This is my first time posting, so please be gentle. I am a homicide detective who works in Chicago. I've doing it for several years. I can think of roughly a dozen cases in the last three years that wrapped up in a nice tidy package. Until this year, the unit I work in averaged about 170 murders a year. I usually have knowledge directly or indirectly of about 50 of those murders, so the numbers of nice tidy packages are probably greater.
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Believe it or not, people do confess. Unlike the nonsense you read in the papers, physical abuse is not used and is not effective. Physical coersion will only "lose" the offender. Creating a bond between the detective and offender is what is needed to gain a confession. Hours are spent at the start trying to establish this bond. You just have to read the guy and go with what works. You might become his dad, or his priest, or his "homey". Like anything else, some detectives are masters at getting confessions and some suck. Most are someplace in the middle. The offender usually confesses in stages. It usually starts with "I don't know nothing". After several hours of denials and bullshit that becomes, "I heard about it". That eventually becomes, "I was out there(witnessed it)". And finally the confession process begins. This can take just as long as the rest put together. The offender will try to seek out what you know and only admit to that. You're trying to get new info out of him and don't want to let him know what you know. Holding back what you know is how you verify the rest of his story. I don't think people ever confess 100%. They always try to hold back the little things that will make them look really bad. At some point you have to go with the story he gives you. If you push him too hard, you might lose him. Before he is done, he will have confessed several times to different people. He is usually trying to work his own angle. Trying to make the co-offenders or victim look bad. During rape-murder or kidnap-murder (kidnapping is much more common than you think) confessions it can be difficult to keep your focus. These are usually your only truly innocent victims. When someone describes in detail for you how he raped and murdered some girl it makes you feel some kind of primal fear inside. Not the kind that makes you want to run away. You're sitting next to some monster eating hamburgers with him. And you have to say crazy shit that revolts you like,"did the bitch like it?". Its all about keeping him talking. But you feel dirty, jaded, and afraid for people you love afterwards.
Murder is a brutal, ugly thing. 80 or 90 percent of the time it involves narcotics or alcohol in one way or another. Crime scenes can be physically revolting when you first start working murders. Decomposed bodies will always be revolting. One particular murder has given me a life long aversion to eating ribs. The victims usually aren't people you can have a great deal of empathy for. Often times they have worse criminal histories than the offender. Between the low clearance rate and not guilty verdicts, I figure you have 3 out of 4 chances that you will get away with murder. Knowing who committed murder and charging/convicting them are two different things.
I always think of a confession as going to a bar and trying to get a beautiful woman who has no interest in you to agree to a one time hook-up. Its really a twisted romance. You talk for hours and hours about meaningless shit, all the time trying to bring the offender back to the murder. Most people will eventually confess for various reasons that are too numerous to go into. Eventually there will be motions in court to supress the arrest and the confession. Every good defense attorney will attack your probable cause for arrest(the legality of it) and validity of the confession(you beat my client). During the motions stage of a prosecution truth is in short supply at the defense table. They will say whatever is necesary to get the offender off. The thought is if we throw enough shit some might stick. This is where a detective really earns his money. You have to be able to articulate to the judge what you did and why you did it.
The Cook County State's Attorneys office places great importance on confessions (probably too much). A supervisor from the State's Attorneys Felony Review Unit is the person who ultimately approves 1st Degree Murder charges. Television gives great importance to DNA, etc. Physical evidence is rarely present or effective in real world homicides. Prosecution comes down to witnesses and confessions. That is why confessions are so important. The Justice Deparment even offers a seminar for local prosecuters in how to run a jury trial in a "post CSI" world where the jury has unreal expectations.
Usually offenders who have been through the system for serious crimes before won't confess. They know that all you are selling them is decades in state prison. The system isn't perfect. Many offenders are not prosecuted. The States Attorney, the CPD command structure, and the Criminal Court judges drive the process. The detective just works within the system. None of those organizations would ever ask, "what do you need to put offenders in jail?". The real corruption in the police department is not a dirty cop ripping off the dope man. The real corruption is clout. It's the same clout that permeates the state's attorneys office and the judicial selection process. Unqualified people in charge all around you. Phil Cline is the first police superintendent since Joe DiLionardi during the Jayne Byrne era who knows what the fuck he is doing(and it shows). However, he still has to give the devil his due.
Sorry for meandering on. I do love my job. I believe in silly old-fashioned ideas like justice, integrity, and law & order. No one, no matter what they have done, deserves to be murdered. I don't believe in the death penalty. Not for moral reasons, I believe special interest groups have turned death row convicts into victims. It distracts from justice. They should be locked up in isolation for natural life. Let them die mentally every day. I ended up in this profession quite by accident and I can't think of anything else I would rather be doing. Thanks for giving me the chance to write this down. These are all random thoughts that have been floating through my head for the last 6+ years. Work is not something I am not comfortable talking to people about. Being a homicide detective has had one personal drawback. I have an overwhelming sense of my own mortality. It is mildly depressing. But all that other "cop on the edge" stuff you see on television is a load of bullshit. All jobs becom routine.
On a side note; never trust a detective who dresses like one of those TV characters. Detectives should be presentable and professional, like Mr. Big during his Law & Order days. Homicide investigations are about justice not image. It has been my experience that self-involved people make useless detectives. Actually they make useless cops, and we already have way too many of those.