by Steven Mason
“In the field of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.” – Louis Pasteur
Investigative case review and analysis are the heart and soul of any criminal defense investigation. In a criminal case, “discovery” is how the defense learns everything they can about the State’s case against their client. Poring over police reports, witness statements, and other documented evidence is where holes in the prosecution’s investigation are discovered, alternate theories manifest, missing links are found, and reasonable doubt is born.
A good criminal defense investigator must learn to dig through and organize thousands of documents and use that information to create a visual presentation of times, places, and events pertinent to the event in question. Patching together the State’s evidence, one piece at a time, is how the defense team determines what story the prosecution will most likely tell in court—and how to counter it with their own (hopefully) more plausible and compelling story.
The hardest part is getting started.
Where to Begin
Reviewing a complex investigation can be daunting. Discovery can range from dozens to tens of thousands of pages. And don’t be surprised if you find the documents out of order, incomplete, or in a format that doesn’t lend itself to any kind of systematic analysis.
It’s your job to carve order out of that chaos. First, you’ll need to devise some way to organize the giant pile (or piles) of paper—by document type, say, or by chronology. Then, a kind of triage: If possible, figure out what materials might be most helpful or most damaging to your case—the “good” and the “bad” facts—and start reading. Make a spreadsheet or keep a detailed notebook as you go—whatever works best for you to keep all that information straight along the way.
Enter the Investigative Timeline
The investigative timeline serves as both a reference and a visual tool to identify the relationships between people, places, dates, times and (of course) evidence. All criminal defense investigations should begin and end with an investigative timeline. The legal team will use it to organize their case behind the scenes and may also find it helpful as a visual aid at trial.
Investigative timelines come in a variety of formats, ranging from a traditional linear timeline to complex databases. Whatever the format, the timeline should be functional and help the investigator and defense counsel visualize how all people, events, locations, and evidence are interrelated.
Commercially available software such as SmartDraw, Visio, and RFFlow can help you create an organized and visually-appealing timeline. Excel is a great option, too, either as a stand-alone timeline platform or in support of another method. Excel is easily searchable and lets the investigator filter the timeline by categories.
As you review discovery and collect new information for the case, you’ll need to enter all information relating to dates, times, locations, people, events, and evidence into the timeline. It’s vital to note the source of each piece of information entered.
The timeline will remain a living document throughout the investigation, allowing the defense to develop a clearer picture of the facts and create a road map for the investigation.
How to Use the Timeline
A well-developed timeline provides clarity to a complex case, and it should be used as a reference to understand important relationships. By studying a timeline, both the investigator and defense counsel can find gaps in the investigation, document the movements of witnesses and victims, exploit inconsistencies, develop alibis, and evaluate the plausibility of the opposing counsel’s case.
An easy-to-understand timeline also makes an excellent defense exhibit, assisting defense counsel when cross-examining witnesses and presenting reasonable doubt to jurors.
The investigative timeline is a tool that many overworked defense teams overlook as they build complex cases with limited time and resources. But I’ve found it to be too important a tool to leave in the box. It can not only help the legal team fortify their case; it can help them dismantle the prosecution’s storyline and introduce reasonable doubt to their audience—the jury.
Documenting inconsistencies in witness statements and reported events can elevate defense counsel’s position during negotiations, help lower bond for the defendant, reduce charges, or even result in a dismissal of the case.
A version of this article first appeared on the Mason Investigative Solutions blog.
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.