Australian Security Academy

Investigations, DNA and The Staircase

Over the weekend the Australian Security Academy attended an interesting panel discussion held by Oliver Laurence of OJT Investigations Group

Over the weekend the Australian Security Academy attended an interesting panel discussion held by Oliver Laurence of OJT Investigations Group. The panel consisted of David Rudolf from the gripping Netflix series “The Staircase”, Chris Nyst who is an Australian Criminal Lawyer, Novelist and Film Maker, Laura Reece who is a Brisbane Barrister, Dr Sean Barry who is a Barrister at Law and Academic, and former ABF Commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg.

The panel touched on some very political and interesting subjects such as the way the press are utilised by the police and lawyers during high profile cases and the ethics around engaging the media, how DNA evidence is not as reliable as the public are lead to believe, how many Australian’s are under-represented in the courtroom due to financial reasons and much more.

There is one point that they touched on thanks to David Rudolf and that is something we would really like to drive home which is how important it is for Private Investigators or Investigators of any sort, to be completely impartial. The job of a Private Investigator is to collect THE FACTS.

Spoiler alert! For those who have not seen the Netflix series “THE STAIRCASE” there are spoilers ahead so be warned!

‘During the trial of Michael Peterson in the Netflix series ‘The Staircase’ defence lawyer, David Rudolf said that the prosecution did nothing but try and prove him guilty and accused them of tunnel vision. There was no innocence until proven guilty, the police and prosecution were there to prove guilt and not the absence of it. They used incredibly questionable experts (one which was found to have perjured himself during the case and also sent another innocent man to prison previously with his aggressive ‘guilt tactics’), used a theory of how Michael beat his wife Kathleen to death which was disproved (there is evidence that they even knew their theory was flawed) and many more tactics that we won’t get into here. There was even footage of an SBI agent who was conducting a blood spatter experiment celebrating when the blood spatter went in the direction they were hoping.

The prosecution consistently showed displays of their tunnel vision, with no remorse. If you play devil’s advocate, you know that the district attorney would have some terrible people that s/he has had to ensure is imprisoned and proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt can be difficult. The problem with The Staircase is that poor Kathleen Peterson’s death did not fit neatly into the ‘beaten to death’ or ‘tragically fell down a staircase and died’ category. What do you do then? Ideally, you would gather every fact, turn over every stone, revisit every bit of evidence that was handled and catalogued to the standards you are taught, reinterview everyone, etc etc. But, this is not what happened.

This is not uncommon, even for Private Investigators. Many people want to see justice served and many people have watched too many movies and Law & Order episodes. The thing that Investigators need to know is that NOT EVERYONE IS GUILTY. As an Investigator, you are there to show the facts. You are not there to have an emotional attachment to an outcome, you are there to pull at every thread and go down every path and see where it leads you. It may lead you to a lot of damning evidence, it might lead you to a lot of exculpatory evidence and it might even lead you to a lot of dead ends which will not lead any court to a conclusion.

Below is an important clip of Roman Quaedvlieg which highlights this…

“A good investigator will go into a crime scene and form a working hypothesis fairly quickly. That’s just the nature of what an Investigator does. But, a good Investigator, as opposed to a bad Investigator, will keep an open mind for other hypotheses. They won’t close their mind off.”

When it comes to being a Private Investigator, whether you have a police background, you are fresh out of school or have moved into the Investigation space as part of a career change, it’s important to note that Investigations is nothing like television. You often have someone’s life in your hands and every hypothesis you form, every piece of evidence you discover, every avenue you go down, every interview you conduct or every minute of surveillance you undertake… has to be done impartially, with only the facts in mind. As a Private Investigator, your job is to find facts. Never to prove guilt or lack thereof. Private Investigators are not police or lawyers, we gather facts.

In saying that, there is an incredible amount of skill in what we, as Private Investigators do. You often undertake surveillance or a factual investigation not knowing whether or not there is any notion of guilt or lack thereof. You have to learn when to persist and when to let things go. Learn how to ask questions when someone’s story doesn’t quite add up. Learn that not every back injury means the same. And, one of the most difficult cases that we are presented with currently is mental health claims, how does one person cope with stress as opposed to another? One might party until 2am, the other may lock themselves in their house for 72hours and another might start flirting with a gambling addiction.

It is so important to leave your prejudice out of the case you are presented with, and after years of watching NCIS and Brooklyn 99, this is a skill many have to relearn. The same goes for police, lawyers and even judges. Life is never black and white. Different people have different motivations which cannot be known or surmised in 30 minutes as it’s done on television. When the pressure is on and you have to demonstrate the facts, show you have gathered them honestly, contemporaneously and case by case, will prove your worth in the investigative field… time and time again.

For those of you who have watched The Staircase… here is an added bonus!

You may or may not have heard of ‘The Owl Theory’. David Rudolf breaks down a theory that sheds light on some circumstantial evidence which allows for a different explanation on how Kathleen tragically died in the staircase that night.

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