Recent events have brought the Oakland County Child Killer case, one of Southeast Michigan’s most infamous cases, to the forefront once again.
Both Wayne and Oakland counties are conducting separate investigations. Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper recently announced that Arch Edward Sloan was a person of interest in the slayings of the children based on mitochondrial DNA evidence found in his car and on two of the victims that matched.
Later events established there was a lack of communication between the two counties. Two Investigations taking place by two jurisdictions on the same crime can cause the proverbial nightmare of potentially tainting the overall missions of bringing the criminal to justice and having closure for each victim’s family.
This lack of communication between the two jurisdictions created problems. Hypothetically, if Wayne County was focusing on a suspect that they knew to be using Sloan’s car, publication that Sloan was not the contributor of the DNA evidence, potentially destroys the interview that Wayne County may have wanted to conduct with the suspect.
There is no question that prosecutors help detectives and other officers in investigating crimes and in particular cold cases. In fact, it is the prosecutor that asks the questions during an investigative subpoena inquiry or conducts the grand jury questions of witnesses. But, the job does not stop there because the prosecutor also works with the investigators in instructing them on where to investigate and how not to taint evidence so it is precluded from coming into trial.
In short, the prosecutor is not only an integral part of leading and helping the team in the investigation, but he or she takes the lead in trying the case when it comes time to proving the case to the Jury.
Disclosing to the public information only known to law enforcement:
At a news conference held on July 17, 2012, Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper announced that authorities have a "person of interest" in the Oakland County Child Killer case based on DNA test results that link hair samples taken from a car and two victims.
Cooper said a hair found in a red 1966 Pontiac Bonneville owned by Archibald Edward Sloan has the same mitochondrial DNA profile as hair found on victims Mark Stebbins and Timothy King.
Authorities said the hair samples found in Sloan’s car aren't from the boys or from Sloan. Cooper said investigators are seeking tips about Sloan's associates from the 1970s.
Prosecutor Cooper is publishing this information hoping to gain new leads.
The potential conflict that disclosure makes:
Focusing on the duration of the investigation and the apparent previous lack of progress, Cooper hailed these latest developments as a “significant breakthrough” in the Oakland County Child Killer case. While that may be true, there are significant downfalls in releasing detailed information to the public during an ongoing investigation.
In fact, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy whose office is investigating the case because one victim's body was found in Wayne County, said, on July 18, 2012, that the information should not have been made public while investigators continued their work and that Cooper’s actions “severely compromised” their investigation.
It has been reported that a Wayne County grand jury is conducting its own probe at the request of Worthy's office. Therefore, the timing of the disclosure of information to the public is of great importance to all parties objectively seeking the truth to critical facts in the investigation.
Disclosing too much information too soon to the public can have a detrimental effect on an investigation. Specifically, the effectiveness of law enforcement interviews with suspects or witnesses could be impacted because it essentially leaves law enforcement playing with an open hand.
Law enforcement officers are trained to gather information—the more the better. They often obtain valuable information from unsuspecting persons in a casual encounter, or a more structured, but equally non- threatening encounter, in a police station.
When the officer shows all of his cards, the investigation is impaired because it puts people on notice of the target and scope of the investigation. A witness may not want to get involved and a suspect may be more careful and may stop talking to the police because of information he or she learns from the media. It also prevents a determination of credibility by corroborating unreleased details to the witness or suspect statement, which is a very important tool to law enforcement.
Recent developments have shown in this very serious investigation that the elected prosecutors in the adjacent counties of Oakland and Wayne have taken a very different approach to the critical task of disclosing information to the public. For the sake of the victims and their families as well as the community, let’s hope that the different paths reach the same conclusion that affords both justice and closure to all.