Accountability after Decades: Challenges in Conducting Historical Investigations

Mark Giuffre

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Jun 7, 2022

Time matters. The longer the duration between allegation and investigation, the more difficult it is to uncover the truth. For almost 20 years, our team has been tasked with what we call “historical investigations” – assignments by clients seeking to gain insight into allegations of unethical or criminal acts that occurred a long time ago.

Culpability Is Forever. Accountability Fades Fast

Historical investigations of events 10, 20 or even 50 years in the past carry unique challenges not typically seen in contemporary investigations. Witnesses die. Memories fade. Fields get paved with parking lots. Policies governing expected employee behaviors also change over time. Transgressions quickly swept under rugs in the past become causes for new generations taking the helm. Justice is tied to the clock as well. Statutes of limitations apply to many acts, though not all. For that reason, law enforcement agencies, police and prosecutors tend to prioritize today’s crimes, not yesterday’s.

A Search for Evidence That Will Stand Up in Court

Getting enough evidence to substantiate 20-year-old criminal allegations “beyond a reasonable doubt” can be extraordinarily difficult. Civil and administrative employee misconduct cases are often easier to substantiate, as most of these cases are subjected to the “preponderance of the evidence” standard of proof. Because of this, crime victims sometimes seek redress in civil courts, such as in cases of sexual abuse perpetrated at an institutional level. While this standard is easier to meet, it still must be met. A good historical investigator will uncover evidence and information about the allegation for use in litigation or administrative proceedings.

What Investigations of Contemporary Crimes Seek to Uncover

When we investigate allegations of a wrongdoing that occurred relatively recently, we analyze the information gathered to determine possibilities of the misconduct or crime and suspects. After developing theories based on the information and forming an investigative plan, we search for provable facts. We then test theories against the information and evidence to identify suspects and form reasonable grounds to present to our client.

But what happens when the misconduct or crime is so far in the past that there is no physical evidence, forensic analysis, open-source information or law enforcement data available from the period? An investigator must then conduct an historical investigation.

Five Challenges Confronting Many Historical Investigations

Five unique challenges of historical investigations:

  • Locating witnesses or other persons of interest
  • Uncovering facts when witnesses have died
  • Gauging the value of faulty memory recall
  • Finding independent corroboration
  • Deciding how to proceed given statutes of limitations

Criminal vs. Civil or Administrative Consequences

As investigators of historical allegations, we often work closely with local or federal law enforcement personnel and prosecutors. Occasionally law enforcement will take over an investigation from us, particularly if there is a good chance they can make criminal charges stick.

At other times, our clients or authorities will ask us to move forward on our own when there isn’t enough evidence to prove criminal charges beyond reasonable doubt but enough for civil liability or internal administrative employee misconduct proceedings under the “preponderance of the evidence” standard.

Investigations rely on primary sources of information to build evidence in a case. Examples of primary sources include financial records, emails, diaries and journals, letters, memos, photographs, video, government records, and interviews with witnesses or other persons.

As historical investigators, we collect as many insights as possible – even information that may seem trivial or irrelevant to some – to help jog a person’s memory and trigger recall. Whether it’s only a snippet or a stream of incriminating “bread crumbs,” you’d be surprised how physical evidence of wrongdoing can break down a suspect’s defenses and denials.

Conducting an historical investigation often involves finding witnesses or other parties who can corroborate a version of events that took place decades in the past. Using a method of locating called “skip tracing,” an investigator can track down a witness or other party for an interview or to obtain primary sources. Locating these individuals decades after an incident can be incredibly challenging, especially when an individual has moved to another country, changed their identity or passed away.

Our Historical Investigators are Here for You

However complex or challenging an investigation may be, our highly qualified investigators are committed to objectively uncovering critical facts and insights that can substantiate historical allegations and provide peace of mind for victims and their families. Learn more about our services and how we can support your investigation.