Honorable Mention: Michael McKenna, a former police officer, reflects on his change of heart about the ethics of working for the defense.
As a retired police officer, I never thought I would work in the specialty of criminal defense investigations. I thought that I would not be able to wrap my head around the idea of helping people avoid jail or do less jail time, after spending twenty years putting people in there.
Turns out, my perception of criminal defense investigations was flawed.
Of course, the objective of the attorney who hires me is to help his client avoid jail or do less time in prison, and I am hired by that same attorney. So I guess the goal is exactly what I thought it would be.
A Change of Heart
I began to overcome my apprehension when I was offered a position to do criminal defense investigations. During my law enforcement career, I had been a detective and a sergeant. I’ve seen many substandard reports in my day, reports that might have gotten past a less observant sergeant. Among the worst of these were arrest reports.
As a detective in a state where domestic violence is a “shall arrest,” often the accused and the victim had reconciled by the time the police report hit my desk. Neither party would come in to be interviewed or give a statement. This put me in the position of having to apply for an arrest warrant based solely on the initial report written by the police officer on the scene. If that report was poorly written, I still had to make the application for the arrest warrant.
Now that I’m investigating for the defense, I sometimes think back on those substandard reports. I was making decisions about people’s liberty based on poor information. I’ve always known the system is not perfect. But seeing it from the “other side” has opened my eyes.
How It Really Is
The reality of the matter is that sometimes, a substandard report gets past a busy sergeant. Faulty arrest warrants and search and seizure warrants get past sergeants, prosecutors, and even the judges who ultimately sign these documents. Sometimes this is because the system is simply overloaded. Sometimes, it happens because someone just isn’t paying attention to the paperwork.
The result is that people’s liberty is at stake. If those people end up represented by an overworked private attorney or public defender (who are always overburdened), their interests are not being properly protected. We have a Constitution for a reason, and the protections that the Constitution gives us extend to everyone.
The Investigator’s Role
I have come to realize that criminal defense investigators are the people that take on the burden and the legwork that the attorneys cannot. Sure, the result may be that the accused is able to avoid prison or do less prison time. But if the police have not done their jobs properly, then the result is the result. The police officers are really the ones responsible for allowing the accused to avoid the penalty—don’t pin that on the criminal defense investigator.
But even if the police have done everything properly, the criminal defense investigator can be an integral piece in the criminal justice process. For example, they may write a thorough, detailed report that gets right to the point—which the attorney spends less time reading and deciphering. And that means that the system becomes a little bit less burdened.
The other important role a criminal defense investigator can play is during the mitigation process. There are many reasons that people commit crimes. A thorough investigation of someone’s life experiences and of the people involved in the accused’s life often helps courts decide what is the best option for the accused, one that considers both society’s best interest and the accused’s best interest.
Ultimately, I look at my specialty this way: Would I want a family member to go through the legal system without the best possible protection of their interests? I certainly would not, and I think most people would agree.
About the author:
Michael McKenna is a retired police officer from Connecticut who worked as a deputy U.S. Marshal in Los Angeles prior to his 20-year career as a local officer. He worked as a K9 handler for 7 years, a detective for 8 years, and a sergeant for 2 years. After retiring from the local department, he was the first person hired as an employment specialist in probation for the state of Florida; he and his supervisor created the position and duties it entails today. Looking to use his investigative talents again, he began working as a private investigator and now runs McKenna Investigative Services in Tampa, FL. He also works defense investigations for Justice Investigations.
Why we chose it:
We liked the candor and simplicity of this piece. It’s great to hear from a former law enforcement guy who is so honest about his initial trepidation about “defecting to the other side.” McKenna gives us a glimpse into the thinking behind one man’s change of heart about a system where he’d spent his career.
Attorneys and investigators tend to view themselves in one camp or another, the “good guys” or the “bad guys”—and defense teams and prosecutors are both utterly certain that they represent the former. It’s too bad, because we’re all really working toward the same thing: a correct, fair outcome that’s best for defendants, victims, and society as a whole. Why can’t we all just get along?
“I always thought that I would not be able to wrap my head around the idea of helping people avoid jail or do less jail time, after spending twenty years putting people in there.”
We can’t have a perfect system, but we deserve a better one—for us all. “I look at my specialty this way. Would I want my family member to go through the legal system without the best possible protection of their interests? I certainly would not, and I think most people would agree.”