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  A Case of Identity
by Steven D. Laib, J.D. M.S.
04 November 2002

Comparing the detective work in the sniper shootings to the bumbling detective work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Scotland Yard.

With the capture of the Washington DC Beltway sniper suspects and subsequent release of information relating to the investigation I was reminded, for some reason, of the above title, which comes from one of the Sherlock Holmes short stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle. The two have nothing to do with each other, however the story of the sniper investigation presents certain points, which the reader might find of interest, given that the way in which it progressed, might make Doyle’s Scotland Yarders seem brilliant by comparison. And of course, both dealt with an attempt to identify an unknown person.

At the outset, Holmes would probably have had no more or better information than anyone else; witness descriptions, ballistics evidence, and the nature of the victims. The crime scenes were otherwise pretty much devoid of anything else. However, if we look toward traditional approaches such as motive, opportunity and means it might be possible to get an idea of who the suspect might be. Motive was not very useful. The victims had nothing significant to tie them together. Opportunity is also not of much use because the acts were apparently random. However, Holmes generally obtained his best information from the behavior of people, or traits, which betrayed something about them. The means by which the crimes were committed might say a lot if we look closely.

What we can deduce from the crimes are the following: It would appear that the sniper was military trained. He was obviously a very good shot, and was using a .223 military caliber weapon. He was also covering his tracks well, which showed planning and intelligence. It would appear that he had a motive, which was not yet understood. This should have been sufficient along with witness statements describing someone with a dark complexion to get the investigation off to a good start. However, much like Doyle’s Scotland Yard detectives, law enforcement went off in a completely different direction. This direction apparently was familiar to them, focusing on what they called the “average white guy”. Because there are many white males who are gun hobbyists, and few serial killers of other races, their purported method was to check on all white “gun nuts” and then single out any who were showing aberrant behavior. This, they believed would bring them relatively close to the person responsible; probably someone who had become psychologically unbalanced and had access to weapons.

This flew in the face of the evidence. Even the white ex-military man was unlikely to be a good fit. The vast majority of these people tend to be patriotic. If one were to lose his reason, then he would be more likely to target people whom he perceived to be enemies of America, given America’s current situation in dealing with terrorists. Shooting people connected with Islamic organizations might be expected, but did not occur. Thus, this type of suspect did not fit well. Additionally, the average psychotic serial killer tends to behave differently, leaving clues, taunting law enforcement, and acting in general as if on one hand they are smarter than the police and can avoid capture, while at the same time, appearing to want capture so that they can be stopped. Witness David Berkowitz’s suggestions comparing the sniper to Hannibal Lecter. The average “nut with a gun” fit no better than the “gun nut”.

So, what did fit? Working with the idea of an ex-military person, we might assume that they had become disaffected with America. Given the background of our current adversary, there was the distinct possibility that the sniper was someone with Islamic loyalties. Working in this direction also supplies a motive and makes it more likely that the direction is the correct one. Simply, a Muslim gunman seeking to cause terror because he was a supporter of a war on Western Civilization has a motive to do exactly what this sniper did. The fact that there have been relatively few non-white serial killers becomes irrelevant when you realize that in this situation you may well be dealing with special circumstances. Finally, witnesses who described someone “Hispanic” or of dark complexion could have seen a dark skinned Asian, light skinned African or a Middle Eastern person. As there are Muslims from all of these regions any of them could fit within the above analysis.

According to reports available on Worldnet Daily law enforcement chose to approach the investigation as they did to avoid the unpopular public relations issue of racial profiling. However, by avoiding non-whites they essentially engaged in racial profiling in favor of a white suspect. And they were, to all appearances, dead wrong in the process. One report seen by this author suggested that the suspects who were finally arrested had been detained previously, but were released because of the bias in favor of a white perpetrator. The veracity of these reports, and the timing of any alleged detention of this suspect has not verified by me, therefore it is only possible to say that the actions of law enforcement officers might have cost additional lives, but we don't know for sure. In any event, if the tarot card found at one location had a fingerprint time might have been saved by assuming the probability of an ex-military man. The print, if any could have been sent immediately to the military records database for comparison.

Finally, what grates the most is one simple fact. If investigators had acted according to the witness reports and looked for a non-white culprit, they would have been vindicated in the end, regardless of the profiling issue. Arresting the right person and getting them convicted is what counts, and always gets the best PR results. It would have done little good to take the white perpetrator approach to its ultimate level by arresting and trying a white gun hobbyist while the killings continued.

It is the job of law enforcement to see that the people such as the beltway sniper are captured as soon as possible. Keeping an eye on all of the available information and an open mind will generally bring you better results than sticking with a preconceived notion. At the bottom line of this investigation stands a sign reading “politics comes first.” It should read, “Justice is blind.” Perhaps some of the people in charge need to go back to basics and rethink what their goal and purpose really is.

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