Writing effective case summaries
A successful prosecution is the desired result of most criminal investigations – and that begins with an effective case summary
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One of the best ways to introduce an investigation is by writing an effective case summary. Also known as a prosecutive report, memo of investigation or case synopsis, a case summary outlines the essential points of your investigation. The summary should “tell the story” of your investigation – it needs a beginning, main body and conclusion. All information should be factual and presented in chronological order so that it is easily understandable to anyone who reads it.
Benefits of an effective case summary
A well-written case summary can help an investigator accomplish some key objectives.
The most noticeable is that it introduces you, your agency and your work in a professional manner. Few people will dispute the importance of creating a professional first impression. We decide how much trust and credibility we are going to give someone based upon how well they project their professional first impression. We attend court proceedings well-groomed and wearing our best business attire so that we project a professional first impression. Likewise, we want our written reports to deliver a professional first impression to prosecutors, defense attorneys and others who read them. A poorly documented investigation will probably not be accepted by the prosecutor and may even damage the credibility of you and your agency. Most prosecutors do not have time to track down missing documents or decipher a poorly written narrative and a good defense attorney will exploit sloppiness and mistakes in a report as glaring examples of a shoddy investigation.
Next, the effective case summary lays out your investigation and findings succinctly and in an orderly, logical and easy to read format. This allows the prosecutor to quickly gain a solid understanding of the facts of the case, as well as any potential defenses. A complete list of witnesses, evidence and analysis will provide the prosecutor with the supporting testimony and corroborating evidence that will be available if needed for trial. Prosecutors want to be prepared when they enter the courtroom and the last thing they want is a case full of surprises. An effective case summary should help the prosecutor resolve any unforeseen issues in your investigation before it gets to court.
Finally, investigations that are seen as legal, ethical and thorough are more likely to be accepted by prosecutors and less likely to be challenged in court by defense attorneys. A strong case for a prosecutor is a weak case for a defense attorney. As you begin to develop your effective case summary format, you may see a decrease in the number of cases that go to trial and an increase in the percentage of cases that are settled with favorable plea agreements.
Components of an effective case summary
Effective case summaries should include the following:
1. An introductory letter
The introductory letter is written on agency letterhead and in business letter format. It is always addressed to the prosecutor (“The Honorable John Doe”) and to the attention of the assistant prosecutor assigned the case when applicable. Next, it references the defendant, the criminal charge and your agency case number. It should contain two or three paragraphs that briefly list the who, what, where, when and how of the case, along with the appropriate contact information for you and your agency.
If it’s been some time since you’ve written a business letter, this is an excellent opportunity to utilize your business support staff or an administrative assistant who can guide you in creating a standard introductory letter template.
2. Title page and table of contents page
The title page is the actual first page of your report and will look very similar to the title page of a book report or research paper. It should represent your agency with your badge, shield or logo. It references the defendant, the charge and applicable statute, as well as your agency case number and the names of the lead investigator(s). The table of contents page gives a quick index to the main sections of your summary (narrative, suspect information, witness information and attachments).
The narrative begins with a predicate paragraph that introduces the reader to how the case was initially reported to your agency: On June 6, 2018, Mr. Mike Jones of 123 Main Street called the agency and reported a crime. Patrol officers Smith and Wilson responded to 123 Main Street and located the suspect and evidence of the crime. Investigator Davis was notified and responded to the scene. The next one or two pages will then build from the predicate narrative and briefly tell of how the case began, the initial observations of responding officers and investigators at the scene, details of the initial and follow-up investigations, findings and conclusions. The final narrative paragraph will state any exculpatory information – findings that might show the suspect did not commit the crime – as well as any known possible defenses or alibis.
4. Suspect page
This page provides the suspect’s photograph, contact information and criminal history. Criminal history can be a key piece of information in your investigation and needs to be made known to the prosecutor. A repeat offender may be charged with additional crimes (status offenses) or given an enhanced criminal penalty at sentencing.
5. Witnesses page
This page provides the name and contact information of each individual involved in the investigation. This will greatly assist the prosecutor in successfully notifying or sending subpoenas to witnesses that may be needed for trial. It also lists a brief explanation of each witness's role and the substance of their expected testimony.
6. Attachments page
This page lists all of the relevant corroborating documents involved in your investigation. Examples include all first responder reports, interviews, photographs, lists of evidence collected and all reports of analysis, etc.
There are many ways we can improve the efficiency of how we convey information and ideas in our report writing:
- Write as “tightly” as possible. Try to eliminate repetitive statements, run-on sentences and prepositional phrases (Write “Mike’s residence” vs. “The house where Mike lives”).
- Use the same person perspective (first, second or third person) throughout your summary. A second-person narrative is generally the simplest (“Detective Jones spoke with Ms. Smith”).
- Don’t assume the reader is familiar with the case or what you are describing. Include all relevant place and person names and associations (“Officers arrived at the Jones residence located at 123 Main Street, Anytown, Texas”).
- Refrain from using jargon or “cop talk” (“Officer Smith took Mr. Jones into custody without incident at 10:15 pm” vs. “Units were 10-15 with the perp at 2215”).
- Spell out any acronyms the first time you introduce them in your report (“North West Medical Center Emergency Room” vs. “NWMC ER”).
- Make time to have someone else proofread your work and make suggestions. Follow up with any needed edits and corrections.
- Save your summary both as a printed report and electronically on a compact disc or thumb drive. Some prosecutors like a printed report on paper so that they can jot down notes in the margins as they review each page. Other prosecutors may prefer an electronic file they can download to a laptop and take with them as they commute from home to office. Also, many grand jury rooms are now equipped with computers and projectors. A prosecutor may decide to show the grand jury items in your electronic case summary using a projector. Always retain your originals and provide the prosecutor with at least two sets of each copy – one for their use and one for them to provide to the defense attorney as part of the discovery process.
- If possible, schedule a time to meet with the prosecutor and submit your case summary. This will allow you to review the case together, clarify any issues and make a list of any follow-up investigation items they request.
Your case summary can make a big impact on your investigation’s outcome. A well-written case summary presents a professional image of you, your work product and your agency. It shows that your investigation was conducted in an organized, methodical and professional manner. What is seen as a solid and winnable case is much more likely to be accepted by prosecutors and less likely to be challenged by defense attorneys.