When it comes to conducting a homicide investigation, private detective Suzanne McComas prefers her cases cold. Especially when it involves a person wrongfully convicted of murder.
A relative newcomer to Harrison County, McComas is one who relishes the effort to set things right when the justice system fails.
It doesn’t happen often, she said, but it does occur. Out of some 30 or 40 trials where a defendant is convicted, there is a good chance that one of those convictions is wrong, McComas said.
Mistakes happen. A critical detail is missed. Investigators sometimes accept a witness at face value without checking all the facts, she said. When they occur, people get convicted of crimes they did not commit.
“There are a lot of good lawyers and law enforcement officers working everyday against a lot of pressures,” she said.
She understands those pressures. Before becoming a P.I., McComas served six years as a military police officer in the U.S. Air Force. Afterward, she was a certified officer in Arizona, serving in the Phoenix reserves.
But despite those pressures and the errors that they may cause, it is not okay to let a bad conviction stand and allow someone to pay the price for a crime they did not commit.
“If we let that happen, it’s a perversion of the system,” McComas said. “We have to be strong enough to stand up and admit when we’re wrong.”
She’s been in private investigations since 1993.
McComas explored several branches within the private investigation field, from contract work for insurance companies to a two-year stint as a cold case homicide detective for America’s Most Wanted.
Her break into the business came from her investigations where somebody died while in the custody of authorities.
“These are tough cases,” McComas said. They force her to walk a tight line between the heightened emotions of law enforcement on one side and the demands of family members and attorneys wanting an explanation.
If a detective becomes known as a person willing to take on these kinds of cases, jobs will come from all over the country, McComas said.
“I have literally worked in every state in the union … except Rhode Island for some reason, which is kind of weird,” McComas commented.
These tough cases established her professional career, but it’s in the world of cold case investigations where she feels she’s found her niche.
These are the cases she prefers.
“I love delving into old cases,” she said. It requires an analytical approach to investigation. “If I had my choice, I would do that more than anything.”
McComas has put together an impressive track record of success in these investigations. Every case she has taken on has resulted in a determination either that the sentence was excessive or that the wrong person had been convicted.
The task is not easy. A conviction, especially in a homicide, is not just set aside because DNA doesn’t match or another person confesses to the crime.
“You have to build a case,” she explained. “You have to pore over the details of an investigation and present evidence to get a conviction overturned.”
As an illustration of her point, her most recent success involved a man serving his 14th year of a 50-year murder sentence.
Her investigation produced a 392-page report that “blew apart the conviction,” she said. The man’s case is being re-tried in federal court and there is every indication he will be released.
“He was doing hard time in a maximum security prison, but he never waivered in his efforts to be heard,” she said.
“He was sentenced to 50 years and we’ve managed to give 35 of those years back to him,” she said.
It’s a myth that every prison inmate claims they’ve been wrongfully convicted, asserts McComas. She has logged many hours working with convicts in prisons across the country and most of the guilty ones admit it.
It’s the convicts who persist in their efforts to prove they’re innocent of a crime, even after 20 years, that grab her attention. She has found that those who stick to it have a legitimate case.
The reasons for bad convictions sometimes result from prosecutorial misconduct. Other times, attorneys or officers miss a critical detail or they choose to believe the testimony of a witness over the accused.
McComas related the details of a case involving another investigator, a colleague, that illustrates the danger of accepting the testimony of an eyewitness without checking all the facts. It involved a woman who claimed to have seen a man commit murder from her apartment window.
“No one bothered to check and that testimony was key to his conviction. My friend re-opened the case some 18 years later, went back to the woman’s apartment and discovered that her window faced the wrong direction. It would have been impossible for the witness to have seen anything,” McComas said.
In a subsequent interview, the supposed witness admitted that she had lied.
The accused had served 18 years for murder before the truth came out.
Sometimes, though, it is the witness that isn’t questioned, she said.
In one of her most heart-wrenching cases, she was to look into the circumstances of the death of a boy in Cleveland.
Authorities ruled the death accidental, but people in the local neighborhood were angry. They were certain the case was a murder.
“I was invited by the investigators to provide a fresh perspective. When I started interviewing family members, the boy’s little brother came up and whispered in my ear that he had seen it happen,” McComas said.
The child was 4 years old.
She quickly brought a social worker to sit in while the child related the whole tragic story in brutal detail, she said. “No investigator had thought to ask the child.”
The screening process McComas undergoes in a wrongful conviction case is lengthy. She reviews about two or three cases a month and looks over them pretty hard.
“I don’t want to turn anybody down out of hand. There is always a chance that something was missed or mishandled,” she said.
Out of the 15 or so cases she reviews in a year, about two or three of them merit a deeper look.
The next step involves meeting the person.
McComas credits herself with a good intuition. She has been in law enforcement long enough to tell when people are lying to her, she said.
“They have to be honest and they have to be forthcoming about their involvement, their culpability in the crime. They also have to take into account of what they have done since landing in prison,” she said.
Agitation becomes apparent in McComas’ voice when she recalls the circumstances of one case that she was forced to abandon.
Reviewing the evidence, she was convinced that a prisoner had been wrongfully convicted of a serious charge. But while serving time, this prisoner had became a major hoodlum within the prison. The convict couldn’t keep from getting into trouble, McComas complained. He lied and persisted in compounding his own problems.
She could not get this person to save himself.
“To this day, I believe I could have helped this person. But I couldn’t work with him. He wasn’t honest and, eventually, I just had to walk away,” she said.
These investigations are only a small aspect of McComas’ body of work. She is the author of four books and has created a well-regarded rehabilitation program for prisoners preparing for release back into the world.
Her family made a farm out in Harrison County their home in November 2013.
When not traveling around the country conducting interviews and reviewing old cases, she enjoys coming home to unwind.
The countryside provides a good buffer between her family life and work.
“Harrison County has been a perfect place for my family to settle,” McComas said.