To read the winning entries, check this page on Wednesdays. We will post our top picks every week, from honorable mention to first place.
Last spring, we invited Pursuit readers to submit their best stories about criminal defense investigations—for our first ever writing contest.
Your response overwhelmed us: Our inbox quickly filled with excellent articles by PIs and former cops, ex-journalists and detective hopefuls. The entries our judges chose included gripping tales from the field, astute observations about our justice system, and profound reflections on why the writers/subjects care about their chosen life’s work. The best stories showed us and told us why this work matters to us, and why we keep doing it, even when the pay is terrible and the cause seems lost.
We will post the winning entries, in order from honorable mention to first place, along with weekly teasers for our upcoming criminal defense investigations course with PIeducation. We’re creating this course because we believe that defense investigations, performed at a professional level, matter immensely—to our profession, to our justice system, and to our society.
As defense attorney Dean Strang (of “Making a Murderer” docu-series) said in a recent interview:
“Even when we understand the need for an investigator, we’re hampered by an asymmetry of authority and power that the defense investigation has as compared to the state investigation. The justification is … the state bears the burden of proof. The reality, of course, is that most criminal cases can’t be defended on simply standing on reasonable doubt and hoping that the jury will give that life. For most criminal cases, you can and must offer a counter-narrative to the prosecution’s narrative, and that normally requires investigation.”
As a preview, here are a few of our favorite quotes from the winning entries. (We’ll let you know who authored them as we post our top six picks in the coming weeks. Our apologies for the gradual reveal, but we at PursuitMag are all about keeping the mystery alive!)
Best change of heart:
“As a retired police officer, I never thought I would work in the specialty of criminal defense investigations. 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. Turns out, my perception of criminal defense investigations was flawed.”
Best statement of purpose:
“I confess my biases. Police and the state have way, way too much power … If you can’t rally to fight authority, then you are dead inside. On the line is the client’s liberty, life, and reputation.”
Best philosophical musing:
“A private investigator’s work retains a lost simplicity … You knock, they talk. Or they don’t. Some have a sense of larger forces in motion—trials, guilt and innocence. Some may not care.”
Best perspective shift:
“Years ago, I figured if the cops arrested someone, they were probably guilty or they wouldn’t be in jail. I don’t feel that way anymore.”
Best moment of world-weary realism:
“I asked Deschamps how he viewed his role as a public defender. He replied, ‘My job is to ensure citizens can go to sleep at night under the delusion that only guilty people go to prison.'”
“A good investigator, like a good reporter, persists, without regard for what kind of ending a story or case seems likely to have. There’s always one more phone call to make, one more knock on a stranger’s door, one more night spent tearing up and re-assembling a timeline to see if something’s missing.”
We’ll keep adding links to the winning entries as the posts go live:
*Our thanks to the judges, who had impossible decisions to make: the Pursuit editorial team, the Grammar Examiner, and public radio star Daniel Potter (who produced our first podcast episode). There was disagreement. There were fistfights. There was drinking and gnashing of teeth. But we chose who we chose, and fortunately for us, there was much goodness to choose from.