Violent Crime Scene Analysis: Modus Operandi, Signature, and Staging

Forensic red flags are also raised when there are discrepancies between
witness/survivor accounts and forensics results. For example, in one case,
an estranged wife found her husband in the tub with the water running. Initially,
it appeared as if he slipped and struck his head on a bathroom fixture, which
resulted in his death by drowning. However, toxicological reports from the
autopsy showed a high level of Valium in the victim’s blood. Also, the autopsy
revealed several concentrated areas of injury or impact points on the head,
as if the victim struck his head more than once.

Subsequently, investigators learned that the wife had been with the victim
on the evening of his death. She later confessed that she laced his dinner
salad with Valium, and when he passed out, she let three men into the house.
These men had been hired by the wife to kill the victim and to make it look
like an accident.

Often, investigators will find forensic discrepancies when an offender stages
a rape-murder, that is, positioning the body to infer sexual assault. And
if the offender has a close relationship with the victim, he will only partially
remove the victim’s clothing, never leaving her completely nude. However,
despite the position of the body and the removal of some of the victim’s
clothes, an autopsy can confirm or deny whether any form of sexual assault
took place, thereby determining if the crime scene was staged.

If investigators suspect a crime has been staged, they should look for signs
of association between the offender and the victim. Or, as is frequently
the case with domestic violence, the involvement of a third party, who is
usually the one who discovers the victim. For example, in the case involving
the husband who staged his wife’s murder to make it look like the crime was
committed by an intruder, the husband did not immediately check on his wife
and daughter once he regained consciousness. Instead, he remained downstairs
and called his brother, who went upstairs and discovered the victim. Offenders
will often manipulate the discovery of victims by a neighbor or family member,
or conveniently be elsewhere when the victim is discovered.


Violent crime scenes require investigators to be “diagnosticians.” They must
be able to analyze crime scenes for the messages they emit and understand
the dynamics of human behavior displayed at crime scenes. Investigators must
also be able to recognize the different manifestations of behavior, so they
can ask the right questions to get valid answers.

By approaching each crime scene with an awareness of these factors, investigators
can steadily improve their ability to read the true story of each violent
crime scene. By doing so, they will be more knowledgeable and better equipped
to apprehend the violent crime offender.


  1. SA Douglas has qualified as an expert in criminal investigative analysis and has provided testimony in the area of signature crime analysis during the following court proceedings: State of Ohio v. Ronnie Shelton, State of Louisiana v. Nathaniel Code, and State of Delaware v. Steven B. Pennell.
  2. P.E. Dietz, M.D. and R.R. Hazelwood, “Atypical Autoerotic Fatalities,” Medicine and Law, 1, 1982, 301-319.
  3. Ibid.

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