Monday, January 25, 2016

Tight-lipped investigators

A common complaint of those touched by crime is the lack of information they receive from the police during the investigation. (Family of murder victim finds wait for justice painfully long )

We are used to TV shows where we know all the clues and evidence as soon as the cops do, and sometimes before they do. So when real life strikes and very little is shared with us as victims or family members, we think something is wrong.

We assume the secrecy must mean we are suspects.  And although we might very well be suspects as many perpetrators of crime are related to the victim or known to the victim, there are many other reasons investigators are closed-lipped.

We might feel insulted, believing the reasons cops won’t tell us anything is because they don’t trust that we won’t blab to our friends or the media. That might be true as well. Preserving the integrity of the investigation is paramount in the minds of investigators. They do not want to work hard on a case, only to have it fall apart in court. 

There are many less personal reasons, however, for not sharing information during an investigation. For one thing, early evidence might be misleading, giving victims and their families either false hope or unnecessary grief.

For example, the presence of a weapon may make it appear a victim committed suicide, whereas further investigation might reveal the death was the result of a homicide—or vice versa.

A body found partially nude might make it appear the victim was sexually assaulted. An autopsy, however, might reveal the person died from hypothermia. A common symptom of late-stage hypothermia is a feeling of being intensely hot. Many victims of exposure throw off their clothes just before succumbing to the cold.

Sometimes withholding evidence helps trip up suspects as well. If someone confesses to shooting the victim when the autopsy shows the victim died of stab wounds, the investigators know they have to keep looking.

Releasing information about a case can easily contaminate witnesses’ ability to testify accurately when it comes time for a trial. The human mind is not an accurate recorder of data. Memories, thoughts, and opinions are easily altered. It is a feature of our mind that we integrate new knowledge into the framework of thinking we already possess. Learning of evidence before testifying can potentially alter a witness' memory of what occurred.

It’s a fine line investigators walk when determining what to reveal to the public before the case is tried. Some details, such as video surveillance photos of suspects or the make and model of a suspicious vehicle, are often released in order to elicit help from the public in solving a crime.  Other information is kept close to the chest.

Although prior to trial, investigators must release all information they have gathered to the defendant (disclosure), victims and their families are not afforded the same courtesy. Often, the first time victims and their families learn of evidence is when it is presented in a court room.

As unfair as that sounds, this secrecy is necessary to preserve both the investigation and the trial.

Withholding evidence from the public about a biker gang slaying is key to solving a cold case massacre in my soon-to-be-released novel, SHADOW RIDERS. Watch for it.

Tight-lipped is brought to you by the BACKTRACKER SERIES

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