Monday, August 10, 2009

The Importance of Being Open-Minded, Persistent, and Meticulous in an Investigation

Several years ago I wrote and published a paper "The Death of a Youth and of a Drunkard: A Remarkable Story of Habit and Character in New Jersey." The paper appeared in Richard Lempert, ed., Evidence Stories (Foundation Press, 2006). The paper recounted an investigation that some students in my course on fact investigation conducted. The students' investigation demonstrated, in part, the way in which a stereotype ("He was a lousy and dangerous drunkard") can blind both the participants in an investigation and the participants in a trial.

A little while ago I received an interesting e-mail message from Paul Masley, an investigator in West Virginia. With his permission, I have reproduced below a very slightly-edited copy of his message.

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From: Paul D. Masley / [name of company deleted]
Date: Fri, Jul 31, 2009 at 4:01 PM
Subject: The Death of a Youth and a Drunkard
To: peter@tillers.net

Dear Professor Tillers:

I am an insurance claims investigator by profession. While working on a case that I just could not figure out what happened and doing research on the internet, I came across this fantastic paper written by you [about the criminal case State of New Jersey v. Radziwil].

A little background. My client was accused of a hit and run with a pedestrian (death). My client stated that he had hit a deer in another county. The vehicle had been repaired using OEM parts. The only difference was that the repairing shop had used a newer model grille as the original could not longer be purchased.

Even though this case was different [from yours], the similarities were vaguely the same. The more I dug into the cause, the more clueless I became as to the cause. The item that caught my attention in your paper was the evidence for the vehicle. I must have reread your document ten times in my attempt to pick through what I had on my case and each time it pointed back to the evidence submitted on the vehicle. It was wrong.

It took several more weeks of digging and during this time I found that another severe crash had occurred with a similar model vehicle. The only difference was the year models and that the grilles were different. With this in mind, I went back to the family in hopes that they had photos of the vehicle prior to the crash. After digging through hundreds of photos, we found what were looking for.

Upon producing these photos and having several witnesses testify that these photos were of the correct vehicle, producing the repaired photos, and then comparing them to the items that the police used, the case was thrown out. The best document that I was able to obtain for my client was the vehicle production run. The document lists exactly what grille was used in the vehicle, down to the part number. My client's vehicle had not been damaged prior to the incident with the deer. The grille parts that the police had used in their attempt to prosecute my client listed the wrong part number. They had almost 80% of the grille.

I do wish to thank you for listing this document. It made me think. I do have a copy of it in my claims guide and have shared it with other claims examiners when they have been stumped. One other thing I did learn from reading between the lines of your document is to trust no one but your own instincts and to believe in your client.

With best regards,

Paul D. Masley
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Charleston, West Virginia 25302
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