Recently, I had the privilege of publishing my very first blog post on Writer Unboxed, one of Writer’s Digest‘s 101 Best Websites for Writers since 2007. Many of you commented on my post or on Twitter that you would be interested in reading my then yet-to-be published blog. Well, this is it.
I’m calling my blog Book Ends and Odds because I plan to discuss odds and ends that affect my writing life (and life in general, for that matter): books I am reading, movies, pop culture, criminal cases, legal issues, writing, cooking, sports, anything that piques my interest and that might generate story ideas. I also have a sentimental reason for choosing the title. In college, I helped develop and edit a literary magazine which I called Bookends. (Think Simon and Garfunkel.) So please, enjoy! Here’s my first post on my first site.
Why Police Don’t Always Make An Arrest
When a criminal case is high profile, it becomes instant fodder for news outlets, pundits, writers, dinner party guests, and others. Many of their resulting comments will be on the mark. Others will fall short of understanding how the system really works. It is important for writers and others to make details sound authentic and plot points, realistic. So from time to time, I will address issues that seem to be a source of misunderstanding.
A criminal case often gets a lot of attention in the news when someone is arrested for the crime. We have all seen the infamous perp walk. But sometimes a case becomes high profile when police have a suspect but no arrest is made.
How can this happen?
Everyone knows that police need probable cause to make an arrest. That just means that it has to be more likely than not that the person arrested committed the crime. But even when probable cause exists, the facts can remain murky. Then it is up to a prosecutor, working with the police, to decide how best to proceed.
In the federal system, and in states that use the grand jury, it is possible to work a case as a grand jury original. Absent an arrest, the grand jury can subpoena witnesses, documents, and other evidence in an effort to determine the facts surrounding the commission of the crime. A grand jury indictment will lead to an arrest.
In states that don’t use the grand jury, or where proceeding by grand jury is optional, the prosecutor, with law enforcement personnel, can still interview witnesses and continue to investigate a case. Ultimately, a decision is made by the grand jury, or by the prosecutor without a grand jury, whether to file criminal charges.
It is common to proceed by way of grand jury original when there is a suspect in one crime but other crimes may be involved. If the grand jury is looking at a serial killer or a drug conspiracy or a terror plot, for instance, a premature arrest could tip the prosecution’s hand – or expose an informant or undercover agent – before all relevant evidence can be gathered.
It is also common to proceed without an arrest, for example, in a case where two individuals have shot at one another, an incident often referred to as a criss-cross. If one of the two is killed, the easy thing might be to charge the surviving shooter in the death of the other. But what if the deceased shooter initiated the conflict? What if the survivor acted in self defense? None of these facts may be clear at the time of the incident, but may be sorted out by giving the case a good, hard look.
I have been thinking about this lately because of Trayvon Martin, although this post is not about that case. At this point, a special prosecutor has been appointed to determine all the facts surrounding the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Regardless of whatever happened earlier in the case, it seems wise now to let that investigation run its course.
Proceeding in this way, in any case where the facts may not be fully known or understood at first, is judicious. The best outcome is always whatever would be a just result, a result based on thorough investigation and a fair evaluation of the evidence. A rush to judgment does not always lead to justice.
So, does this post help you understand why police don’t always make an arrest in a case, even when a suspect has been identified? Would you like to see more posts like this one? Do you have particular criminal case issues you would like me to discuss? I would love to hear from you. Thanks for landing on this page.