Amateur Sleuths: Helping Police to Solve Crimes

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There’s nothing like a mysterious crime to keep us on the edge of our seats. Agatha Christie knew this all too well – her many murder mystery titles are entrenched classics in modern-day literature, and there’s also a string of crime-solving television shows to prove the point.

But the curious question is, why are we so interested?

Maybe these fictional stories offer us an escape from our comparatively normal lives. But perhaps we also enjoy the mental gymnastics of trying to figure out “whodunnit” before the story ends.

This may also be part of the reason behind the rise of citizen investigation. While police have long sought public assistance in solving crimes through official avenues such as Crimestoppers, there are now also a number of online forums that allow people to discuss their theories about particular cases, or to speculate about research or evidence that may assist a police investigation.

But while sleuthing websites and social media have in some cases helped police to track down suspects and solve crimes, there are also a number of issues with this form of amateur sleuthing. Let’s take a look at how the forums work, and some of the dangers associated with citizen investigation.

How the forums work

Websleuths is a website that appears to have attracted Australians who are interested in investigating crime. While most of the activity on the site comes from the United States, Australians rank as the fourth-biggest contributors.

Various stories about unsolved crimes are posted on the site, with users being invited to comment. To gain access to the site, users must first register, although there is no requirement that they use their real names.

Police and other authorities may also use these crime solving sites either overtly or secretly. In other words, they may make a public appeal for assistance or simply stay in the background, monitoring discussions, to see if something useful comes up.

Websleuths often works with the police, meeting their requests (for example, removal of any information that will prejudice an investigation), or providing information (such as users’ IP addresses) under subpoena.

Sometimes, the offenders themselves, or those falsely claiming to have committed crimes, might join the sites.

In the 2008 case of Dorice Moore, it was suspected that she had befriended a homeless man who had won $30 million and then killed him. When Websleuths users speculated about this, Moore joined the conversation to defend herself. Police requested Websleuths to “just let her go”. Websleuths allowed this, and eventually Moore all but admitted to the crime.

Sites have assisted in solving crimes

There have been a number of breakthroughs in solving crimes, with arguably the most
prominent recent example being the case of Gerard Baden-Clay, who was accused of murdering his wife Allison.

Baden-Clay’s defence team argued that Allison had elevated levels of an antidepressant in her system at the time of death, speculating that she could have taken her own life. A Websleuths user found a scientific study that demonstrated that the levels of the drug could be due to how it was broken down by the body rather than the amount that had been taken. The prosecution was able to use this information to discredit the suicide theory.

There was also the cold case of an unidentified American teenager, who was killed in a car accident while travelling to a Grateful Dead concert. Police speculated that he was a hitchhiker because they could not establish that he had any connection with the driver.

The accident was so bad that he could not be identified, and police relied on a composite sketch that was possibly not very accurate. There was a turning point in 2012, when new technology led to a new sketch being made. This led to a Facebook page being set up, titled “Grateful Doe”, in the hope that someone would identify him.

The family of missing teenager Jason Callahan came across the Facebook page and immediately recognised him. Callahan had been missing for 10 years after leaving home in 1995 to follow the Grateful Dead’s tour of America. DNA tests are currently underway to confirm his identity.

The Washington Post reported that police in Philadelphia used social media to solve a hate crime, in which a group of young men yelled gay slurs at two other men before the group attacked the pair.

Surveillance video of the attack was posted on YouTube by the police and a Twitter user saw the footage, connected the dots by finding the location of the restaurant at which the group had dined, and was able to use Facebook’s Graph Searching technology to identify members of the group.

Issues involved with amateur sleuthing

While Websleuths requires its users to agree to a lengthy list of rules about the manner in which they conduct themselves on the site and communications are overseen by moderators, other sites may not be quite so stringent in monitoring comments, deleting anything defamatory, and undertaking verification of users.

For example, the site Reddit landed in hot water after comments made on its true forum about the Boston bombings led to an innocent man being accused of the crime. Other family members of crime victims have been stricken by the comments and speculations about how crimes were committed, opening up old and very painful wounds.

Perhaps the biggest issue with citizen investigations is the potential for innocent people to be accused of crimes they haven’t committed. It can be particularly hard for anyone who has been wrongly accused to seek redress if anonymous internet users make accusations, and accusations can live on the internet for years.

There is also the issue of the integrity of information on these forums. Mere speculation that is presented as “fact” can be very damaging, and can be potentially misleading to authorities.

If you are concerned about something you have encountered on a citizen investigation site, or are concerned that you may be under suspicion from police because of something posted on a public forum, a criminal defence lawyer may be able to provide clarification and advice on any further action.

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Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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