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Sunday, November 17, 2013

Criminal Investigation - Part Two

Strangely enough many mystery writers have as their writing method a thinking process that closely parallels true criminal investigators. Some are similar and some lack basic foundation. Agatha Christie was one of the best mystery writers because she always had several suspects and it was not until the very end of her book that the reader was surprised by the revealing the actual culprit. Her method was much like many investigators today. She starts with the crime and introduction of multiple characters, then as she goes from chapter to chapter suspicion wains from one suspect to another. Only she knows who the actual culprit is so she keeps everyone guessing through out the entire book. Much like the limbs of the above tree she takes the reader on a trip from branch to branch with suspects keeping everyone guessing until the end of the book to be surprised. Along the way she gathers obscure and abstract clues that detract from the actual perpetrator.

Many current investigators proceed like that and all too often I see on television investigators that jump to the wrong conclusion early and waste valuable time in pursuit of the wrong suspect. Examples are the now common phrase that if one spouse dies that it is the other that did it only to have the spouse convicted by circumstantial evidence and a prosecuting attorney that is able to spin a realistic story out of sketchy facts. Building a firm investigation requires some facts with established evidence and not a lot of guess work like in the Agatha Christie novels. Like I said in part one that DNA and data bases should be tools but not the basis for jumping to a hasty conclusion. A good investigation is built on solid evidence and a step by step accumulation of fragmented evidence. Then the good investigator applies his/her logical thinking process that has been trained from experience to put that evidence together and narrow the suspect field.

The thought process is something that is a trained skill which requires first of all questioning the evidence you have and its importance to the case. To rely on circumstantial evidence with little or no factually established evidence often leads to a wrong conclusion and is the lack of a solid foundation of a worthy investigation. Getting too far off in a wrong direction can make recovery very difficult and evidence grows cold. Any one can pick a suspect from the pool of suspects and build a circumstantial case against them but often you may have the wrong suspect and the real culprit is ignored. A true criminologist will establish guilt with hard evidence one fact at a time. Data bases and DNA are very good tools to have and can rule out some suspects but they can be manipulated too and having additional solid evidence and a well prepared case not based on personal opinion or speculation is far better. Jumping to conclusions is human nature and I've done it myself only to find when I put all the facts on the table that the evidence leads me in a different direction. I was trained as I investigated that the best way is to evaluate my facts would  be to record each one on a 3X5 index cards. When I had sufficient facts to lay them all out on a table and put them in order and see what they reveal. Sometimes it would lead me in a totally different direction or sometimes it would reveal that there was a gap in my investigation that needed to be resolved. I would also separate circumstantial evidence from hard evidence.

I used to love to work cold cases that others had given up on. By putting all the facts on cards and laying them out I would find areas overlooked and new directions. I cleaned out most of our cold cases by application of this method. Most were solved and the one I recall that was not solved led to the solution of another subsequent case. In my opinion there is no substitute for collecting and establishing as many facts as possible. Also for questioning each and every fact for its reliability. My skin crawls each time I see someone sent to prison for circumstantial evidence and a fabricated story. It only shows that a poor investigation or lack of investigative ability is the basis for a prison term. The end of an investigation should not be a surprise because the evidence should bring you to the perpetrator. Only in Agatha Christie novels should you be surprised.

Another skill needed is how to question people and interrogate suspects. Those are a skill and often is the closure of an already factual investigation. I never found that aggressive questioning worked well. Except for the sociopath criminal most people like to unburden their crime as it gnaws at their conscience. The next and last part will deal with the Sherlock Holmes style of investigation and more on interrogation from my experience. I am not a professional by any means but I was highly successful using the techniques outlined.

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