June 2, 2015

Crime Scene Staging: The FBI, and the Wrongful Death Expert Witness

Executive Summary:

Offenders will sometimes stage a violent crime because they know that they need to re-direct the investigation. The problem for some of them is that they are unfamiliar with crime scene investigation procedures and may make themselves more obvious as a suspect. Some of their techniques are quite helpful to the investigator and may result in a quick solution to the crime. The FBI‘s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime Crime Classification Manual (CCM) published in 1992 is a useful tool for experts and investigators in identifying and classifying these crimes.


In homicide cases, perpetrators who are familiar with the victim (spouses, boyfriends, relatives, neighbors) know they will be considered a suspect due to their relationship to the victim. They must use staging to make it appear that someone else committed the crime and divert attention elsewhere. People who are complete strangers to the victim do not need to stage the crime scene since they will most likely not be on the initial list of suspects; although, some may use this technique to re-direct the investigation to those close to the victim.

Staging is defined as “. . . the purposeful alteration of a crime scene.”[1]  “There are two reasons why someone employs staging: to redirect the investigation away from the most logical suspect or to protect the victim or to protect the victim’s family.”[2]

According to the CCM, there are a number of “red flags” for these cases.

  • Items missing from the crime scene to make burglary appear to be a motive.
  • A point of entry that does not seem logical.
  • Alteration of the crime scene to make it appear to be a sexual assault.
  • A crime that poses a high risk to the offender.
  • A fatal assault of the wife or children, but the husband is unharmed and/or has minor injuries.
  • The offender arranges a third party discovery of the victim and he/she is at another location when the body is found.
  • Indications of remorse for the victim by covering her/him with a blanket or placing an item over the victim’s face.
  • Forensic findings inconsistent with what appears to have happened.[3]

There are other indicators of staging and most of these will be obvious to the experienced investigator.

The primary question for the investigator/expert: Is the crime scene consistent with what appears to have happened?

Case Examples:

  • A husband calls police and says that his wife has been murdered. A review of the crime scene indicates that the alleged perpetrator gained entry through a large broken window. A large object (fireplace log) appears to have been thrown through the window from inside the house, leaving glass on the outside. Glass shards are found in locations where they should not be if a perpetrator threw something through a window from outside the house. Furniture has been turned over indicating that there might have been a violent struggle but there are glass shards on top of the overturned furniture.
  • A husband returns home and finds his wife fully clothed at the bottom of their pool. He brings her to the surface and begins CPR with negative results. Victim’s car keys, and camera are found in the pool. A local doctor/coroner pronounces victim deceased with manner of death as accidental drowning. The autopsy a few days later confirms that victim died of strangulation. Her death is ruled a homicide. The unsecured crime scene has now been contaminated due to the passage of time.
  • A husband calls police and claims that his wife and children have been killed by a stranger who gained access to the residence while everyone was asleep. There is evidence of breaking and entering, and the husband has minor injuries which he claims he received in resisting the offender.
  • A young female is found murdered in her apartment. There is excessive violence indicated by her injuries. Her clothing has been removed, and she is partially nude. Her face and a portion of her body are covered with a blanket. There is no evidence of breaking and entering. The autopsy provides no evidence of a sexual assault.

Utilization of the Crime Classification Manual in Staged Cases:

In 1978, the Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) at the FBI Academy, Quantico, Virginia established a Psychological Profiling Program to assist local, state, and federal agencies in the investigation of violent crimes. Research by the BSU determined that there was a lack of credible and experienced forensic experts who could assist agencies confronted with bizarre, repetitive violent crime by attempting to determine the thought patterns and motivation of the offenders.[4]  In 1984, the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) was funded by the National Institute of Justice and is currently operated by the FBI.[5]

The CCM was published in 1992 and was the result of a decade of research by the NCAVC in collaboration with many law enforcement officers from throughout the United States and foreign countries. The CCM was an attempt to classify certain types of crimes based on victimology, crime scene indicators, forensics, and investigative considerations.[6]

Part 1 addresses homicide, arson, and sexual assault. Homicide is broken down into Criminal Enterprise, Personal Cause, Sexual, and Group Cause. Classification 122.02, Staged Domestic Homicide under Classification 122, Domestic Homicide, is especially interesting due to the discussion about staging.[7]

Crime scene indicators of the Staged Domestic Homicide are:

  • Control and organization.
  • Evidentiary items removed.
  • Body usually not concealed.
  • Crime scene is victim or offender home.
  • Death staged to look like an accident (case 2 above), suicide, or natural.
  • Victim usually partially clothed.[8]

Once the investigator/expert has classified the crime, he/she may use the CCM to bolster his/her opinion of what happened. This is especially important for an expert who can then use the CCM in the deposition and trial testimony.


Crime scene staging may be seen in violent crimes in which the perpetrator is closely associated with the victim and needs to direct attention to other suspects. The staging is usually obvious to a trained investigator who knows that the crime scene does not make sense and has been altered. This helps focus the investigation on people close to the victim. The CCM is a useful tool for the investigator or expert witness to classify these cases and provide an opinion as to what happened. The CCM classification will bolster the expert’s opinion and will be a key part of the deposition and/or trial testimony.

About the Author:

Dan L. Vogel is Forensic Consultant Expert Witness based in Oklahoma City. He has 27 years of Federal law enforcement experience and has testified as an expert in Federal and state court. Pro Bono work is performed on a case by case basis. He is currently a member of the Consulting Committee, The American Investigative Society of Cold Cases. 405-615-6877


[1] Douglas, J.E., A.W. Burgess, A.G. Burgess, R.K. Ressler, 1992 Crime Classification Manual [CCM], Jossey-Bass, san Francisco, p 10.

[2] Ibid. page 251.

[3] Ibid. pages 253-255.

[4] Geberth, V.J. 1990 Practical Homicide Investigation Second Edition, New York, Elsevier, p 491.

[5] Ibid. page 491.

[6] Op. Cit. Douglas, pages 8-11.

[7] Op. Cit. Douglas, pages x, 80-81.

[8] Op. Cit. Douglas, pages 80 and 81.