Most crime scenes tell a story. And like most stories, crime scenes have characters, a plot, a beginning, a middle, and hopefully, a conclusion. However, in contrast to authors who lead their readers to a predetermined ending, the final disposition of a crime scene depends on the investigators assigned to the case. The investigators’ abilities to analyze the crime scene and to determine the who, what, how, and why govern how the crime scene story unfolds.
To ensure a satisfactory ending, that is, the apprehension and prosecution of the violent crime offender, investigators must realize that the outcome depends on their insight into the dynamics of human behavior. Speech patterns, writing styles, verbal and nonverbal gestures, and other traits and patterns give shape to human behavior. These individual characteristics work in concert to cause each person to act, react, function, or perform in a unique and specific way. This individualistic behavior usually remains consistent, regardless of the activity being performed.
Since the commission of a violent crime involves all the dynamics of “normal” human behavior, learning to recognize crime scene manifestations of behavioral patterns enables investigators to discover much about the offender. It also provides a means by which investigators can distinguish between different offenders committing the same types of offense.
There are three possible manifestations of offender behavior at a crime scene–modus operandi, personation or signature, and staging. This article addresses each of these manifestations in order to demonstrate the importance of analyzing a crime scene in terms of human behavior.
In 1989, Nathaniel Code, Jr., a Shreveport, Louisiana, man, was convicted of murder. The jury determined that on three separate occasions between 1984 and 1987, Code murdered a total of eight people. The jury returned a guilty verdict, even though several disparities existed among the three crime scenes.
For example, the offender gagged the first victim with a piece of material obtained at the crime scene, but brought duct tape to use on the seven victims in the other two incidents. Also, the killer stabbed and slashed the first victim, whereas the victims of the other two crimes were also shot and showed signs of ligature strangulation. The victims ranged in age from 8 years to 74 years and included both sexes; however, all were black. And, the offender took money from one crime scene, but not the other two.
Considering the evidence found at the three crime scenes, could one man be linked to all of the murders? Wouldn’t such differences in modus operandi (M.O.), which is the offender’s actions while committing the crime, and victimology (characteristics of the victims) eliminate the connection to one offender?
When attempting to link cases, the M.O. has great significance. A critical step in crime scene analysis is the resulting correlation that connects cases due to similarities in M.O. But, what causes an offender to use a certain M.O.? What circumstances shape the M.O.? Is the M.O. static or dynamic?
Unfortunately, investigators make a serious error by placing too much significance on the M.O. when linking crimes. For example, a novice burglar shatters a locked basement window to gain access to a house. Fearing that the sound of a window breaking will attract attention, he rushes in his search for valuables. Later, during subsequent crimes, he brings tools to force open locks, which will minimize the noise. This allows him more time to commit the crimes and to obtain a more profitable haul.
As shown, the burglar refined his breaking-and-entering techniques to lower the risk of apprehension and to increase profits. This demonstrates that the M.O. is a learned behavior that is dynamic and malleable. Developed over time, the M.O. continuously evolves as offenders gain experience and confidence.
Incarceration usually impacts on the future M.O.s of offenders, especially career criminals. Offenders refine their M.O.s as they learn from the mistakes that lead to their arrests.
The victim’s response also significantly influences the evolution of the M.O. If a rapist has problems controlling a victim, he will modify the M.O. to accommodate resistance. He may use duct tape, other ligatures, or a weapon on the victim. Or, he may blitz the victim and immediately incapacitate her. If such measures are ineffective, he may resort to greater violence or he may kill the victim. Thus, offenders continually reshape their M.O. to meet the demands of the crime.