Colorado shooting victims' families facing more than just death of loved ones
What can be said about a tragedy like that in Aurora, Colo.? President Obama summed it up by saying, “Such evil is senseless.” It defies common logic or reason. That you and I can not wrap our heads around why someone would do something like this, thankfully suggests that the vast majority of our world is populated by good and decent neighbors and fellow stewards of our planet. My sincerest thoughts and prayers go out to all those affected by this senseless, evil, otherworldly tragedy.
In weeks to come experts will come out of the woodwork to offer explanations, profiles and theories why this might have happened. Politicians will use the events to advance a cause, prove they have a compassionate human side or take a tough stand for law and order without really committing to any side or solution. The media will vacuum up every morsel of information, from any source willing to speak to them and will compete to see who can get the information quickest and hopefully most accurately to the public.
The Associated Press
Then in weeks to come there will be news about other things that must be reported. Interest in Aurora, Colo. will wane and what is left, but the grief, sadness, despair and hardships incurred by the victims’ families, friends and neighbors. The lot of a victim’s family is to wait and hope.
The first wait comes as the incident unfolds. News circulating from the scene will somehow reach them. It may be a call from friend, family member or neighbor to turn on the television — there has been a tragedy — and question, “Wasn’t (insert name of victim here) going there tonight?” In smaller incidents the wait may be short if a uniformed police officer knocks on the door at an odd hour with their hat in their hand and speaking in hushed tones.
For the families of victims in unfolding tragedies the wait can be agonizingly long. For an investigator working on the scene, this is constantly in the back of your mind. Investigators want to get the information to the victims' families as soon as possible, but there is much to do before that information can be properly imparted.
First and foremost, the victim must be positively identified. There can be no mistake made here. Death notifications by officers have on occasion caused deaths of a victim’s family members. One such incident occurred in Lansing. A mother was told her daughter was killed, and the mother died in front of the officers. Therefore the police and Medical Examiner must be absolutely sure that a proper identification has been made of the victim, prior to making a death notification. In the meantime, the victim’s family must wait and hope.
At death scenes the victim may also have to remain at the scene for hours while investigators “work the scene.” The body of a loved one becomes a very important piece of evidence at a crime scene. To stay detached and less emotional in order to get the forensic job done, many investigators have to remind themselves the old homicide adage, “The baby (somebody’s baby) is gone, a body (of evidence) remains.”
Depending on the scene and type of death, officers may need a search warrant. The investigators must photograph, videotape, measure and diagram the scene, so that the scene can be reconstructed for court if need be. They must then analyze and collect forensic evidence in and around the scene up to the body of the victim. All of these things take precious time while the victim’s family must wait and hope the victim is not their loved one.
During a death investigation, the actual crime scene up to the body of the victim is the responsibility of police investigators. The body of the victim and the forensic evidence on the victim is the joint responsibility of the medical examiner’s office and the police.
The medical examiner’s responsibility is to determine the manner and cause of death. While determining the manner and cause of death the medical examiner will be able to share a great deal of information with the police about what lead up to the death and how that death resulted.
During the back and forth information exchange between the medical examiner’s office and the police, both will learn from each other. The basic task of the police investigation involving the victim’s body centers around: learning the identity of the victim, how did this happen and “whodunit.” After that, it will be up to detectives to gather enough evidence and build enough of a case that the prosecutor’s office can prove the case in a court of law.
Done properly, crime scene investigations are meticulous and laborious. More importantly to do them correctly it takes a lot of time. The police must work quickly for the victim’s family, but not too quickly to ruin the scene and sacrifice the criminal case.
The nightmare scenario for police investigators is that the media learns and reports a victim’s name prior to the family being properly notified by the police. While the scene is worked and the victims identified, the victims’ families must wait and hope the victim is not their family member.
After burying their loved one, the victim’s family will turn their attention to whoever did this to their beloved. If the suspect is not yet identified or arrested the victim’s family must wait with patience for the police using all their knowledge, technology and skills — and sometimes luck — to arrest the killer. In some cases the victim’s families must wait and hope the killer is caught for years or forever.
Once the suspect is identified and locked up, the victim’s family must wait and hope that the frustratingly slow wheels of justice will make their progress. This will take months if not years as a complex system of checks and balances grinds hopefully toward justice for the family.
On the day a verdict is pronounced and justice is hopefully served, the victim’s family will actually smile, shake hands, hug or high five in the hall of the court. Celebrating the victory called “justice” they have long sought, they will thank all those involved.
At some point shortly after the celebration of justice at the conclusion of the trial, the absolute reality sets in — their loved one is gone. That emptiness and feeling of loss will never go away for the victim’s family. The killer may be punished, but the life taken away can never be replaced. The victim’s family can only hope that the victim is at peace.
Keep the victims’ families in your thoughts and prayers.
Lock it up, don’t leave it unattended, be aware and watch out for your neighbors.
Rich Kinsey is a retired Ann Arbor police detective sergeant who now blogs about crime and safety for AnnArbor.com.