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Botched criminal investigations and the damage they can cause

Cold cases are frustrating for law enforcement agencies and can be devastating to the families of victims. When a missing-persons case goes unsolved, for example, the family may suffer what has been called “dubious grief.” Until they see a body, they may not be able to accept that their loved one is gone.

Cold cases can also lead to problems when investigators get overzealous. This appears to be what happened to one man who was falsely accused of committing double homicide. Recently, the bodies were found and the deaths were ruled accidental.

In 1971, two 17-year-old South Dakota girls were last seen driving to a party at a gravel pit. They never arrived and were not seen again until their car and their bodies were recently pulled out of a creek less than a mile from their intended destination. It now appears as though they accidentally drove off the road and into the water where they died. Somehow, their vehicle stayed submerged and hidden for almost 43 years.

The case went cold. But about six years ago, law enforcement began investigating the disappearances as a murder. Their prime suspect was a man named David who was already in prison for an unrelated crime. Fellow prisoners who were jailhouse informants falsified a tape recording of David’s supposed confession.

During the investigation, law enforcement agencies conducted a thorough search of the farm where David’s family lived. The family was displaced for five days and suffered serious reputational damage within their community. It doesn’t appear as though anything substantial was found.

The two bodies have since been discovered and the case was ruled an accident, which means that David is no longer under suspicion.

This case contains some important reminders about what can go wrong during a criminal investigation: Prison informants can lie; investigators can be too hungry for leads; families of the accused can be harassed and intimidated. Hopefully, this incident and its ugly aftermath will serve as an important cautionary tale for both law enforcement and prosecutors.

Source: Argus Leader, "Cold case that baffled investigators, falsely accused man is solved," John Hult, April 16, 2014

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