In Part One (Why Attorneys Should Hire Private Investigators), we made the case for how outsourcing man-hours and expertise can add to an attorney’s bottom line. In this part, we’ll make the case for how a good investigator can make (or break) the case itself—if you know how best to use her.
Research phase: Before the case goes to trial, dig deeper.
In a criminal case, be it white-collar crime or assault, it’s often helpful to construct a detailed background on each of the key players. But painting a true picture of each character requires far more than a simple criminal records search. A professional investigator digs deep, makes hundreds of calls, knocks on doors, and follows narrative threads that can make or break a case.
When Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) was accused of rape in May of 2010, his defense team hired professional investigators. Media outlets decried the practice of “digging up dirt” on the victim, claiming that this would turn a jury against the defense. However, in the end it was this very research into the credibility of the victim that led to the dismissal of charges by the district attorney.
The investigators in the DSK case didn’t just poke around; they hauled through every point of interest exhaustively, chasing down countless leads. At the end of the day, they painted a picture of a woman who had been turning tricks in the hotel for months, an opportunist with sketchy associations. Her credibility shot, the case went away.
Your client doesn’t have to be a public figure to justify the services of a professional investigator. In a much lower profile case in a rural West Tennessee town*, one investigator pored through employment records of a local shop owner who claimed an African-American man had assaulted him. The case was based on the word of the shop owner, a former small-town firefighter. The investigator, after leafing through document after document, found a note from the then firefighter to his superior. The note was vitriolic and inflammatory, full of racial invective. Top it off with the hand-drawn Aryan Nations symbols neatly framing the correspondence, and the case was tossed out.
The offending document was public record, part of a public servant’s personnel file, but it was buried in a pile of papers at the back of the fire hall. Had this investigator not taken the initiative to thoroughly vet the accuser, the defendant would likely have been unjustly incarcerated.
From simple assault to fraud, a detailed background investigation into all of the players can change the outcome of a case. Done properly and in a timely manner, this type of investigation can many times even forestall a trial altogether.
You know the state is going to parade out a troupe of experts, recognized professionals who will testify for the prosecution. These experts have, in theory, been vetted by the court.
The term vet, as a verb, is a vestige of the horse track. A thoroughbred must be checked for health and soundness by a veterinarian before it is allowed to race. To vet, therefore, simply means to check, to analyze and evaluate prior to a performance. In this situation, it is imperative to thoroughly vet all experts, the ones the prosecution is putting forth as well as the ones you plan to use.
A local law firm* decided to rely on an appraisal report prepared by a highly credentialed appraiser in a fraud case involving eminent domain. The appraiser prepared the report using sales that occurred after the taking had been announced, a factor that greatly affected real estate values in the immediate area. This is improper methodology, and it’s potentially misleading. Had the law firm thought to vet the expert, they would have learned that he had been publically excused from a previous court case for this same practice. Since they relied on credentials alone, they ended up in a bit of a pickle when their expert was exposed as not-so-expert after all.
The Case of the Inexpert Appraiser was one that any professional investigator, especially one with experience in real estate and fraud, would have discovered in relatively short order. It was reported in a local newspaper. There are countless such “experts” who, if properly vetted, could be excused from the witness stand.
Use your investigator to do the homework. Paying an investigator to do the research is much less expensive than taking your time to pore through the Code of Professional Conduct for Professional Engineers. Why not part out that kind of routine tedium to a qualified professional investigator, and focus on your expertise—matters of law?
See Part 1: Why Attorneys Should Hire Private Investigators