In Parts One and Two, we made the case for how outsourcing can add to an attorney’s bottom line and how a good investigator can make (or break) the case. In this installment, a little more detail about how PIs can help the legal team identify and interview potential witnesses and pick apart the crime scene investigation.
Locating and Interviewing Witnesses
Once you take a complicated criminal case, call your professional investigator as soon as practicable. A professional investigator will, upon retention, begin working on a list of potential witnesses. Brief your investigator on as many details of the case as possible. Provide your investigator with a full case file: police reports, statements, crime scene photos, sketches, etc. Your investigator is performing work product, which should (in most cases and in most states) be protected.
The first step is to identify and locate all witnesses in the police reports and statements. Obviously, the professional investigator will (should) interview all of the witnesses that the police have identified. Some of them may not want to talk to you, and they don’t necessarily have to, but a good investigator has a very persuasive manner. A professional investigator will be able to deconstruct witness statements, compare and contrast statements taken at various times, and help you to identify flaws and potential areas of exploitation.
The second step, and arguably the most useful, is the neighborhood canvas. A professional investigator will conduct a thorough search for witnesses that the prosecution either could not find, or that the prosecution would rather you not find. A neighborhood canvas is time consuming, tedious, and requires a systematic approach. But, conducted property, it can unearth valuable, game-changing information.
Let’s say that your client has been found guilty of first-degree murder and received the death penalty. The crime happened in 1992. Your firm, located in New York, took on the habeas case pro bono. The crime occurred in Memphis. Witnesses have moved. People have forgotten, or have claimed forgetfulness. Time, as they say, marched on. Your resources are tight, and the stakes are extremely high. Please, I beg you, hire a private investigator.
Example: A law firm took on an appeals case here in Tennessee.* One witness had offered statements which described three variations of the story, with important differences. Her statement to the police said the defendant had blood on her hands. Her statement to the prosecutor claimed the defendant was “covered” in blood. Her statement to the defense read that the defendant had cuts on her fists and bruises on her face.
The witness owned a house in Germantown, TN. Her daughters lived nearby. They didn’t especially want Mom, by then in her late 70s, to face all this badness again. They would not, under any circumstances, reveal where mom was. A professional investigator, who was called in after three years of trying to locate this witness, found her in less than a day.
Turns out, mom had wanted to set the record straight for years.
Reviewing the Crime Scene—Picking Apart the Prosecution’s Work
Professional investigators are fact checkers, not advocates; but shoddy work or unscrupulous work by the prosecution should be exploited. A professional investigator with proficiency in police procedures can help you find flaws in work conducted by the police and the prosecution.
If the officer-in-charge provides a less-than-detailed narrative description, there may be a problem hiding behind his omissions. Are the first responder’s notes consistent with the OIC’s notes? Are there pages missing? (Are the pages numbered?) Details, details, details…
You will likely find it beneficial to have your professional investigator visit the crime scene, take pictures, make sketches, verify sight lines, etc. This simple act can turn up revealing inconsistencies.
Why not part out some of the legwork to a qualified professional investigator, leaving you free to focus on matters of law?
Example: A key witness told police that he saw the defendant beat the victim with a shovel in the alleyway. Police report indicated that witness lived in Apt. 7B. After comparing the crime scene sketches and photographs with the actual building, the investigator realized that apt 7B faced the street, with no windows facing the alleyway. There was no way the key witness in Apt. 7B could see a shovel fight, or anything else, in the alleyway.
The investigator spent two hours on site, measuring, videotaping, and drawing the scene. Upon return to the office, the investigator made a simple two-dimensional sketch showing the exact place of the crime in the alley and the view the witness had from unit 7B. The police tried to explain, but…
Turns out, the witness had a few outstanding warrants when this crime occurred, completely unrelated. The police, based on his later testimony, had indicated that if he said he saw the crime, they would forget about the outstanding warrants. Details, details, details…
As a criminal defense attorney, people and cases are likely tugging at you from every direction. Why not part out some of the legwork to a qualified professional investigator, leaving you free to focus on matters of law? Leverage the expertise of your investigator, and you can be more effective. If used property, a professional investigator can make you look smarter. Instead of burning up hours (most likely expensive hours) of your time canvasing, interviewing, and documenting, hire a professional investigator to do the tedious shoe-leather work and, quite possibly, make your case.
*NOTE: All anecdotes in this piece have been changed. Location, gender, and case specific details have been altered to avoid revealing any of our client’s information. The stories are taken from [FIND] Investigations case files, fellow professional investigators, and national news items.