This is the third blog post about private investigators, drawn from my research for my next novel. Links to the previous posts are below.
Disclaimer - the research is done for a book with a US setting. The information may not apply to other countries. It is not professional advice and should not be taken as such.
I have to admit I was a bit surprised when I discovered that lawyers quite often hire private investigators to help with criminal defence cases. The work a PI does on these cases isn’t just about background research on the jurors, or even witness location—it can involve visiting the crime scene and gathering evidence missed by the initial investigation.
When a PI is involved in a criminal investigation, they must abide by the same rules as everyone else. But that I mean they must ensure their enquiries comply with the law and are impartial. If they don’t follow procedure, then anything they do may be inadmissible in court. Any evidence gathered by a PI must be able to show chain of custody and be correctly recorded as to who gathered what, when, and how.
So let’s go through a scenario to see how it works.
You receive a call from a defence lawyer who would like to hire you to assist with one of his cases. The lawyer’s client has been charged with bank robbery offences and is denying any involvement.
To be honest, you don’t actually care if the guy did it or not. Determining guilt or otherwise is not your call. Your job is to find the facts—ALL of the facts, the good and the bad—and report back to the lawyer. After all, they will want to know everything so they are not blindsided in court.
You head over to the lawyer’s office. She sits you down and gives you a quick briefing on the case and then tells you her proposed plan of defence. You discuss the options, agree on priorities, and she hands over the evidence materials (statements, copies of photos and video, etc) supplied by the prosecutor for the case.
Next up is assessing the evidence. This is your chance to see what the case is based around and what the initial investigators may have missed or not bothered with. In reality, if the police believe they have enough evidence for a conviction, why would they keep going? They have too many other cases waiting to be solved.
You discover that the prosecutor’s main testimony is from a man who saw the accused running away from the bank and dive into some bushes. He then saw the accused remerge moments later in a different jumper and without the mask he’d been wearing, and carrying a backpack. The accused then walked on down the street as if nothing had happened. The police later found the mask in a rubbish bin on a direct path from the bank to the home of the accused. The mask contained strands of hair that match the hair of the accused, and his DNA and fingerprints have also been recovered from the mask.
The witness picked the accused out in a line-up. The accused has no alibi, claiming he was asleep at the time of the robbery (10 am). No money has been recovered.
Where to from here?
First things first, you need to visit the crime scene. Although the police tape is long gone and there are no signs a crime was committed, you can still recreate the events of the day. Locate the bushes, work out where the witness was standing. Could they really see clearly? What was the traffic like? Who else may have seen? Was there anyone in the offices opposite, or in the café close by? Take photos from the witness’s location towards the bushes, make notes, and take measurements. Then follow up on those other locations for potential witnesses.
Next up would be further interviews. This can include the accused, any witnesses, the police officers involved, and any experts. Talk to those who can verify if the accused owned the mask used in the robbery. See if they can remember when they saw it, whether they have seen the accused wear it. Remember, the defence only needs to raise doubt that the accused committed the crime. If someone can remember the accused wearing the mask at a party and then leaving it behind when he left… well, that raises doubt. Interview any other persons connected with the crime that may not have been interviewed during the initial investigation.
Conducting background checks on witnesses is also a good idea. Maybe the witness has a history of lying to get attention, or is an alcoholic. Looking for ways to possibly discredit a witness may seem nasty, but you’re doing a job. Would you want an innocent man going to jail because you didn’t want to tell anyone the witness was stoned at the time of the crime?
You need to look at who else may have committed the crime. Look at all other potential suspects and examine their motives. Again, the defence only needs to show there is doubt the accused is guilty.
Once you have completed your investigation, you hand the report to the lawyer and return the box of evidence. You may be called to testify in court, but that’s for later.
So, was the accused found guilty?
Well, the witness is a highly respected teacher with excellent eyesight and a sharp memory for detail, and you obtained a statement from the accused’s bookmaker saying he’d received a large payment from the accused the evening of the robbery for an amount almost exactly matching what was stolen. A friend of the accused told you they had seen them with the mask the day before the robbery, and with the added evidence, the accused changed his story and plead guilty.
You did your job and the lawyer thanked you by paying your invoice promptly.
Next week – surveillance
Missing anything? Previous Private Investigator posts:
What Does a Real Private Investigator Do?
Skips and Runaways - Finding the Missing
What's it about?
It's about words and my life as a writer. There are also tips for those starting their writing journey, with a focus on self-publishing, and encouragement all round.