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Pounding the Pavement

We spend so much time talking about forensic science these days because it's hard to overemphasize how much it has changed police work. Rarely do I go to a trial where someone doesn't bring up DNA, trace evidence and the like. It's talked about in hushed tones, like the Holy Grail of justice. And it should be. Good forensic science can free the innocent and bring the guilty to punishment.

But we often forget how much of police work remains logic and legwork, covering the bases, putting in the time, thinking the cases through and coming up with ideas. Case in point: Yesterday's sad discovery of the body of seven-year-old Somer Thompson, the Orange Park, FL, girl who disappeared while walking home from school two days earlier. That's Somer pictured above. As many of you may already know, her remains were found in a Georgia landfill, legs sticking out of a mound of garbage. An autopsy is underway, but authorities have already labeled the manner of death as homicide.

Why were the police in that landfill? Did forensic evidence suggest Somer was somehow connected to the landfill? No. In this case, as in so many others, it was a good investigator thinking through the case and making a suggestion that led to a crucial discovery. Sheriff Rick Beseler credits one of his detectives with suggesting that the landfill should be checked. Orange Park's garbage is routinely hauled to this Georgia dump site. Based on that detective's reasoning, that the body might be among the refuse, Breseler told detectives to go through the debris as the trucks brought it in.

"Had we not done that, tons of garbage would have been distributed over the top of the body, and it likely would have never been found," said Beseler.

This isn't an anomaly. Lots of cases come together because of good old-fashioned police work. One comes to mind: the Piper Rountree case, the subject of my 2007 book, Die, My Love. In that case, prosecutors insisted police didn't have a solid case until they produced witnesses who could place Rountree, a Houston attorney, in Richmond, VA, where her ex-husband was ambushed and gunned down in his driveway there. No forensic evidence, no phone leads, nothing suggested how they might find those crucial witnesses. Instead, gumshoeing, walking the streets and asking questions, led investigators to folks who could point at Rountree in a courtroom and say, "That's her. I saw her in Richmond."

Now that little Somer's body has been found, of course, the forensic folks have moved in, combing the landfill for clues leading to her killer. I'm not suggesting that their role is any less important. But they wouldn't be there if not for the good idea of one cop who thought the case through and made a crucial suggestion.

Let's hope the forensic folks and the detectives working the Thompson case get every break they need to find the scumbag responsible for little Somer's death. Anyone who'd murder a child and throw her body in the trash needs to be found quickly and dealt with severely.
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