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Random Lessons from the Room: Part Four

We ended our last column with a short discussion of the value of developing a timeline of events to organize the case and help to link relationships. There are a number of investigative link tools to illustrate relationships between people and businesses, which can help to flesh out the timeline of events and give a visual representation to an investigation. These can be easily found with a search for investigation link tools.

Develop a Theory of the Case

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes said several interesting things about developing a theory of a case. While the detective was fictional and Arthur Conan Doyle was not an investigator, he was still able to capture fundamental truths about conducting an inquiry. While many cases are not real mysteries, those that are can be solved using Holmes’ process to deduce the solution.

“It’s a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgement.”
– Sherlock Holmes in A Scandal in Bohemia

First, understand the problem that must be solved. Here, we are considering more complex investigations than producing a simple refund or register void. In a complex investigation, there needs to be a complete understanding of the loss and how it was able to occur, and it must be addressed by thinking globally about the implications to the organization including any legal issues. This will potentially require research into the process involved and the culture surrounding it. Much of that information can be mined from company data and interviews with those involved in the process, but the information must be collected in a systematic way making no assumptions. The organization has a tremendous amount of information available to the investigator about process culture and persons, which can be important to reaching a successful conclusion.

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Collect the Facts

“As a rule, when I have heard of some slight indications of the course of events I am able to guide myself by the thousands of other similar cases which occur to my memory.”
– Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle

As we begin the collection of our facts in the investigation, it does not mean we ignore our investigative experience in doing so. Cases tend to evolve in similar ways and circumstances, which can streamline our selection of what is likely to be important. As we begin to collect evidence and understand process and the culture in place, it is important to remember the people that work in the area are there every day imbedded in the work. There is policy and how the company thinks a task is accomplished, and then there is what really happens, which can be a very different thing.

“One should always look for a possible alternative, and provide against it. It is the first rule of criminal investigation.”
– Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure of Black Peter

What on the surface might look like incriminating circumstantial evidence may mean something entirely different if looked at from a different perspective. Take the time to evaluate evidence in other ways to try to prove the person innocent.

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“Circumstantial evidence is a very tricky thing,” answered Holmes thoughtfully. “It may seem to point very straight to one thing, but if you shift your point of view a little, you may find it pointing in an equally uncompromising manner to something entirely different.”
The Boscombe Valley Mystery

When investigating a case, it is the investigator who is the outsider, the novice, who must be taught by the “experts” how the process works and perhaps its many permutations. It’s always better to watch something take place rather than simply being told about it since that is often how the task is most often accomplished.

“I am glad of all details,” remarked my friend, “whether they seem to you to be relevant or not.”
– Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure of the Copper Beeches

Always probe for the exceptions to what is always done and what happens before or after these exceptions to fully understand why they occur. It’s possible exceptions are the result of extra work, delays, or someone triggering them to take advantage of the situation. As the inquiry evolves, collect evidence, documents, forms, or samples that may become relevant later. Remember that later may be too late to recover them. Consider if diagrams or photos might be useful in adding context to a process or alibi. And note how people interact—this can speak volumes about internal relationships at play.

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Develop Theories to Explain the Facts

When a fact appears to be opposed to a long train of deductions, it invariably proves to be capable of bearing some other interpretation. If a fact is opposed to our theory, we must reexamine our view and modify our conclusions to take it into account.

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”
– Sherlock Holmes in A Scandal in Bohemia

It is the investigator’s responsibility to modify a theory so that it fits the facts, not to ignore the facts because they don’t suit his thoughts. This should make us look at other possibilities to explain the facts available. This might result in discovering an error in the “fact” or a mistake in our interpretation of it. Either way, the case is strengthened in searching for the truth.

Eliminate the Least Likely Theories

Unfortunately, some of the recent miscarriages of justice in the United States were the result of failing to reexamine the theory of the case when there were facts that didn’t support the conclusion the prosecution proposed.

“Eliminate all other facts, and the one that remains must be the truth.”
– Sherlock Holmes in The Sign of Four

“It is an old maxim of mine that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
– Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet

Sometimes there is a nagging hangnail in an investigation that just doesn’t seem right. These always bear looking at since anyone defending the target of the inquiry is going to rely on this detail to refute the investigative conclusion. Examining this fact from every angle will help protect the integrity of the investigative conclusion and show its unbiased nature.

“… but none the less you must come round to my view, for otherwise I shall keep on piling fact upon fact on you until your reason breaks down under them and acknowledges me to be right.”
– Sherlock Holmes in The Red-Headed League

By looking at this errant fact in great detail, we can accomplish several things. First, we may correct investigative assumptions and conclusions, opening a new theory of the case. Second, we may find that the “fact” was incorrect and does not support our case theory. Third, we may limit the possible usefulness of the contrary fact to the subject or his attorney by eliminating all the possible excuses it might imply. And finally, the further investigation and examination of these facts establishes the fair nature of the investigation.

“Nothing clears up a case so much as stating it to another person.”
– Sherlock Holmes in Silver Blaze

Working with another investigator or supervisor who plays devil’s advocate strengthens a case by forcing the investigator to answer the difficult questions and look at the case from an opponent’s point of view. The military often uses a “red team” to examine a possible strategy or to plan for an enemy response. Answering questions shows the weak areas of the investigation and helps the investigator prepare for the case presentation to management, prosecutors, and ultimately the subject himself.

This presentation to another will help the investigator become prepared for possible explanations by the subject as he protests his innocence. The investigator has completed the investigation and his confidence in the outcome should be buoyed as he prepares to meet with the guilty party.

“It is more than possible; it is probable.”
– Sherlock Holmes in Silver Blaze

A case prepared carefully—where all the facts lead to a single conclusion, and possible excuses have been prepared for—is a mighty force for the subject to deal with in the interview room or at a hearing. The investigation has discovered and established the solution.

“What one man can invent, another can discover.”
– Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure of the Dancing Men

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