Finding Homicide Eyewitnesses

If you’re writing a murder mystery, you need to know how your investigator will go about solving the crime. I covered the first step in my last post, securing the scene. The second step is finding eyewitnesses. I’m taking this information from the Whodunit book called Murder one: A Writer’s Guide to Homicide by Mauro V. Corvasce and Joseph R. Paglino.

Eyewitness testimony is rarely completely accurate, but it’s still an important part of any homicide investigation. Once the crime scene is preserved and a supervisor shows up to take over, patrol officers are often sent out to canvas the surrounding area looking for witnesses. They do not conduct the interviews, though. They merely find people who saw or heard something, record their name, address, and phone number, then ask them to speak with the homicide detectives when they arrive at the scene.

It’s tempting for patrol officers to listen to the eyewitness, and it’s even more tempting for eyewitnesses to spill their beans to the first uniform they see, but it’s important that homicide detectives hear the eyewitness account before anyone else does. Homicide detectives are trained in questioning witnesses, whereas patrol officers are usually not so trained. Without intending to, patrol officers might ask leading questions that changes the eyewitnesses testimony. Most witnesses want to be helpful. If they heard a gunshot, but have no idea which direction it came from, they might embellish their story with a direction if the officer inadvertently admits he just came from a crime scene two blocks to the south. So it’s best to leave the questions to detectives. The job of the patrol officer is to find the witnesses, and find as many as possible in the shortest amount of time.

Keep in mind that, although witnesses generally want to be helpful, they can also be completely wrong in what they report. All people interpret what they see and hear, and sometimes those interpretations are inaccurate. For instance, you have a scene in which a young couple are interacting with each other on a street. The male is yelling, the female is looking at the ground. A female witness who has been in an abusive relationship in the past might interpret that scene completely different than a older male witness who was raised in a home with a domineering father who ruled the roost with a leather belt for misdeeds and words of praise for affirmation. There will also be a difference in the testimony of someone who heard the altercation vs. someone who saw it from afar. Someone who merely saw it might assume the male was angry with the female and she was scared of the male. But someone who overheard could report that the male screamed “My boss fired me–does that seem fair?” and the female responded, “No, it’s so not fair, and you should sue him for discrimination.” Suddenly, the specifics of the conversation completely change the meaning of the altercation for the investigator.

Unfortunately, witnesses also tend to lie. They wish to be helpful so they make up something that seems believable. Or they are ashamed of their inaction or non-intervention, so they lie about what they saw or heard. Or they want to be praised as an excellent witness, so they embellish what they saw/heard. Or they are guilty of involvement and don’t want to be punished, so they lie. Homicide detectives are trained to find lies by comparing eyewitness accounts and gathered evidence. Many detectives also have a knack for “sensing” lies–they are excellent at reading body language, or they have keen insights in human psychology, or they simply remember everything that every other witness has said and notice discrepancies immediately. This is one of the best parts of writing a mystery, in my opinion–giving your detective those “super powers” to pick the truth from the lies and apply them to the case. A great mystery writer will study up on these things and know what type of body language a witness will use when telling a bold-faced lie, or telling a half-truth, or telling the honest-to-God entire truth.

Lastly, eyewitness testimony can sometimes be completely useless for solving a crime. Memories are fickle things, and in moments of high stress/tension, the human mind can whig out, so to speak. One witness remembers a black man with a gun. Another remembers a dark-skinned Caucasian with a knife. Yet another remembers a Hispanic with a screwdriver. All are wrong, as the perp was actually a tall Asian woman dressed in gender-neutral clothing carrying a water pistol. This happens in real life, so feel free to use it in your fiction. It’s the job of the detective to weed out the useless information from the useful, and it’s fun for the reader to identify the useless witnesses, the liars, and the real deals. 

Are you finding this study useful so far? Leave a comment and let me know what you’re thinking.

-Sonja
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