“Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.” –Alexander Graham Bell
When you get into your car, you have in mind a destination and the most direct route. Maybe you’ve even considered possible detours, in case of traffic or road closings. For sure you fill up with gas and drive with an eye to getting the best mileage. Why should you approach an investigation any differently?
For any case, no matter how simple or complex, you’ll want to have a specific goal in mind, followed by definite actions likely to achieve the results your client wants.
I’ve found that an investigative outline can serve as an excellent roadmap.
Establishing a Plan
Any investigation should begin with a supreme goal in mind: the client’s. It’s our job to figure out the most direct, efficient way to achieve that goal, using the resources at our disposal. For me, formulating that plan and working it relentlessly starts and ends with an investigative outline.
After an initial investigative case review, an investigator should put together an investigative outline. The outline has two main purposes: to organize questions and leads discovered during the investigative case review and to develop a clear plan to investigate the case.
A thorough investigative outline looks similar to an outline used to write a research paper; the steps to be taken during the investigation are defined and categorized.
In a criminal defense investigation, a simplified outline might look like this:
Goal: (State Overall Goal of Investigation)
I. Investigative Case Review
A. Meet with defense counsel.
B. Review discovery.
C. Prepare investigative timeline.
D. Review investigative outline and timeline with defense counsel.
II. Initial Defendant Interview
A. Learn defendant’s background.
B. Identify potential witnesses.
III. Crime Scene
A. Document scene (photographs, video, sketch, notes).
B. Canvass area surrounding crime scene.
IV. Victim and Witness Background Investigation
A. Complete dossier for each victim and witness.
V. Locate and Interview Witnesses
VI. Conduct Follow-Up Investigation Based on Investigation Results
A. Discuss case with defense counsel
B. Pursue additional leads.
VII. Report of Investigation
Using the Investigative Outline
If the client is an attorney, the investigator should always share the outline with the client. A productive collaboration between investigator and attorney is good for everyone: A solid strategy can help you avoid squandering your time and might sometimes present an argument for devoting additional resources to the investigation.
Most likely, you’ve already discussed an overall strategy with the attorney; he/she may also want to help prioritize the investigative steps. Time and money are rarely infinite resources, which means you’ll need to triage the investigative work—chasing the most promising leads first and the low-value hail-marys as a last resort.
Always remember, if working for an attorney, you are an “agent” of that attorney. Therefore, you should try to be a force multiplier for the attorney, not a source of friction.
When working an investigation with a limited budget, the investigative outline can also help you estimate the time you’ll likely need to spend in the field and reviewing documents, and also how to delegate tasks and prioritize resources. If the budget doesn’t measure up to your estimate, your outline can serve as a great visual aid for the client, as you make your case for increasing the budget.
As the investigation gets underway, the outline keeps the legal team informed about where the investigation is and where it is heading. This is especially helpful for keeping long-term investigations on track, and it’s also a useful way to keep the client up-to-date on your progress.
Much like the investigative timeline, the outline remains a living document throughout the investigation. Never be afraid to add or subtract items from the outline as the investigation progresses: New information may cause your strategy and priorities to evolve.
Let the outline work for you.
Success loves preparation. An investigative outline helps investigators create a clear and defined plan of action to accomplish the goal(s) of the investigation. Maximizing a client’s return on investment should always be at the forefront of every investigator’s mind.
Producing results within a client’s budget will undoubtedly lead to future case work and referrals—the ultimate goal for any investigations firm.
About the Author:
Private Investigator Steven Mason of Mason Investigative Solutions is a former federal criminal investigator and certified Federal Law Enforcement Training Center Adjunct Instructor. Mr. Mason’s curriculum vitae has been accepted by the United States District Court for the District of Arizona, approving him to conduct federal criminal defense investigations.