Handling, Collection and Preservation of Charred documents in Arson cases

Handling, Collection and Preservation of Charred documents in Arson cases

The document is a term used to define a material that has a symbol or writing over it which has some meaning and conveys a message. It can be over a piece of paper, wall, skin, cloth, metal sheet, tree, etc.

A forensic science laboratory receives many questioned document cases of Theft, Burglary, Kidnapping, Arson, Homicide, Murder, Counterfeiting, Forgery, Fraud, etc.

Charred documents are also among the reported documents in the FSL’s.

What are Charred Documents?

Charred documents are the type of documents which are found black and brittle in nature due to exposure to excess heat either accidental or intentional. These documents are very important in the investigations as they may contain important information due to which they were burnt.

They are reported to Forensic science laboratory for the purpose of restoration and decipherment of writing.

They are mostly found in the case of arson as the burning of documents is an easy way to destroy evidence. However, they are also found in case of accidental burning, insurance, financial matters, etc.

The charred documents if handled by experts with extreme care and proper methods, they can be restored into a readable form.

Characteristics of Charred documents

  • The document becomes black due to heat.
  • Edges of a document become curly in nature.
  • Documents are fragile.
  • Due to its fragile nature, a charred document may be broken into pieces even with a small amount of external pressure.
  • The charred document always has a point during its burning period at which the written material is clearly seen and at that time the photograph of the document should be taken if possible.
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Crime scene investigation in Arson cases

Crime scene investigation in Arson cases

A place where a crime or fire and arson has taken place caused accidentally or intentionally. The investigation of such a crime scene is thorough inquiry of the cause of fire through different investigation methods. The investigation of the crime scene starts as soon as the first responder arrives and concludes when the investigation officer relieves the crime scene.

Guidelines to conduct the Arson crime scene

  • Identify the boundary of the crime scene and secure it.
  • Avoid any contamination to the crime scene and physical evidence present at the crime scene.
  • Secure and keep the persons around the crime scene secure at all times.
  • Take custody of records, maintain the details of the documents present at the crime scene.
  • Restrict the entry of all personnel at the crime scene and record.
  • Remove the unidentified people from the crime scene by maintaining their records.
  • Firstly remove any unburnt documents from the crime scene after photographing them as they were to maintain chain of custody.

Kit required for collection of evidences at Arson crime scene

  1. Forceps
  2. Spatula
  3. Cardboard boxes
  4. Cotton
  5. Corrugated boxes
  6. Polyvinyl acetate solution
  7. Sprayer
  8. Safety Gloves
  9. Thin glass sheets
  10. High-intensity light source
  11. Camera
  12. Humidifier and Dehydrator
  13. Plastic tape and stapler
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Steps to be followed in case of Charred documents

  1. Handling
  2. Stabilization
  3. Separation
  4. Collection & Preservation
  5. Deciphering of charred documents

1. Handling of Charred Documents

  • Switch off all fans and close the room to avoid any further burning of documents and materials.
  • Avoid disturbing the container in which the documents are burnt.
  • Stabilize the charred documents by spraying the stabilizers because of their fragile nature.
  • Lift the pages as they are present.
  • Use a spatula to lift scattered pages and then transfer them on a thin glass sheet.
  • Try to transfer the entire container on which the documents were burnt. If the transfer is not possible, use another thing to carry the documents as their temporary accomodation.
  • Charred documents should be handled with utmost care to avoid any breakage of papers.

2. Stabilization of Charred documents

  • Gum Acacia is a stabilizer that can be used for stabilizing fragile documents but due to its property of sticking the paper to the glass, it is avoided mostly.
  • Another way of stabilizing fragile documents is by placing them in a wet moisture chamber for several hours and spraying plasticizers on them.
  • Polyvinyl acetate is also one of the stabilizers used in the process. It is also the most preferable one.
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3. Separation of Charred documents

Many theories have been presented for the purpose of separation of charred documents. Some suggest soaking the bundles in hot water while some suggest the bath with a dilute glycerin-water which separates and renders the charred documents more plyably.

Another theory also suggests soaking the bundles in alcohol which breaks the bondage between fragments and thus separating the documents.

4. Collection and Preservation of Charred documents

  • The documents should be picked with the utmost care by placing hard paper underneath the charred documents.
  • A stiff sheet of paper is stuffed underneath the charred documents in the fireplace and then gently pulled over to keep it on stiff cardboard.
  • The charred mass supported on the paper and cardboard is then covered by drawing the corners of the brown paper together.
  • It is then placed in a corrugated box where the layers of tissue paper and cotton are placed to keep the chared documents safely so that they do not break while transportation.
  • The corrugated box then should be labeled and sealed with all the necessary details.

5. Decipherment of Charred documents

During the burning process, the written matter can be seen on the paper and therefore should be photographed immediately. After the charred documents are taken to the Forensic laboratories, they should be examined with different techniques such as photographic or visual methods.

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