months later at the crime laboratory, resulting in defence experts suggesting that the blood was smeared on the socks while they were lying flat and not while they were worn. The defence also claimed that police forensic examiners did not pack evidence samples properly and also left them in an overheated van on a summer’s day. The majority of the evidence was collected by a novice crime scene examiner. There were also complaints about police detective Philip Vannatter’s actions after he had drawn O J Simpson’s blood at the Los Angeles Police Department on the day after the murders. Instead of booking it into evidence immediately, he had put the blood vial in his pocket and went to Simpson’s home where crime scene examiners were collecting evidence. He carried it around with him for hours resulting in the defence arguing that it may have been used to plant evidence such as blood drops on Simpson’s front walkway (Abdollah, 2014).
The O J Simpson case is a textbook example of what not to do at a crime scene. Sadly, similar mistakes have happened in several South African cases. In the Oscar Pistorius case, for example, SAPS members were criticised for negligent work at the scene of crime. This included that the police failed to find one of the bullets in the toilet cubicle of the en suite bathroom of the accused's bedroom, but which was later found by the defence’s own investigators. There was also a claim that a police official handled the suspected murder weapon without wearing gloves (refer to the Crime Series published in Servamus: August 2016). Proper crime scene management is important to eliminate such serious mistakes by law enforcement officials on a crime scene which can jeopardise the outcome of a case.