Seasoned private investigator Keith Owens doesn’t wear disguises, break into houses, or point guns at anyone.
Here’s what he actually does:
Maybe you think it is a glamorous life. Or perhaps you imagine us as sketchy characters, lurking in the shadows, dealing with the dirty underbelly of society. While you can find examples of those types in our ranks, that’s not the real world for most PIs.
Keep in mind that a lot of different jobs fall under the heading of “private investigator.” Some PIs conduct surveillance for family attorneys or insurance companies. Others do computer forensics or spend their days in courthouse archives (or their virtual equivalents). Many do a little bit of everything.
In this article, I’d like to pull back the curtain and give you a glimpse of what one private investigator’s days look like—while working a criminal case.
The two definitions for to investigate in Dictionary.com provide some insight into our work:
1. to examine, study, or inquire into systematically; search or examine into the particulars of; examine in detail.
2. to search out and examine the particulars of in an attempt to learn the facts about something hidden, unique, or complex, especially in an attempt to find a motive, cause, or culprit.
As a criminal defense investigator, my job is to gather information. I think of it as solving a puzzle: I collect a pile of jumbled information; then I try to figure out how it all fits together. To do that effectively, I have to envision what the scene will look like once the pieces are in place.
Often, we don’t have all of the puzzle pieces, so we have to figure out how to fill in the part of the picture that the missing pieces represent.
At Work on a Criminal Case
Recently, I was hired to work a criminal case years after the crime happened, to provide a fresh set of eyes a few weeks before the trial was scheduled to begin. First, I sat down to talk with the defense attorney and investigator, to get an overview of the state’s case and the defense’s trial strategy.
Then I went to work, reading through hundreds of pages of evidence: reports from responding patrol officers, crime scene techs, detectives, and medical examiners; witness statements; and interviews. After that, I had to review hundreds of photographs and about 20 hours of video. I could have easily spent weeks combing through case notebooks, but we didn’t have time for that.
We drove to the crime scene so we could understand the views and distance relationships of objects we saw in photos and videos. We drove from one location to another to understand what a typical driver would do in this situation. We measured distances from where witnesses were to the scene of the crime. We talked to witnesses on the phone to review their statements from years ago. We put together PowerPoint presentations for use in court. We worked during the day. We worked on the weekends. We worked late into the night.
What was I looking for? Inconsistencies. Contradictory information. Facts that conflicted with the prosecution’s claims. Anything, big or small, that might support our client’s innocence.
When I review evidence in a criminal case, I’m looking for holes in the police work, or areas where the prosecution seems to be stretching the truth. I’m looking for parts of their narrative of the crime in which they make assumptions that are not supported by facts. And I’m looking for facts that support our client’s version of the events.
I’m looking at crime scene photos, trying to piece the whole scene together in my mind’s eye. Guessing at what’s under that cloth, and if that item was within reach of the victim. Trying to determine if that stain could have been caused by something else, and what that something else might be. Deducing whether what they claim happened could really happen in that setting.
I’m also trying to conjure alternative explanations that offer a believable alternative to the scenario the prosecutors are alleging.
I’m wondering why the photo numbers skip on the picture files. Where are the missing photos? What do they show?
We push against the prosecutor. We clamor for the missing evidence. We question what they have to hide. Our client’s future rests squarely on our efforts. So we give it all we have.
And what about the camera I noticed on the ground in one of the pictures? There were two cameras being used at the scene. Why do we only have one set of photos? They might not show anything new or useful, but I must ask, and we must demand to see them. Because they might, just might, contain important evidence that may give the attorney an advantage in his defense of the client.
If I can provide the defense attorney with information that he can use to argue and demonstrate reasonable doubt, then I have done my job well. So we push against the prosecutor. We clamor for the missing evidence. We question what they have to hide. Our client’s future rests squarely on our efforts. So we give it all we have.
Meanwhile, I’m also looking for facts that support the prosecution’s claims. I need to find the most damning pieces of evidence that do exist. I want to understand them, and how those hurt our client’s claims of innocence. You cannot argue or defend against what you don’t know or don’t understand.
Ultimately, I want to find the truth. I don’t make up the truth. I don’t decide what the truth is. I seek it out. If I find facts that help our client, then I have done my job. However, if I can only find facts that point to a client’s guilt, I have still done my job.
I’m doing my job if I tell the attorney that all the evidence I’ve found supports the assertion that the client is guilty, just as much as when I tell the attorney that there are holes or mistakes in the work the police have done. The attorney needs to be able to give his client the best legal advice possible given the circumstances and facts present. This is critical in our adversarial legal system. So he needs to know all the facts…the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Was working that case glamorous? Nope. Sometimes it was tedious and exhausting. Each time I discovered something important that hadn’t been noticed before, there were moments of exhilaration; but more often, it was mind-numbing. It also felt like important work, a worthy way to apply my skills. It was work that made me proud.
Why? Because in a criminal case, I want the prosecution to be forced to prove their case beyond all reasonable doubt. I want every hole in their case exposed, every inconsistency brought to light.
Prosecutors have lots of resources at their disposal...In the interest of fairness, the defendant deserves that same effort from professionals working on his side. That’s the only way to keep innocent people from being found guilty.
Prosecutors have lots of resources at their disposal. The defense of an average person, regardless of their actual guilt or innocence, is important to all of us. Sure, we all want criminals to be punished. But they should be proven to be guilty in a “fair fight.”
There were multiple police officers, detectives, technicians, medical personnel, and lawyers involved in prosecuting our client. In the interest of fairness, the defendant deserves that same type of effort from professionals working on his side. That’s the only way to keep innocent people from being found guilty.
What We Don’t Do
Notice the things I did not do. I didn’t break into anyone’s house. I didn’t surreptitiously rifle through the files in someone’s office. I didn’t place hidden cameras anywhere. I didn’t slip a GPS tracker on a vehicle. I didn’t shoot anyone, or even point a gun at anyone. I didn’t fabricate evidence. I didn’t threaten anyone or coerce witnesses. I didn’t take a bat to anyone’s car. I didn’t lie to anyone. I didn’t wear a disguise. Those things all fit better into a script for a TV show than in real investigations work.
I worked hard. I worked logically. I worked passionately. I followed a couple of hunches. I posited alternative explanations, and set out to see if the facts supported them.
So no secret spy stuff here, and no Thomas Magnum, Jim Rockford, or Kalinda Sharma type behavior. Just the kind of private investigative work you will want someone to do for you if you are ever in a difficult legal situation.
But hey, I do wear a Fedora during the winter. Maybe that will restore your fantasy a tiny bit.
About the Author:
Keith Owens is founder of Owens Investigations, a family private investigations firm in Irving, TX. You can follow him on Twitter @dallaspi.