My father was a deputy for the Maricopa County Sheriff’s office in Arizona for about 15 years from the late 50s to the early 70s. He worked in the Identification Department – fingerprints, crime scene photos, mug shots, etc. In the early 60s he had a minor part in a locally notorious case.
A young couple was shot, execution style, in the desert. As part of the investigation, the car was brought into a garage where it was my father’s job to dust the car for prints. Once those prints were taken he turned it over to the investigators who had the job of determining which prints were leads and which were dead ends. And that ended my dad’s role. It was a big investigation; he had but a small part.
The investigation continued for a long time. In fact, it was almost 12 years later when the break finally came. It wasn’t the fingerprints my dad had taken that broke the case, nor was it some trick of forensic legerdemain, nor was it some backroom confession wrought under questionable circumstances. No, what broke the case was that the suspect was bragging to his wife about the crime in an effort to keep her from leaving him. (You can’t make some of this stuff up.) She turned him in, and the prints my dad retrieved matched the suspect’s.
The accused was convicted and sentenced to life.
Let’s fast-forward a lot of years. A number of individuals (including at least one investigator and two lawyers) have spent the last few months talking to my dad about the case. It seems there is a concern that the wrong man was convicted. Apparently, the wife was working at the Sherriff’s Office at the time she turned her husband in. One of their contentions is that the wife had access to the files at that time and she might have falsified the documentation.
They have not been very happy with the way discussions with my father have gone.
You see, my dad was pretty darn meticulous. Back in the day, after a fingerprint was dusted, tape was used to transfer the print to the proper evidence forms. However, my father always (and I mean always) took the extra step of taking a picture of the print on the item before he did the transfer. This was a procedure required in some jurisdictions, but not in Maricopa County. But he felt it was the best way to document his work…and he did it every time. He also initialed and dated every photograph and every piece of evidentiary material.
What this means is, much to the chagrin of that investigator and those attorneys and everyone else involved, there is no way the wife could have changed the evidence. My dad has photos of the prints on the vehicle, he has dates on all those photos, he has his signature on every document on which he worked. And it all shows that evidence existed at the time of the original investigation, not 12 years later when it is alleged that documents were falsified.
Forty years is a long time. Many of those original investigators are no longer with us. Some of the others have reached an age where memory is failing them. But my father, because he followed exact procedure, every time, can relate the facts and show them the evidence.
How well do you think you’re documentation would stand up 40 years after the fact. I’ve done a lot of investigation work over the years and I like to think I put together some pretty good cases. But I am hard-pressed to believe I could stand up to that kind of scrutiny. (Imagine how I feel remembering that, about a year ago, we threw away all the investigation files that were more than ten years old. Did I mention that part of the reason my dad is throwing them a curve is that all the files were destroyed a long time ago, but my dad, again in his need for completeness, made copies of all the files he had worked on and brought those copies home?)
And all this reminds me of one of the basic rules of documentation – always document like you are going to wind up in court. The odds are none of us will be involved in anything of this magnitude. But it is a great reminder to go the extra mile, whether documenting fraud investigations or just a petty cash audit, and make sure we can explain to anyone, at any time, what we did, how we did it, and why we did it.