I’ve always thought being there in person was the ONLY effective way to handle witness interviews. And then came COVID.
I was recently reading Eight Million Ways to Die by Lawrence Block. The main character, a cop turned private eye named Matt Scudder, used the acronym, GOYAKOD. He explained that the term means, Get off your ass and knock on doors. The crime novel was written in 1982.
Now it’s 2021. A global pandemic has presented stark challenges for private investigators who prefer to handle witness interviews in person.
I’ve always suggested to my clients that nothing beats a face-to-face interview. In some criminal defense cases, I prefer to knock on doors and even do unannounced interviews. It’s a way to catch people flat-footed before they have a chance to come up with a lie to tell me.
About ten months ago, that approach got a whole lot more complicated.
I learned a good lesson early in my career. Thirty-plus years ago, I was working on my first major criminal defense case. A young girl had gone missing. (To this day, she has never been found.) The defendant had been charged with Kidnapping w/Intent to Commit Sexual Assault. He confessed and then immediately recanted the confession. The term false-confession was not part of the lexicon at that time. It was generally believed that false confessions did not happen. (Now we know different.)
Two years after the girl went missing, the investigative firm I was working for was hired. I reviewed the witness interviews and saw that one such law enforcement report was about four lines long. A family that lived at a particular residence said that they knew nothing about the case, according to the detective. I had seen some statements that led me to believe our defendant had spent time living at that address.
How could there be NO information in this report?
I got off my ass and knocked on their door. And I learned a whole lot of information. I can’t go into detail, but in the end, the jurors did not believe the statement the family gave that accounted for the defendant’s time when the girl went missing. We lost the case, but I still don’t believe the defendant was involved. Had the interview been appropriately conducted at the start of the case, maybe things would have ended differently. The defendant received a life term. He has never confessed to anyone while in prison and maintains his innocence.
I had another interview on a murder defense case in which the defendant was claiming self-defense. I asked a source a question about some individuals — whether she thought they knew anything about the case. She looked away from me and said, “You will just have to talk to them.”
I knew right away something was up. Again, I got off my ass and knocked on their door. Looking back, it was a very surreal moment. It was as if they were standing at the front of their apartment, beckoning me in slow motion through a mist to come inside … so they could tell me what they knew.
I told the attorney what I had learned from my interview. The State lowered the charge, and to avoid a jury trial, the defendant took the deal.
These people had NOT been interviewed by law enforcement. The deceased was a well-known bully in town, and he had been visiting these two men just before his death. The bully borrowed their phone and called our future defendant, and the two had some words. After he hung up the phone, the bully said to the two men in the room, “Now I do have to kill the son of a bitch.” (Again, our defendant had claimed self-defense.)
A short time later, the big bully was shot and killed by our much smaller defendant. The Attorney General said they would never come down from the first-degree murder charge. I told the attorney what I had learned from my interview.
The State lowered the charge, and to avoid a jury trial, the defendant took the deal.
The Future of Interviewing
Times have changed, and so have the mechanics of witness interviews. Everyone nowadays has a cell phone. When I started as a private investigator, I had to use pay phones when out in the field.
And now, there is far less door-knocking.
Nero Wolfe was a (fictional) private investigator who handled his investigations — remotely. This brilliant armchair detective rarely left his New York City brownstone. Of course, he had his sidekick Archie Goodwin to handle the fieldwork.
Even before COVID, we’ve all been turning more and more to remote investigations, thanks to modern database services and Google. In the end, we’ve all had to adopt a more Nero-Wolfe-Esque business approach.
Recently I had to contact the owner of a car to have an expert examine their vehicle. I had no known telephone number for the car owner. I did have a possible address, but it was an hour away. And, of course, I had the COVID issue to consider.
I found the owner on Facebook and sent a message. We ended up messaging back and forth, and I lined up the expert to examine the vehicle. I never spoke with them in person or even left the office.
Of course, the expert had to wait a couple of weeks. The owner had just tested positive for COVID.
Efficient but Effective Interviewing
I live in a remote part of central Nebraska. I currently have cases in my area as well as on both ends of the state, including a murder case in western Nebraska and an asbestos (mesothelioma) case in eastern Nebraska.
Since the pandemic-psychosis, I have stayed mostly on my ass in the office and handled many of the interviews on these and other cases over the phone. The asbestos case required the help of a reference librarian named Lynn. She expertly researched fifty-year-old city directories for me, as the library in the town I was working was closed to the public.
As far as in-person interviews go, the times have changed. I think many witnesses may actually talk with you longer over their cell phone then if they were standing on their porch with some stranger barking questions — if they answer the door at all. Still, I believe remote interviews can be risky for your client’s case. You lose those visual cues that are only available during in-person interviews.
In the end, the investigator will have to weigh all the variables and balance the economies of time, money, and the appropriate professional approach — not to mention future crises like the current pandemic. But I do believe it’s dangerous to think you can phone-in all your interviews. I know I am a better investigator for having to adapt, and to consider the benefits and challenges of in-person versus phone interviews. And in the future, I’ll need to become a good judge of when to get off my ass and knock-on doors, and when to just stay seated like Nero Wolfe.
End of Report
About the author:
Steve Koenig is a private investigator in central Nebraska. He handles criminal defense and civil litigation investigations. Steve wrote the fictional crime novel Barbed Wire Runs Through It. The book can be found via all formats on Amazon. Steve.PrivateEye1@gmail.com