Digging for holes in defence cases

It’s never too late to hire a private investigator.  Good, experienced private investigators can help review your case. We are not talking about the PI who chases cheating husbands around; but more the experienced, qualified investigators that have been there, done that.   We are talking about former police detectives, the one’s that often built the cases and investigations against the accused.

Private investigators engaged by defendants can perform a host of tasks from locating witnesses and taking statements, assisting with evidence of alibis, arranging forensic testing and conducting experiments, reviewing prosecution material to identify potential defence evidence gaps. And, importantly, experienced defence investigators are skilled at finding holes in prosecution briefs.

From my experience, there are generally always holes to be found.

Sometimes these holes can assist a defendant who (guided by an equally capable and experienced lawyer) can find that one thing a defendant is ultimately looking for; reasonable doubt.

Take the case of Michael Petersen, subject of the hit Netflix series ‘The Staircase.’ Novelist Petersen called police in December 2001 reporting that he’d found his wife Kathleen at the bottom of a set of stairs in their Forest Hills (North Carolina) mansion.  Of course, the police and District Attorney didn’t believe that she’d just fallen and they charged him with murder, insisting that Petersen had bludgeoned her to death with a fireplace poke.  You’ll have to watch the series to see how this pans out!

The prosecution relied on various theories, experiments, expert testimony, similar fact evidence and ultimately the character of Petersen himself (he was bi-sexual) in forming their case, a case later found to be both procedurally flawed and – in some cases regarding the actual evidence – illegal and just plain wrong.

Despite Petersen’s lawyer, David Rudoff, bringing up a stack load of ‘reasonable doubt’ during the three-month trial (including finding the ‘missing’ alleged weapon), the jury found him guilty and he spent the next eight years in prison. Petersen, through his lawyer Rudoff, had an investigator working the case all the way.

Well so what you ask?   Petersen was convicted, right?

Again, you’ll have to watch the series to see the farcical prosecution case, and how easily Rudoff and his investigator blew it apart.  No doubt you’ll be nodding your head in disbelief as well.   Ultimately, the case was re-opened after a judicial review and a new trial ordered. Mistakes were made by the judge, key prosecution witnesses were found to have lied and a swag of other inconsistencies were identified.

Suffice to say, it had taken its toll on everyone involved and Petersen ended up pleading to involuntary manslaughter; sentenced to time served. Whether he actually did it or not is largely irrelevant. He was failed by the justice system.

It is clear (by watching the program) that Rudoff’s confidence in that justice system was rocked after the guilty verdict.  The defence case he put forward was one built on heavy experience, litigation skills and tactics and, with the help of his trusty private investigator.

Investigators who work in the legal defence space become quasi-lawyers in a sense.  They become the on-the-ground paralegal that a defendant needs. Hitting the streets, talking with key witnesses and doing the groundwork. Things that police detectives normally do, but coming from the other side of the bar table. Knowledge of the law and the criminal justice system, knowledge of police processes, tenacity, ethics and persistence is what makes a good defence investigator.

And it’s not about taking “sides”.  It’s about ensuring that the justice system works how it should.  Ensuring that everyone had a right to a fair trial and that procedural justice and fair process is followed. That is where the value of investigators are in defence cases.

You can watch The Staircase yourself and make up your own mind.  You will no doubt be certain of one thing afterwards, Michael Petersen would still be in prison – and likely remain there for the rest of his life – if it wasn’t for the tenacity of David Ruhoff and his team. Including his loyal investigator.

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