As legal investigators, we are often asked about the nature of our job. What exactly do you do? Do you chase people around? Do you peep in their windows, looking for their cheating husbands or wives? These are the common questions posed to those of us in this profession. They are interesting questions that invariably lead to interesting conversation. While we cannot reveal the details of our cases because of our commitment to confidentiality, we can discuss “what" it is that we actually do.
What kind of cases do you take?
As legal investigators, we conduct investigations on behalf of attorneys and/or their clients. We do not take cases from individuals unless they are represented by counsel. That is the primary difference between a legal investigator and a private investigator. There is quite a bit of crossover between the two, and the distinction is often slight.
At Armistead Investigators, we primarily accept criminal defense and personal injury cases. As a member and former National Director of the National Association of Legal Investigators (NALI), we're required to certify that the majority of our cases are criminal defense and plaintiff personal injury cases. As Certified Legal Investigators (CLI), we stay up to date by attending conferences and ongoing training classes. We also accept other types of cases, such as corporate internal investigations, "difficult locates of persons," and even environmental cases.
In the criminal defense area, we concentrate on major felonies including death penalty cases. We've investigated death penalty cases across the county since 1991, primarily conducting the fact portion of the case and, at times, looking for any mitigating factors in the defendant’s life. As an investigator for a defendant facing the death penalty, we act as part of a team consisting of attorneys, mitigation specialists, social workers, and often forensic psychiatrists.
We also accept assignments on lesser murder cases and other felonies, ranging from sexual assault to burglaries and robberies. Often, the focus of the investigation is to gather evidence to show that, while the defendant may have committed a crime, he or she did not commit the crime for which they are being charged. In truth, it's rare to encounter a defendant who did nothing wrong, or for whom poor judgement was not a factor in the situation that led to their being charged. It does happen, however, and the diligent approach is to fully investigate whether the system has charged a person who is actually innocent.
How do you do it?
The attorney is the client’s advocate and the “Captain of the ship.” We are the ones who go out "into the field" and gather evidence–both good and bad–that allows the attorney to make decisions in plea bargaining situations or trial decisions. Clients often have an unrealistic or biased view of their case; our job is to discover the reality of what happened. Often, the evidence we bring the attorney may not be favorable to the case itself; however, it is vital that the attorney is aware of that particular information. That's why our mindset is not one of an advocate, but that of a gatherer of information. Information wins cases—period.
We review the discovery materials of each case, locate and interview witnesses, and report back to the attorney. Often, these witnesses are victims, and the friends or relatives of victims. Even after decades of practicing this profession, we continue to actively hone the art of locating these individuals and getting them to open up while in the midst of less than ideal circumstances. We also review the physical evidence and any available photographs, comparing them to witness statements to see if things "make sense.” Often, they do not add up. Something as simple as the chain of custody of the evidence can be flawed. This is a critical exercise often overlooked by other practitioners.
A note about personal injury cases
In personal injury cases we perform many of the same tasks as those in criminal defense cases—primarily by interviewing witnesses and analyzing evidence. We are not engineers or accident re-constructionists. We leave that part of the investigation to the professionals.
Generally, in many personal injury cases we are not called upon until late in the case, when we receive a panicked call from an attorney, who after investing thousands of dollars in experts, discovers there are problems with his or her case. The problems vary: A witness or even victim may have disappeared; a new piece of evidence has surfaced; or, even worse, they have suspicions–buoyed by insurance company’s surveillance tapes–that their client does not suffer from the alleged injuries.
The lesson here? Call us early on in the case. Spend some money to determine if there is a case before hiring experts and fronting horrendous amounts of money in fees. We can locate and interview witnesses early on, and know what they are going to say. It is money well spent that, in the end, can save the attorney as much heartache as amassed resources.
How do you get paid?
There are a variety of ways that we are compensated: Directly by the attorney, or by the client via their attorney; by the Federal Courts; and, by the Alternate Defense Counsel in Colorado. There are times when we are not paid. We've volunteered time and expertise on pro bono cases in which there was no source of funding. Our firm strongly believes in providing services to indigent clients.
What we do is not rocket science. It's using the skills that were learned while working in law enforcement to develop the art of investigation over 25 years of private practice. Information is the lifeblood of litigation—and we are experts in gathering that information. If you have a question about how we as legal investigators can help in your or your client's case, give us a call and we'll talk through it with you.
- H. Ellis Armistead