Do crime scene investigators really draw a chalk line around the body?

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Dear Cecil: There is a common scene on TV and in the movies where there has been a murder. The body has been removed, but its outline is preserved on the floor in white tape or chalk. Do the police really do this, or is it only done for dramatic effect? Guyler Magruder, West Palm Beach, Florida


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

I have no personal knowledge of this. When you’re the quiet, careful type like me, they never find the body. But I knew who to call — my old high school classmate Allen Jaglowski, a Chicago homicide detective and president of the Chicago Police Detectives’ Association. When I reached Al, he was at a pretrial conference for a murder case along with two other homicide detectives and a police forensic investigator. Al said neither he nor the other guys, who collectively represented 100 years of crime-fighting experience, had ever seen chalk or tape used to outline a body — and for good reason. While chalk or tape might make for dramatic TV, they also contaminate the crime scene.

Contamination is a major headache for crime scene investigators. For a time Chicago detectives marked evidence — blood, shell casings, etc. — with numbered plastic triangles to keep track of what was found where. But the practice was halted when it was found that some detectives were re-using the triangles, taking one that had been dropped in a pool of blood at one scene, say, and using it to mark another puddle at the next, ruining the evidence. Now index cards are used and thrown away afterward.

In the interest of thoroughness I surveyed investigators all over the country with the help of the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board (Sherlock Holmes’s Baker Street Irregulars had nothing on these guys). Everybody said pretty much the same thing as Al:

  • “They do not outline bodies with chalk anymore. They come in, photograph and videotape the scene. They measure where the body is lying from a known fixed point in the room or area. They will also mark a point, usually near the head, using a plastic marker or a small paint spot. Of course before they do they collect any trace evidence from the area” (Michigan state trooper).
  • “No. It’s just on TV” (FBI evidence response team member).
  • “It’s not really done anymore” (forensic chemist at Acadiana Criminalistics Laboratory, New Iberia, Louisiana).

We also heard from cops and other crime-scene investigators in Los Angeles, New York city, New York state, Washington state, the District of Columbia, Ohio, North Carolina, New Mexico, and a few other places. A couple said outlining the body was done once in a while, but generally only in exceptional circumstances — for example, if the victim was still alive and had to be taken to the hospital before examination of the crime scene could be completed.

However, we ran across a significant piece of evidence in a 1992 book by Anne Wingate, identified in a jacket blurb as having headed the criminal identification section of the police department in Plano, Texas. According to Wingate, as an investigator you should:

“1. Walk through the scene with your hands behind your back.

“2. Take all your initial photographs.

“3. Take any necessary close-up photos of the corpse, and mark the location of the corpse — with chalk inside, with rope outside — for future reference.”

The name of the book? Scene of the Crime: A Writer’s Guide to Crime-Scene Investigation.

Finally we received the following from George Schiro, a forensic scientist at the Louisiana state police crime lab:

I don’t believe that this practice has been stopped. Uninformed police officers have made chalk outlines around bodies, but this is unnecessary and could potentially contaminate the scene. In addition it adds a distracting artifact. I have never encountered it at the homicides and deaths I have investigated. I have encountered it in traffic fatalities, except the medium of choice is not chalk, but fluorescent paint. Police officers will sometimes mark evidence and outline parts of the body to make them more visible in photographs and aid the officers in the scene sketch, especially at night. Usually this is not a problem in terms of evidence, unless the paint gets on the body, the clothing, or the evidence being marked. The paint could compromise any trace evidence that might be present (paint, fibers, and accelerants). Vernon J. Geberth, in his book Practical Homicide Investigation [1996] makes reference to the chalk fairy in two photo captions: You are not to draw lines around the body at a crime scene unless the body is to be removed. This photo shows evidence that the crime scene had been visited by a ‘chalk fairy.’ ‘Chalk fairy’ is a term used to describe mysterious police officers who feel the need to draw lines around the body and then disappear when investigators attempt to find out who contaminated the scene. Here you see the deceased lying in the position in which he was found. This crime scene photo may possibly be ‘inadmissible.’ While the first officers were securing the scene, a ‘chalk fairy’ suddenly had the irresistible impulse to draw chalk lines around the body.

Thanks, George. ‘Nuff said.

Cecil Adams

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