Consultant for writers on crime, police, & court procedures.

Monday, March 9, 2015

WE ANSWER QUESTIONS--A FALSE CONVICTION?

Here's a brief exchange with a writer via social media that illustrates how we can help with a crime story.  This writer's dilemma dealt with understanding how procedure would work in an unusual scenario:


Q:  I have a scenario I want to run by someone knowledgeable in criminal law or law enforcement. It has to do with what is done legally when someone is convicted of a murder and serving time but someone else steps forward and confesses to doing the deed. Is there a hearing? Is the new party immediately arrested? Is he or she arrested only if there's enough evidence to arrest? (False confessions do take place.) What if the crime is so old that it lacks sufficient evidence? On TV, of course, you typically see the new party being led away in handcuffs as if it's a done deal. 

WriteCrimeRight:  The first step would be for the police to question this person to determine if the confession is legitimate. A new police investigation would occur, perhaps a very lengthy one.  A confession alone is not enough to convict someone of murder so the police would look for corroborating evidence. In consultation with the prosecutor's office that handled the original case, they would determine if there's enough to charge the person.

The guy in prison is a different matter entirely. The prosecutor would either ask a judge to overturn the conviction if it was believed to be in error, or they may conclude both were involved. If the guy is completely innocent, it would be a rather lengthy process to release him.  But being completely without guilt is a rather long shot as the standard of proof for a murder conviction and hurtling the subsequent appeals is very high.

Q:  What would the evidence need to be to completely overturn a murder conviction? And what wouldn't be good enough?

WriteCrimeRight: That’s hard to say. You could find DNA from the second guy at the scene and that doesn't mean the convicted one wasn't there and wasn't guilty. The only legitimate reversals I've seen were in faulty eyewitness identifications.  The police will not be content with one piece of evidence but  collect as much as possible so a case doesn't hinge on only one thing. You don't want your case relying solely on DNA, solely on one witness, solely on a confession, etc. You want everything you can get. 


This was a brief and public conversation through social media. When you ask us to help with your work in progress, you get detailed personal and confidential attention. Contact us at campruston@gmail.com.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

ABCs of AMMO, BULLETS and CARTRIDGES

Firearms terminology confuses many writers.  Sue Grafton, a superstar in the world of crime fiction, was blasted by many readers when she equipped her private eye Kinsey Millhone with a measly .32 caliber pistol when any self-respecting ex-cop would carry a .357, 9mm, .40 cal—anything but never a .32.

Confusing “revolver” and “pistol” is a classic mistake. Pistol usually refers to any handgun not a revolver, primarily large capacity, semi-automatic handguns.  Having a revolver eject spent shells onto the ground will prompt snorts of derision from educated readers.

The revolver vs. pistol issue was covered in an earlier blog post, so I’ll move on to some terms related to ammunition that could be used in your story:

Caliber – the dimension of the bullet. Sometimes measured in hundredths of an inch like .38 caliber, sometimes in millimeters (9mm).

Cartridge – complete unfired ammunition consisting of a cartridge case, powder charge, bullet and primer. This is what you load in your firearm. 
common pistol cartridges
Bullet – the projectile attached to the front of a cartridge.  This is what is fired from your firearm.
The bullet is the projectile that is fired at the target. The exterior is often a copper or      
brass jacket covering lead and other metals.

Bullet jacket – the copper or brass outer skin of a jacketed bullet. Sometimes portions of the jacket will fragment off when the bullet strikes an object.






Case - the portion of a cartridge containing the gunpowder. A pistol ejects the case when it is fired. For a revolver, you must physically remove the fired cases from the cylinder to reload. Cases are informally referred to as "hulls" or "brass."

Slug – while sometimes used to refer to a bullet, a slug is a lead projectile fired from a shotgun. Some shotgun shells contain numerous pellets. A slug shell contains only the large lead projectile.
comparison of 00 shotgun shell with slug

“00-buck” shell – shotgun shell referred to as “double ought buck” or “double ought buckshot.” The shotgun shell most commonly used by law enforcement. The shell contains nine .32 caliber lead pellets.

Wad or wadding – plastic, paper, or fiber disk that separates the powder from the shot in a shotgun shell. It is propelled out of the gun along with the pellets, sometimes into the target. The wad only travels a few yards, so drawing a line from the victim back to the wad and extending it will indicate the direction from which the shot was fired.

stippling around entry wound

Stippling – abrasions or ‘tattooing’ produced on the skin by gunpowder when the gun is fired from a short distance.  

GSR – a general term for gunshot (gunpowder) residue. A test for residue is abbreviated GSR.



Powder particles – sometimes visible, unburned gunpowder can be found on the clothing or body of a wounded person.


Magazine – a device for holding cartridges which is inserted into the grip of a pistol.  It is NOT a “clip.”
This is a magazine, not a 'clip.'

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

MISSING PERSONS

Thousands of people go missing in the United States each year.  Some are voluntary disappearances, such as runaways.  Not just teenagers, but adults who want to flee their former lives.  A few are actual abductions. There's always been a myth that a person has to be missing for 24 hours before the police can act.  Not true.  It can be five minutes if the circumstances warrant it.

I've taken missing person reports from all manner of people--spouses, parents, neighbors, friends.  Generally, missing person cases investigated by the police fall into one of these categories:


1.  runaway teens and missing children
2.  people who may be victims of foul play
3.  those who have a condition that places them in danger--Alzheimer's, mental illness, medical condition, etc.

In these situations, the person can be entered into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) system as a missing person.  Should a police officer encounter the person and run a check, a missing person "hit" would come back with information to contact the investigating agency.

A case of a missing adult in which no foul play is suspected and no extenuating condition exists may not be a high priority for the police.  Disappearing to begin a new life is not a crime.

In the case of a missing person who was traveling, the report is filed at the jurisdiction the person is missing from, not the destination.  The agency receiving the report would probably contact the police at the destination for assistance.



For "missing" children, the circumstances are different in every case.  Police agencies have learned from botched investigations that you jump on missing children cases fast and with every resource available. The priority may be marshaling search and rescue personnel to initiate a search of the immediate area, broadcasting AMBER alerts, notifying the media, etc.  Supervisory personnel decide what resources shall be called, whether other agencies, the FBI, a CART team (see link) are notified. 
 
This link includes a checklist of what law enforcement does when a child is missing:
http://www.missingkids.com/en_US/publications/NC74.pdf




 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

SEARCH WARRANTS



 
One aspect of criminal justice that confuses many writers is the legal justification for searches.  On TV, detectives pretty much search whatever they want whenever they want without respect to the legalities involved. The Supreme Court has ruled that a warrant is needed to conduct a search except in a limited number of circumstances.  For example, a driver can give consent to search his car.  An officer can search a person she has arrested. A SWAT team could go into a warehouse to rescue a hostage. 

Most searches are conducted without a warrant because of these “exceptions.” But when an exception to the warrant requirement does not exist, the officer must obtain a warrant.

There’s only one hangup—to obtain a warrant, there must be “probable cause” to believe there is evidence at the place to the searched. Without good reason, a judge will not issue a warrant.

The search warrant consists of two parts—the affidavit prepared by an officer attesting to the facts that establish probable cause and the command or order issued by a judge to conduct the search.

While you may not wish to get bogged down in the technicalities of affidavit preparation, avoid the mistake of mischaracterizing the process. The biggest mistake is inferring a warrant can be obtained in a matter of minutes.  Some agencies are using electronic

Thursday, June 5, 2014

"DON'T TASE ME, BRO."


“Don’t tase me, bro.”

That plea was made famous by a protesting college student caught on video during an arrest. It shows how familiar the American public is with these relatively new weapons.  The student in question even registered the phrase as a trademark to promote a book and line of t-shirts.

We get many questions about “stun guns” or “TASERS.”  The use of these weapons can provide a different twist to a story. But it’s confusing technology—I just read a novel by one of my favorite authors where a “stun gun” was used to render the victim unconscious. Doesn’t happen, folks. These devices are very painful but they do not shock you into unconsciousness.  Do your research.


Less-lethal weapons like the TASER are frequently used by law enforcement agencies to overcome suspect resistance. They have saved the lives of officers and suspects alike. Agencies equipped with TASERs have seen a significant decrease in officer and suspect injuries. I often convinced a combative suspect to surrender merely by shining the TASER’s red laser aiming dot on his chest.

TASER (all caps) is a trademarked brand name of a specific electronic control device (ECD).  The acronym stands for Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle.  While it is the best known 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

WELCOME TO MODERN POLICING, FBI

Thirty-four years ago in 1980, when I moved from patrol to criminal investigations in my hometown's police department, the unit had already been tape recording interrogations and witness statements for years.  We knew nothing swayed a jury more than hearing a suspect's confession come from his own mouth. I didn't realize how progressive our policy was until I moved to metro Atlanta in 1989 where NO agencies recorded statements.  The typical procedure involved a detective writing out a statement or confession by "transcribing," in essence, paraphrasing, the suspect's words. The suspect would then sign it, often without being able to comprehend what had been written.

I adopted a mandatory recording policy at my new agency, first for tape recording, followed later by videotaping. My agency was the first in metropolitan Atlanta--an area with dozens of law enforcement agencies. Prosecutors of all the local counties soon made everyone else follow our example. Today I learned the FBI didn't start recording interviews until THIS MONTH.  In fact, the written policy was that interviews and interrogations were NOT to be recorded, a rule that left skeptical juries wanting more. The new procedure will be to record all interviews until there is a compelling reason not to make a record. While the FBI has established the benchmark for many investigative procedures, they were way behind on this one.

Welcome to modern police work, FBI.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

WHAT DO EDITORS DO?


The publishing industry has changed significantly since the days when an author could submit a promising but mechanically flawed manuscript and rely on the company's editors to clean it up. Publishers receive so many manuscripts that they need little justification to reject one. While publishers still have editors, an author must submit a reasonably clean manuscript to have a hope of acceptance.

The editing process can be confusing with so many editing services available before and after a manuscript is accepted. When writecrimeright.com reviews a manuscript, we do more than analyze the legal procedures. We also provide "copy editing."   

Three levels of freelance editing are available to authors seeking to improve their manuscripts before seeking a contract:

Proofreading: A proofreader provides a check of the document for minor mistakes in spelling, punctuation, spacing, and so on.

Copy editing: Our definition of copy editing includes checking:

grammar
punctuation
spelling
word usage
awkward phrases
pronoun agreement
missing words
typos
repetition
inconsistencies
story details
tight writing
manuscript formatting

Line Editing or Substantive Editing: In addition to performing the tasks of copy editing, the line editor may initiate significant changes to improve the narrative.  While copy editing pertains to "mechanics," line editing focuses on "story." The editor enhances the quality of the writing, removes unnecessary repetition and plot flaws, and restructures sentences and paragraphs for smoother flow. The line editor knows the difference between active and passive prose, turning dull writing into something more engaging. 

When writecrimeright.com reviews your manuscript, you get "two for one"--an extensive analysis of everything related to police work and criminal procedure as well as word-by-word, line-by-line copy editing. The result: a story your readers will find plausible and realistic and a manuscript attractive to publishers.