When a crime happens, law enforcement officers often secure the scene with yellow tape.
But what really happens behind the tape? What happens after the tape is gone?
From blood spatter to bullet holes, crime scenes can be complex — and they don’t come with a road map. Evidence has to be collected. The victim or victims have to be identified. Family has to be notified.
And then comes the hard part: Figuring out who did it.
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“Crime scenes are like solving jigsaw puzzles,” said Miami police spokeswoman Frederica Burden. “Detectives really are trying to put all the pieces together.”
While TV shows have crimes solved in an hour — less with commercials — detectives say they can’t even begin their investigation for hours after the incident to prevent “contaminating a crime scene.”
“It’s not like Hollywood,” said Alvaro Zabaleta, a Miami-Dade police spokesman. “Things don’t happen that fast.”
The medical examiner’s office is called, bodies are removed, the crayon yellow crime scene tape goes up, investigators take pictures, and homicide detectives start gathering evidence, including dusting for fingerprints, taking samples of blood and speaking to witnesses.
“You get the Reader’s Digest condensed version for the purposes of a one-hour TV show,” said Sunny Isles Beach Police Chief Fred Maas. “For us it can be 6-8-10 hours of collecting evidence, logging it and cataloging it before we are done. And that’s only the beginning.”
For Broward Sheriff’s Office Homicide Detective Sgt. Scott Champagne, the “CSI effect” has had a massive impact on the public’s perception of how crimes are solved. When it comes to trials, jurors often ask why it took so long to solve a case.
Depending on the case, Champagne said it could be up to four hours before detectives can touch a body and begin the identification process. Unlike on television, DNA has to be sent to crime labs, and it can take days to get results. Detectives also need a warrant to search a property, which requires a judge’s signature, Champagne said.
Said Zabaleta: “The main thing people have to understand is time is on our side. There is no reason to rush and possibly make mistakes. It isn't just to solve the case, it’s also to prosecute.”
When an elderly couple was found murdered in their Deerfield Beach apartment in November 2013, Champagne said it took nearly four days for detectives to clear the scene. He said even though it was a one-bedroom apartment, detectives went “tile by tile” looking for any prints or evidence that could lead them to the killer or killers.
Detectives later arrested Rosario Melici, 60, and Michael A. Marotta, 38, and charged each with two counts of murder. Both men are still awaiting trial.
Champagne says detectives have only one chance to get it right.
“At the end of the day, our job is to make sure the person who committed a crime is prosecuted,” he said.