Sandy Smith found herself mostly on her own as she tried to understand what happened to her son, Stephen Smith, in July 2015. With conflicting reports between the investigative agencies, apparent disagreement between officers and the medical examiner, and the differing versions of Stephen’s death certificate, she felt in her gut something was wrong. She had no idea who or what killed her son, nor did she know why he was found nearly three miles from his vehicle.
When officials let her down, Sandy took matters into her own hands. It’s intimidating to launch your own investigation, but here are some tips to get started:
Write Down Everything You Already Know
Catalog all of the details you know to be true about the incident you are investigating, especially if you are a witness to what happened. This will help keep the details front and center in your mind and give you a starting spot for the next step.
Make a List (or Make a Lot of Lists)
Start a list of questions you have about the circumstances you’re investigating. When you finish that list, make a list of the people and/or agencies who may have the information you need so you can remember to get in touch with them.
Send Some FOIA Requests
Using your state’s open records law or the federal Freedom of Information Act, you can ask for a myriad of public documents from various public offices. Keep in mind, specific open records laws vary by state. Your state’s open records laws and what qualifies as a public record is likely available online.
Work the Phones
Talk to people who may have information about your case, and take good notes about what they say. Always ask if they know of anybody else you should speak with about the issue at hand. If you plan to share what somebody tells you, they should know that before they even start speaking to you. If they ask you not to share what they’re saying, there is an ethical obligation to honor that.
Organize Your Information
Keeping your information organized makes a difference, especially if you need to share your findings with a journalist or the police. Generally, it’s a good bet to keep your documents in order by date. Depending on the circumstances, it may also make sense to keep different types of records (for example, property records versus police reports) separate, but still organize them by date.
Be Careful of What You Allege Publicly
When investigating, it can be tempting to quickly share your findings on social media, especially if you are seeing evidence of corruption or other egregious behavior on the part of public officials. Keep in mind that you could be sued in civil court if you slander or libel someone, and you can be charged criminally in some states. Do not allege things you cannot back up with documentation.
Contact Beth Braden
Beth Braden is an award-winning journalist whose mastery of the deep dive is evident in her work.
In addition to Braden’s experience writing about local government, crime and courts, and engaging features from her home state of Tennessee, her byline appears on several internationally-known websites. She is passionate about communicating complex information in an easy-to-understand manner and loves to pore over public records.
Braden joined Luna Shark Media in 2023 armed with a love of truth as she seeks out data from the darkest places, drags it into the light, and provides illuminating analysis. In her spare time, she enjoys quilting, strange museums, and good cups of coffee.
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