Let's Talk About It
We’ve all heard the phrase, “garbage in, garbage out,” right? The gist is that if you use substandard ingredients in anything, you’ll probably get poor results. We don’t allow airplane mechanics, doctors, surgeons, engineers, or scientists to practice their professions without the proper training, experience and education. Their work is too important, so we hold them to higher standards. Aren’t the stakes just as high in the criminal justice system? Hang on, this is not about attorneys.
I have often had to overcome the suspicions and doubts of clients who mistrust the credibility of private investigators. That skepticism is even higher with law enforcement, many of whom see private investigators as bumbling amateurs, who must somehow be breaking the law. How ironic.
Even if they do receive good training, there is still the question of how much actual experience they have with a given offense. How long has the officer been an investigator? What resources did he/she have at the time? How many other cases was the officer working? Was the investigator solo, or did they have a senior/junior partner? There are too many questions to list.
Now, I know a lot of police officers, many of them are friends of mine, but if they’re being honest, they’ll admit that not all police investigators are created equal. Of course there are some very good criminal investigators out there, but if a sub-par investigator’s work has never been challenged, the defense will never know the difference.
The point is that when a case goes to trial, both the state and the defense end up relying on whatever information law enforcement has put in front of them. Given that training and experience is such a mixed bag, you never know what you’re going to get.
Now I’ll drop the other shoe. Defense attorneys owe it to their clients to hire a trained private investigator to challenge the state’s information. No, it’s not necessary in every case, but it should be done far more frequently than is the current practice. The value that independent investigation can make is hard to overstate.
In my own experience, I have discovered critical evidence in almost every case; police manipulation of witness statements, witnesses who committed perjury, relationships between actors that police failed to explore, close analysis of crime scenes to disprove the state’s theory of the crime, and many more. These are not things that most attorneys have the training, experience, or time to discover on their own.
The most common response from an attorney as to why they didn’t hire an investigator is cost. It’s true, good investigators aren’t cheap, but neither are good lawyers, and the reality is that defense attorneys can always request funds from the state, as long as they can articulate the need. A private investigator can help with that too.
The bottom line is, to ensure the best outcome for their clients, defense attorneys need to find a good private investigator they can count on.
There was a great (and short) article written by Peter Andrey Smith (When DNA Implicates the Innocent, Scientific American, June 1, 2016), in which Smith provided a cautionary analysis of the dangers of relying too heavily on DNA evidence.
His primary example was Lukis Anderson, who in 2012 was charged with killing Raveesh Kumra, based on DNA evidence found at the crime scene. As it turned out, Anderson was in the hospital at the time of the murder, and his DNA was unknowingly transferred to Kumra by the paramedics who treated them both. Truth is stranger than fiction, right?
In my first actual innocence investigation, State of Texas v. Gustavo Mireles, DNA found at the crime scene was the only evidence that linked Mr. Mireles to the brutal 2001 murder of Mary Jane Rebollar. She was stabbed to death with a screwdriver-like weapon, and left in the cab of her truck parked in a sugarcane field. The evidence against Mireles consisted of two blood drops, and two pubic hairs, inextricably "found" in the victim's purse.
After that, it didn't matter that the the victim had a fistful of female hair in her hand, who that female was, or why investigators failed to collect that hair. Nor that the sheriff's office had taken blood and dozens of pubic hairs from Mireles, that relevant samples received at the lab were unsealed, or that an exonerating witness and a primary suspect were available.
If the science is reliable, then perhaps a scientist can explain why all of the crime scene DNA was degraded to the point that the lab could only recover three loci, except for the samples that conveniently identified Gustavo Mireles. Those samples had miraculously not denatured at all after two days in a sealed truck cab in the hot Texas sun, and came back with perfect nine-for-nine matches. How's that for context?
We need to stop giving DNA evidence a pass. Without proper context and interpretation, DNA evidence is circumstantial at best.
Daryl Parker is a published author, investigator, inventor, criminal justice reform activist, retired U.S. Marine, and treasure hunter.