Ex-crime beat reporter and veteran defense investigator Mike Spencer gives hopefuls a heads up about what the job entails.
The charming sheriff’s spokesman invited me for a sitdown with the sheriff to discuss my reporting of a controversial drug bust, what a rival sheriff’s candidate had called a “controlled delivery.” I thought the meeting would be routine. Sheriff Monge would let the spokesman, Lt. Bill Stookey, do most of the talking, but Monge in no uncertain terms would try to claim there was nothing fishy about the recent big cocaine bust at sea in the heart of an election race.
I was 27 and still wet behind the ears as a police reporter. I took the job in Sarasota, Florida after leaving a reporting job and graduate journalism school in Berkeley, California. Many police reporters and journalists said that working in Florida was a good career move. I replaced the reporter who broke the Pee-wee Herman stories in Sarasota. (If you are young and don’t know, Pee-wee was a niche actor and pop culture figure caught, by sheriff’s deputies, entertaining a certain part of himself at a porno theater in Sarasota County. If memory serves me right Nurse Nancy and Faster Tiger showed that night.)
I’m telling you this old story because it reminds me of the feelings I have when being cross-examined as a private investigator in criminal defense cases. Brace yourself if you are thinking about doing criminal defense work. It is not for the faint-hearted.
Use whatever term you like, but to be a criminal defense private investigator you need: spine, balls, huevos–big ones, stones, moxy, backbone, resolve, grit, pluck, will, and courage. You and your team will almost always be financially outgunned and manpower underdogs, fighting the state or the federal government.
So, those many years ago on the police beat, the shift began with in-person visits to various police departments at about 2:30 p.m. Something was different that day. The spokesman called the meeting with the Sheriff at 11 a.m. I expected to just go up to the sheriff’s office on the third floor. The spokesman, however, took me to a conference room where I had never been. It might have been the squad room for narcotics and vice.
To be a criminal defense private investigator you need: spine, balls, huevos–big ones, stones, moxy, backbone, resolve, grit, pluck, will, and courage.
Seven serious older guys in suits waited for me. Mike Powers, head of Tampa Drug Enforcement Administration, thundered at me that there was nothing wrong or controversial about the bust at sea. I froze. I just saw Powers, an aptly named body builder and anti-drug warrior, and thought he could pulverize me. He thundered at me about “Joe Shit the Rag Man.” I had no idea what this phrase meant. (It’s apparently Marine Corps slang for someone who is full of shit, no doubt a reference to the candidate alleging the cocaine bust was a lie.) I do recall getting in a few words that my job as a reporter was to report the news. Powers and the other serious lawmen did not want to hear it.
I’m sure my report the next day featured Powers and the sheriff discounting the rival candidate’s assertions that the drug bust was not a phony. But it also would have included the rival’s original allegation that it really wasn’t a random drug bust at sea because a crew of informants and undercover agents controlled the delivery of the cocaine from Colombia. The rival candidate, from the city police department, was right. The sheriff and DEA had to misrepresent the circumstances of the bust because a local TV camera crew had video of the boat and the crew.
I proved the rival candidate’s assertion. I interviewed one of the defendants and even found and interviewed an informant on the vessel. It didn’t matter. The TV cameraman confirmed off the record that he had shot video of the boat. My reporting went for naught. The sheriff won another term.
That feeling of being ambushed and smacked around, then fighting back as a reporter reminds me of criminal defense cases. I started doing criminal defense work 25 years ago. I do not do it exclusively because it’s too mentally grueling. But about 40 percent of my work now is for defense lawyers.
Here are my coping tips and random thoughts about private investigator defense work:
Have a background in fighting, arguing, and writing.
I’m the youngest of seven kids, check. I might come off as laid back and reserved, but I would just as soon headlock someone as put up with a bunch of crap. Having a writing background helps. I write for busy lawyers. Get to the point and hit the highlights early. There are so many ways to do the job, introvert, extrovert, doesn’t matter, but when the lights hit the stage, be ready.
Get ready to meet some interesting folks.
The people you will meet: Hells Angels, pervy teacher, pedo dentist, bent cop, crooked Corvette dealer, Norteno gang members, many people with mental illness and substance abuse problems, drunk drivers, wife beaters. Know what they all have in common? The right to an investigation and to have facts presented in court.
You are going to lose—a lot.
It’s insensitive but true: jails and prisons are filled with guilty people. How you handle the losing is up to you. I don’t think about winning and losing too much because it’s out of my control. Work up a case with passion each time, and you will sleep well at night.
Do not cut corners.
Go to the scene, ideally at the time of day when the crime occurred. Do your original work. Listen to the 911 calls and look at transcripts. Don’t rely on police reports or take any information, news articles and TV news, at face value. Document like a fiend. Master the material, know the bones of the case and versions given by each witness.
Have some soul.
Objectively, I don’t have soul; I’m a rapidly aging white guy. Maybe what I have is humanity. Witnesses will sniff a phony in a heartbeat. Put your guts into the work. People are often decent to people who ask sincere questions. You need the ability to walk in many worlds and to relate to all kinds of people.
Prosecutors come in many varieties.
Types of prosecutor: the novice DA, the bureaucrat, the tough guy or tough girl, the Dick, the Total Pro, the Gunner. There is no better practice than testifying at trial. Each time you will learn not only the justice system but about yourself. In time you might even enjoy the experience of the eye contact with the jury or the pleasures of answering clearly with enough detail but not rambling. I always remember the time I elicited a laugh from a jury when then Deputy D.A. Eric Swalwell, now Congressman, asked me a dumb question on cross-examination at a trial.
Think about all the ways to present evidence. Maybe use a drone for aerial photographs, or computer animation of a scene. A judge once allowed me and a defendant, a software executive, to build a replica porno booth for his jury trial. He faced lewd conduct charges from an arrest at an adult bookstore, which had a coin-operated video section. I testified that from where the officer claimed he was standing to where the defendant was in the booth, under the lighting conditions, that the officer could not have seen the man expose himself. The jury found him not guilty.
If only Pee-wee Herman had gone to trial, maybe a private investigator and good attorney could have helped him.
About the author:
Mike Spencer owns Spencer Legal Investigations in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is also the author of Private Eye Confidential, Stories From A Real P.I. (published by 99: The Press). He’s on on Twitter at @SpencerPI.