SEVENTEEN POINT CHECK LIST FOR
WORKING A CAPITOL CRIMINAL DEFENSE CASE
Submitted By Suzanne Serdahley

 

"The smallest detail which was unimportant at the time maybe the one
thing that keeps your client from getting the death sentence."

1) As soon as you are aware that you have a Capitol Case, get your experts on board. Pathologist, Criminalist, Psych, Social Anthopoligst, etc.

2) Be sure that all physical evidence including sections, scrapings etc.. from the autopsy are stored properly for your experts.

3) Get the autopsy protocol from the Corner's office and all of the slides, photos and audio tapes.

4) Be sure you have copies of all prosecution reports.

5) Get copies of all photographs, audio/video tapes (including the 911 call and law enforcement radio traffic), Mug photos, copies of any photo line ups and CAD and MDT print outs.

6) Interview your client.

7) Interview all witnesses.

8) Interview the family, friends, school teachers, co-workers, counselors etc., anyone who has ever had contact with your client. (By the time a case is charged as a Special Circumstances Murder, there is usually little you can do for the guilt phase. You must be able to mitigate at the penalty phase. Your primary goal is to keep your client alive. You must find reasons that this person should not be put to death. What are the good things about your client. What will the impact of his/her death have on the family etc. What reason did this life go wrong. You may find some soft disability such as Attention Deficit Disorder, that an expert can help explain why this person behaved as they did.)

9) Conduct victim impact research. Just as you need to research your client, you need to research the victim. What impact is the jury going to be presented with at the time of the penalty phase. Your attorney must be prepared for what the jury will be told about the loss of this victim.

10) Visit the crime scene, photograph it, video tape it.

11) Interview all law enforcement personnel including transporting personnel and those who did crime scene security.

12) Interview all medical and emergency personnel who had anything to do with the victim and/or the client. (The smallest detail which was unimportant at the time maybe the one thing that keeps your client from getting the death sentence.)

13.) Document everything you do as quickly as possible. These cases can take up to two years to come to trial and the better your documentation the better your memory will be.

14.) Keep an open mind and do not get tunnel vision. These cases are very intense due to the very nature of the penalty.

15) Do your own area check for witnesses. People do not always want to tell law enforcement what they have seen or heard.

16) Research similar crimes in the area. Is this your client's MO or someone else's?

17) View all evidence (clothing, weapons, etc.) and photographs for your attorney.

PROFILE ON:
Suzanne Serdahley

Many people in the private investigative industry consider homicide and death investigations the
ultimate type of private investigation to get assigned to. Suzanne Serdahely specializes in criminal investigations for the San Bernardio County, California public defender's office. Her background includes working as a police officer in both California and New Mexico. She also worked for a private attorney in California who specialized in death penalty cases. For a while, Serdahely worked as an independent contractor for the public defender's office working criminal cases including cases that involved a potential death penalty. She has worked six criminal cases that were murder cases that potentially involved the death penalty. Of those six cases, not one client received a death sentence.

It sounds like exciting work but it can be very stressful. Serdahely stated that some of the investigations on the cases start almost two years before trial. "You deal with mothers of the defendants and their family. You get to know these people. It's stressful to have clients who have to make a choice of a plea bargain for life without parole or choose to go to trial and risk loosing to the death penalty." This isn't all Sam Spade type stuff. Serdahely stated that, " most take two weeks off after a trial." It's extremely stressful. Instead of the death penalty, a client might get life. You win but you lose.

Suzanne says there isn't any nine to five stuff. She's a single mother and a workaholic. You have to be. You are dealing with life and death situations here. You can tell from talking with Serdahely that this type of investigative specialization demands a level of intelligence in many areas. She's a top flight investigator that's for sure. However, she has also picked up attorney lingo, often has enough knowledge in her vocabulary to be mistaken for a forensic evidence specialist and is likely constantly playing psychologist.

From talking with Serdahely I spotted several interesting facts that surfaced. This type of investigation is usually not dealing with guilty or not guilty. It usually deals with degrees of guilt and mitigating circumstances. "A person's background could play an important part," Serdahely stated and then went on to describe a case that she worked in which she did an in-depth background on a defendent that included an interview with a grade school teacher. "Sometimes you need to find ways to show the jury that this is a real person and that this person has some redeeming value," Serdahely remarked.
"There is a definite trend to provide indigent defendants
investigators at public cost, especially since DNA is proving
the innocence of many who have served ten years in prison"

There is a definite trend to provide indigent defendants investigators at public cost. Serdahely pointed out that many courts have become very sensitive to this issue. "Especially", she said, "since the use of DNA is proving the innocence of many who have served ten years in prison."

Trials like the kind Serdahely gets involved in have become a trail of experts. I would suppose it's coming down to whoever has the best and most convincing experts tends to have an edge in the trial.

You would never guess that Serdahely is an investigator of this type unless you know what this type of investigating is like. You'd more likely peg her as a lawyer, professional criminologist or phychologist. That's likely because her demanding profession has required her to learn the vocabulary of these professions.

Although Serdahely didn't admit she's had to go, I asked her if it was typical of people in her specialized line of investigative work to seek professional help for the head. I mean, what could be more stressful that telling a mother you have dealt with for two years that you won the case, her son didn't get the chair, he only got life without parole. She says it's quite common for both investigators and lawyers.

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