Investigating a murder; investigators must be careful how much they reveal

By Observer Upload August 03, 2009 02:22 pm

Editor’s note: The following was written Thursday night in response to an Observer editorial and submitted Friday morning before Friday’s significant turn of events in the Elgin murder case.

Thursday’s Observer editorial surprised and disappointed me. Surprised, because newspaper editorials are supposed to be objective and factual. This one was neither. It disappointed me, because Observer editorials almost always are.

This community is understandably upset and concerned by the recent discovery of human remains in and around a pond near Elgin. Those of us involved with the Major Crime Team are, too. The paper got pretty strident in taking us to task for not releasing very much information. Let me try to explain why we haven’t.

The early stages of any homicide investigation are always characterized by a lot more questions than answers. Even as information develops, the total picture changes continually. One of the biggest mistakes an investigator can make is to decide too early that he knows exactly what happened, why and therefore who did it.

Of all the traits an investigator must possess, perhaps the most important is objectivity and an open mind. In my 36 years in this business (OK, I’m a slow learner) I’ve literally driven up on scenes with the suspect standing over the body with the smoking gun still in his hand. Those cases are pretty easy to solve. This one isn’t.

When all you’ve got is unidentified body parts, it’s going to take a while to sort it out. In the meantime, if we issue statements about the case which are of necessity largely speculative, it does more harm than good.

In the first place, when you turn the lights on in a filthy room you’ve got to expect the cockroaches to scatter. We’d rather have a few days to sneak up on them.

Secondly, our whole purpose is justice for the victim, which means a successful prosecution. We have learned that any adept defense attorney can take early statements about the case and use them to inject the merest doubt in the minds of jurors (“See, the lead detective even said he couldn’t rule out black helicopters and biker gangs”).

Remember that the standard in this country is “proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” and it doesn’t take much doubt to lose a conviction and allow a decidedly guilty person to walk free. While the distinction is lost on many, there is a big difference between “innocent” and “not guilty.”

The Observer did get one thing right. We should have reassured all of you that we really don’t think there is any danger to the general public. I apologize to you and the paper for not having done so. If all I knew was that there was a murderer loose in the area, I wouldn’t let my kid ride his bike to the park and I’d keep my windows closed at night even in this 100-degree heat. I really don’t think we need to worry about that.

Can I say for certain that I know who killed Shannon?

No. But the list of folks we’re looking at is narrowing considerably. We know a great deal about this case, but many questions remain, and we are not yet ready to go to court (remember that reasonable doubt thing). There is very little chance that this murder was a random stranger-to-stranger event.

The district attorney has wound up holding the lightning rod on this one. Major Crime Teams are of necessity comprised of agents from several jurisdictions. Rather than having multiple (and often confusing) press releases issued from a variety of sources, it is common practice for us simply to direct all media inquiries to the D.A. After all, he will be the one charging the case so is in the best position to know what information could hinder a successful prosecution if released too early.

Yes, Mr. Thompson is out of the office most of this week, but he’s not visiting Disneyland. He’s at the annual district attorney’s conference along with nearly every other DA in the state, learning about new laws enacted and old ones changed by the Legislature (which are many and varied). In any event, he is being updated regularly by phone by the investigators, and even if he were here there would not be much for him to do on this case, as it is still very much a matter for the detectives and not the prosecutors at this stage.

The Observer’s comment about a “longstanding reputation for unsolved murders” I found particularly unfair. In the first place, 40 percent of murders in this entire country go unsolved. There are a lot of reasons for that, which go beyond the scope of this already too long treatise, but to single out Union County as somehow being unusual in that regard is patently untrue. The unsolved homicides to which I presume the Observer refers occurred a quarter century ago, at a time when the detectives working this case were mostly in grade school.

Does the current editor suggest that he should be held accountable for the actions of his counterparts in the early 1980s? The only two homicides which this particular team have worked prior to the present one both resulted in solutions within days.

It might be worth noting that the last one resulted in a plea to murder, which almost never happens (it is much more common to plea to a lesser offense, such as manslaughter), and I think reflects the excellent work of both the team and the D.A.’s office.

In closing, allow me the following. To paraphrase the editorial, I hope the Observer handles its reporting better than it has handled this investigation. This newspaper is not some monolithic machine. It is comprised of well-trained and well-intentioned people dedicated to their profession and the service of the public. So is the Major Crime Team, to especially include the district attorney and the sheriff.

I recognize and support The Observer’s policy on length of letters to the editor and columns. I hope that in this case you will see fit to make an exception due to the interest this incident has understandably generated in the community, and as a demonstration of your commitment to fairness and understanding.

The President’s response to the recent events in Cambridge have given me an idea. While we probably can’t do it on the White House lawn, I’d like to invite the editor and the DA to sit down with me over a beer.

Capt. Craig Ward is with the Union County Sheriff’s Office.