Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

August 9, 2012

Solving the case: Real-life crime investigations unlike television dramas

— — I will admit that I’m a fan of television shows such as “Law & Order,” “CSI” and “NCIS.” The stories and the characters are good, and the forensics they use to help solve crimes is always interesting, if a little gruesome. The heroes usually catch the bad guys in an hour and all is well.

That’s all good television, but it’s not good real life. When you’re covering stories about murders and other assorted crimes, you quickly learn that solving them is going to take a lot longer than an hour, plus you don’t get any commercial breaks.

This fact was drilled home again Tuesday when two arrests were made in a murder case that started back in March 2011. The investigation kept going until two suspects were arraigned, and it’s still not really over.

On television, the detective and the forensic examiners almost always find a crucial piece of evidence right away. They have that classic gut feeling that this paint chip or that drop of blood is important. Well, real-life detectives find lots of evidence, too, and get their gut feelings or suspicions, but not all of the evidence is something you can take to court for a warrant. Not everything is immediately obvious.

One thing I’ve noticed in these crime dramas is that the protagonists always have plenty of time and equipment that looks like it’s right out of “Star Trek.” Teams of forensic investigators get to focus on one case at a time.

Well, in dramas featuring journalists, the heroes always get to focus on one story at a time. Any real reporter will tell that’s a fantasy. Really big newspapers and networks can afford to assign one reporter or even a team of them to one story, but don’t expect that from smaller organizations. We’re working on many items at the same time.

It’s the same for police work. Crimes don’t appear one at a time. Many crimes happen at the same time and they all have to be addressed. Seemingly minor incidents like neighbors shouting at each other or a gargoyle being stolen off a front porch have to be handled. Some may take only a few minutes, but there are lots of incidents taking only few minutes. The time adds up.

Last year, the Bluefield Daily Telegraph did a series of cold case stories about unsolved murders and other crimes in the region. Some of them are years old. They are unsolved, but not due to a lack of effort. It’s from a lack of witnesses and a lack of evidence.

I’ve seen cases that have taken months or years to resolve. Even when arrests are made, the cases continue for months or even years.

Sometimes these frustrations are reflected in fiction. For instance, even the great Sherlock Holmes had his cold cases. There was the case of Mr. James Phillimore, who went back into his home to get an umbrella and was never seen again. I understand the great detective’s creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, based that on a real case.

Holmes once told Watson that the most difficult cases were the ones in which “there is nothing to get hold of.” You need evidence and witnesses, and those are not always readily available. Crime dramas, both in print and on television, supply evidence and witnesses immediately so the story can get finished in a reasonable amount of time. Real police don’t get those breaks. Developing a case you can put before a jury takes a lot of hard work.

One crime writer I like, William Marshall, does a good job of presenting this hard work in his novel “Out of Nowhere.” Set in Hong Kong, it involves a bizarre mass suicide. It’s not immediately clear why a group of people with no connection to each other whatsoever would take their own lives. The police get plenty of evidence, but it doesn’t make sense.

Finally, the police talk to a reporter who puts together a story featuring the victims’ photographs. One person out of the thousands of readers who see the story remembers that group of people.

His recollection leads to long hours of going through newspaper microfilm until one story about a cold case helps to solve the mystery. There was no great Sherlock Holmes moment in which the great detective gets all the suspects together and points out the murderer. Marshall’s story had hard-working police officers, some evidence, and some witnesses willing to talk. If I recall correctly, Marshall also made it plain that the investigation took weeks, and it didn’t take longer because a witness came forward with some new information.

Real life isn’t like the life we see on television or in the movies. It might hint about real life, but it takes out all of those real details that slow down a story.

Greg Jordan is senior reporter at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at gjordan@bdtonline.com.

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