5 Lessons I Learned as a Murder Investigator

Read Ellison Cooper's exclusive guest post about what she learned as a murder investigator, then make sure you're signed in and comment below for a chance to win a copy of her debut novel, Caged!

Now that I’ve written my debut crime thriller, I’ve been reflecting on the lessons I learned as a murder investigator and how those lessons shaped my writing.

I began investigating Class 1 Felonies in Washington, D.C., in the early ‘90s when D.C. was considered the “murder capital” of the United States. Over 450 murders, mostly gang-related, were committed the year that I showed up at the ripe old age of 24 to work as the legal equivalent of a private investigator for the Public Defender’s Service (PDS). With nothing but my admission letter to Georgetown Law School, a deep well of idealism about the criminal justice system, and a laminated card declaring me an investigator, I set out into the worst neighborhoods of D.C. to investigate murder.

Before I went out in the field, the PDS provided me with a few weeks of training in the techniques and legal technicalities of the job. During that training, I learned more about the criminal justice system than I learned in any law school class. For example, a huge part of my job was to make sure I didn’t accidentally take a written statement that implicated our client so that we wouldn’t have to share that information with the prosecution during discovery (basically, when the defense and prosecution have to share information with each other). My first lesson:

1. The tension between police, prosecutors, and defense lawyers is not a fiction created by TV drama. The adversarial criminal justice system is often genuinely adversarial.

After training, I was given a partner, and we were assigned three lawyers to assist. On my first day in the field, I spent the entire afternoon playing with a toddler—definitely not what I expected. We needed to get a written statement from the child’s mother about a drive-by shooting she had witnessed, and we didn’t want the little girl to be there during that detailed conversation. So, I took the girl in the other room to play while my partner took the mother’s statement.

After the interview, we learned that the toddler had actually witnessed the murder firsthand. Even later, I learned that she was the victim’s daughter. That giggling little girl had watched her own father gunned down right in front of her. My first day turned out to be a perfect introduction to my second lesson:

2. Investigating murder is an inherently heartbreaking, gut-wrenching job. Something I try to remember when I’m writing about all the people involved, from cops to innocent bystanders.

While I spent some time on stakeouts and interviewing suspects, the vast bulk of what I did was tracking down and taking statements from witnesses, building a timeline of the events surrounding the murder, and requesting case files in the courthouse. Between all the mundane legwork, I did have a gun pulled on me, and I was almost caught up in an ATF raid. Lesson number three:

3. Investigation involves day after day of tedium punctuated by very brief moments of abject terror!

My experiences absolutely changed my perspective on the criminal justice system. I struggled with things I saw on both sides of the fence of the adversarial court system, and I realized that I didn’t actually want to become a lawyer (hello Ph.D. in anthropology instead). Despite the flaws I saw in the system, I was awed by the amazing lawyers, police, and judges that I met. Which leads to my fourth lesson:

4. The criminal justice system works because of the blazing icons of idealism and dedication that make it happen every day.

Despite the tedium, it really was incredible opening a new file and reading reports, taking witness statements, processing crime scene data, watching autopsies, and compiling all the information gathered during a murder case. So, last but not least, my fifth lesson:

5. Despite the gut-wrenching horror of any murder, the investigative process really is like a puzzle that needs to be pieced together to tease out the truth.

That human drama coupled with the questions surrounding any murder (especially the who and why) is ultimately why I love reading, and now writing, mysteries!

Comment below for a chance to win a copy of Caged by Ellison Cooper!

To enter, make sure you’re a registered member of the site and simply leave a comment below.

Caged Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN.  A purchase does not improve your chances of winning.  Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry.  To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at https://www.criminalelement.com/5-lessons-i-learned-as-a-murder-investigator-comment-sweepstakes beginning at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) July 13, 2018. Sweepstakes ends at 12:59 p.m. ET July 31, 2018. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.

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  1. Spaz

    Interesting insight from someone that is or was on the job.

    Thank you,

    • Annie Smith

      Exciting and realistic book to read!

  2. MaryC

    Informative post – thank you.

  3. Margit Curtright


  4. Cindi Hoppes

    I find criminology, investigation, and forensics, very fascinating. Your book would be fabulous to read…
    Many thanks, Cindi

  5. Anne

    A fascinating and intriguing feature and giveaway which I would enjoy greatly.

  6. Susan Meek

    Oh, this is on my TBR list! I’d love to win this one!

  7. Kimberlie L.

    Cannot wait to read caged!

  8. Michelle Downs

    So excited to read this!

  9. Toni A Laliberte

    This book sounds awesome! I love thrillers!

  10. Joye I

    I can’t wait to read this book from an authority on the subject

  11. Nirmala89

    I would love to win a copy of caged!

  12. Danielle Hammelef

    Wow! This background makes this a highly anticipated author for me to read. Thanks for the chance to win a copy.

  13. Mitch Schaub

    My wife and I are both looking forward to reading this!

  14. Michele

    Your experience makes me want to read this even more!

  15. Desmond Warzel

    Count me in, please!

  16. Rachael Pendleton

    I would love to win this book!

  17. MM

    Thank you for the opportunity to win!

  18. Ricardobach@yahoo.com

    We live in nearby Chantilly, VA and would like to read about places in D.C. We have visited. We’d like to move back to SF Bay Area. HOw did you do it?

  19. SqueegyBeckinheim

    This was fascinating! Thank you for sharing your experience.

  20. Rich Fohrenbach

    We live in nearby CHantilly, VA and would like to read about D.C. Places we have visited.

  21. Jisaw

    Can’t wait to read this!

  22. Rich Fohrenbach

    We live in Darby

    We live in nearby Chantilly, VA

  23. Jennifer A Connolly

    I’ve just been reading Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and the parallel interests of crime investigators, lawyers, and the criminal justice system sounds like it would have interesting connections.

  24. kim hansen

    Wow very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

  25. Geraldine Sim

    Interesting to here about the real deal.

    • Geraldine Sim

      Definitely want to read Caged now because your writing must have extraordinary details based on your extensive background. Thanks for the opportunity!

  26. estafura

    Nothing better than first-hand experience when writing about criminal investigation. I would ADORE a copy of this to read and review on my blog!

  27. Cheryl Nichols

    Excellent info , very informative .
    Would love the book .

  28. John Smith

    I recently watched DVDs of all the episodes of “Bones” and “The Mentalist,” so I’m now an expert on these matters!

  29. Adrien Toro

    Looks interesting. I am sure that your insight and experience help in writing a realistic, suspenseful book. I’d love to read it.

  30. Lisa

    My favorite type of books – from someone who has been there!!

  31. Andrew Jensen

    Our justice system is certainly a behemoth. Everyone connected to any crime is changed by that crime. It’s one of the reasons I like crime procedurals that mimic real life.

  32. Cecelia Rohrbacher

    looking forward to this debut – sounds like Ellison Cooper knows what she is talking about – this would certainly add an air of authenticity to her work

  33. thegreeneyedreader

    Interesting article!

  34. mary pirmorac

    looking forward to reading this book.

  35. Stacey Bene

    I would love to read Caged!

  36. Kasey Tufte

    I would love to win a copy of CAGED!!!

  37. Cara Jung

    This sounds great!

  38. Patricia Boyle

    Investigating a murder is a sad experience because, despite detachment, the fact remains that a person died before his/her time.

  39. Michelle

    This sounds great, especially with your first hand experience!!!! Would love the opportunity to read this!!

  40. Jean Feingold

    Great essay about the inside world of crime investigation.

  41. Elizabeth Visak

    Thgis is very interesting. I would love to read this book.

  42. Jackie Wisherd

    This would be a great book to read and report on for my book club.

  43. Annie Buck

    I appreciate your focus on the people behind the crime. So often, we get caught up in the drama and scandal of a murder, and forget that there are real human beings involved.

  44. Meagan Beal

    So interesting!! I couldn’t imagine what they go threw doing these jobs. Thanks for the chance!

  45. Michelle Damon

    Interesting insite! Thanks for the opportunity to win!

  46. Pat Murphy

    Interesting perspective. Would be nice to see how this carries over into your writing.

  47. richard brenner

    it’s nice to have a real life look at crime as a background when reading fictional mysteries, as a way of being able to judge its closeness to real life circumstances, as opposed to exaggerated or even ludicrous scenarios .

  48. Pam Walrath

    This sounds so interesting!!

  49. Cheryl Hurst

    Intriguing novel by an author with firsthand experience in the trenches

  50. Helen Allman

    Looking forward to it.

  51. Kerry Doyle

    This sounds intense and awesome!

  52. lasvegasnv


  53. Cheryl Hurst

    Intriguing novel by an author who knows a murder investigation firsthand by working in the trenches

  54. Kelly Warren
  55. Sandy Klocinski

    Awesome insights! Looks like an interesting read. Thanks for the opportunity to win

  56. Shawn Traxler

    Nice to hear from the perspective of someone who has been there.

  57. Trisha McCullough

    Absolutely fascinating! Can’t wait to read.

  58. Diane Chenier

    Sounds like an interesting read.

  59. JLWalling1


  60. Amy

    Knowing the author has an intimate knowledge of the subject they are writing about always makes reading it a more enjoyable experience. Thank you for sharing your insight.

  61. Gram

    I found it at my library so no need to include me in the drawing.

  62. Jean Boe

    Your insights/lessons have now wetted my appetite to read your book.

  63. Randi Oaklief

    Very interesting post. Looking forward to reading Caged!

  64. Brad Bonds

    I’d like to read this book.

  65. pat murphy

    The chase for truth .

  66. Mary

    i found your blog very interesting and now I am intrigued about your book that I cannot wait to read!

  67. Doris C Losey

    Can’t wait to read CAGED.

  68. Shirley Evans

    I would love to win your book to read. I am an avid reader and absolutely love mysteries. Thanks for the chance.

  69. Jennifer Shanahan

    Such an interesting post! I would LOVE to read Caged!! THANKS!

  70. Jeffrey Malis

    Looking forward to reading Caged… Thank you for the informative post and the entry opportunity!

  71. joel timmons

    Be. A. Awesome. Career choice. A. Real. Csi. Loved. That. Show

  72. Jess

    I would love the chance to read this and share my thoughts with my very active online book club with over 10K members!

  73. Gwen Ellington

    I will love this because I adore Louise Penny’s works!

  74. Catherine Myers

    Great insight

  75. Laura Shangraw
  76. Larry Steiner

    Fascinating stuff!

  77. Barbara Bibel

    Fascinating and important work. I really want to read your book.

  78. Karen Mikusak

    Would love to win!

  79. carloshmarlo

    I can’t imagine what a terribly hard job that would be emotionally. Only in fiction would I even be able to be part of that world. Thanks for the chance to win a copy of this excellent book.

  80. Eric Collier

    Can’t wait to read.

  81. Anita Sue Hamilton

    I will move this book up in my stack of intringing reads!

  82. David Siegel


  83. Anita

    This sounds very interesting and would love to read it.

  84. Deborah D

    I can’t wait to read this book. It is gonna be one great read.

  85. Anita Sue Hamilton

    I will move this up in my stack of intringing reads.

  86. Alicia Sargant

    I love a puzzle. It sounds as though this would be a great read for me!

  87. Marsha Kamish

    Crossing my fingers!

  88. susan beamon

    I do like solving puzzles, but I’ll keep my crime in books, like this one.

  89. Paul Gada


  90. Laurie P

    I would love to get firsthand experience. Thank you for sharing yours.

  91. bellecindy87

    I am very intrigued by the inside workings of the criminal justice system. I love your insights. I can’t wait to read your book. Thank you.

  92. Tina Chavez-Caddey

    I am excited to read Caged.

  93. Ashley Baker

    This was a very interesting read! I’m looking forward to reading Caged. I just borrowed it from the library.

  94. Rena

    Looks like a great book!

  95. Heather Scroggins

    Sounds like an awesome read!! Adding to my TBR list!

  96. Carolyn

    Looking forward to reading Caged! It looks like my kind of book!!

  97. Cindy Wynn

    You have great insight into the investigative and legal process and I can’t wait to read the book.

  98. Margie Coats

    I retired from the Juvenile Unit of the Police Department and as bad as I witnessed, I imagine you saw a lot worse. This book sounds like one I will definitely be reading and I’ll set aside a huge block of time so that I won’t be disturbed while reading.

  99. Reilly

    great interview

  100. Ronald Roseborough

    Love to try your new book.

  101. Sheri Supena

    Thx for the info! Interesting to read from the woman-on-the-street perspective.

  102. Becky

    Thank you for sharing your experience and thank you for the chance to win your debut. Congratulations!

  103. Jean McRae

    I’m in the process of reading a mystery/crime about a murder investigator.All 5 of the things you spoke about have been in that story……wow. Your book is on my “to read” list……..can’t wait to finish the stories.

  104. Martha DeMarco

    Looks like a great book full of interesting information. Would love a chance to read.


    It will be exciting to read a debut crime mystery written by someone who went through actual training! Can’t wait!

  106. donna musche

    This book sounds like a fantastic read, hope i win!

  107. Irene Menge

    Wonderful post. I’m intrigued.

  108. Myra Ball

    You truly have an inside perpective. I think the hardest part of being an investigator would be keeping some sort of empathy. I think seeing the traumatic would desynthetize an investigator. Sometimes it’s hard to hold on to our humanity. Caged sounds like a winner and Congrats on your first book. That’s an accomplishment.

  109. CherokeeP

    I took a Murder/Violent Crime class while working on my degree. You truly are an amazing person to do what you’ve done, and brave! I worked two years as a Sheriff Deputy and now do Adult Protective Services. It is humbling to deal with people when they are at their worst.

  110. Suzanne McMannis


  111. Michael Carter

    Interesting post.
    Please enter me in this sweepstakes.

  112. Amber Gentry

    I like the 2nd point she made. So often I get wrapped up in the mystery and the story, and I forget that real-life murder has real-life consequences. It’s important to remember that crimes involve real people with real heartache, grief, and death.

  113. Louis Burklow

    I’d enjoy reading this kind of book by someone who knows how these investigations go in real life.

  114. Michelle Herman

    Sounds interesting. Thanks for the chance!

  115. Karen Hester

    excellent post

  116. Jennifer Sakurai

    I can’t help but wonder how that child behaved that afternoon…she saw her father killed and was separated from her mother for a long time while the mother was giving her statement. Sometimes the effects appear later, I would think. Depends on the age and the child’s personality, I suppose.

  117. Sandra Brossart

    I am looking forward to anything you write – judging by this post, all will be interesting to me.

  118. Cindee

    Goes to show .. not all teaching can be read in books.. thanks for sharing your experiences.. Can’t wait to read your book

  119. Janet Gould

    fascinating backround

  120. Carol Lawman

    This has got to be so fascinating!

  121. Tiffany

    Looks really good

  122. Lori P

    I’m sure this would be a fascinating read–all the more since it’d be so grounded in reality.

  123. Sally Schmidt

    Sounds like my kind of book, written by someone who has actually been there and done it.

  124. Melinda

    Already have this on my tbr!!

  125. Cherie Gravette

    This sounds like a “cannot put down” book! Thanks for this chance!

  126. L

    Always love crime/mystery books written by folks with relevant backgrounds. It adds an interesting flavor to their writing. I bet “Caged” will be a great read!

  127. Christine Robinson

    Looks like a page turner. I can’t wait to read!!

  128. Deb Philippon

    This is the sort of book I really enjoy reading. For me, a person’s experiences in such an interesting field is an absorbing read.

  129. Teresa Young

    Quite a background of experience – mostly tedium, a few moments of terror, sums it up.

  130. Sharon Mullennex

    Thank you for the wonderful lessons you posted. I had thought of going into the legal field then changed my mind because of those reasons. I look forward to reading your first book.

  131. Renee

    Interesting. I imagine the book will be equally informative.

  132. Joyce Benzing

    Hmm … analytical.

  133. Pamela Pifko

    Very interesting article. I will definitely read Caged – would be great to win a copy!

  134. Pamela Pifko

    Very interesting article. I will definitely read Caged – would be great to win a copy!

  135. Saundra K. Warren

    I absolutely cannot wait!!!!

  136. Susan Morris

    Wow! You must have had an amazing 1st. career. I’ll certainly be reading your new novel.

  137. Susan Morris

    Wow! You must have had an amazing 1st. career. I’ll certainly be reading your new novel.

  138. Janet Martin

    Fascinating article

  139. Samara Gluck

    This is the field my daughter is studying. Sorry to hear it is so tedious

  140. Maureen Wynn

    It will be nice to read a story about the criminal justice system written by someone who was in it and understands how it really works. Hope I win a copy of Caged!

  141. Elena L.

    Murder investigation is one of my favorite genres and I am excited for Caged!!!

  142. Eileen Sharp

    Interesting! Now I really want to read this!

  143. Mary Gilles

    Fascinating insights/lessons. I have great admiration for those who pursue and continue working in the criminal justice system. I look forward to reading Caged.

  144. Julie Kubitz

    As the daughter of a prosecutor/now bookstore owner, I completely understand the pressure placed on investigators. Everyone wants answers and they want them yesterday. I/mother’s bookstore manager, am looking forward to this read!

  145. john frost

    Having beeb a prosecutor, your points wring true.

  146. Karen Terry

    Sounds like an interesting read.

  147. Susan Wise

    Definitely need to read Caged…looks like interesting book.

  148. Sheila

    This was interesting from an investigator’s point of view, and as the sister of a murder victim from the 80’s, I respect all of the hours that go into an investigation.I worked in federal prisons for a number of years, which was also quite an eye-opener.

  149. Vicki Wurgler

    book sounds great thanks

  150. Rhonda Stefani

    Such a needed, heartbreaking and even terrifying profession. Very excited to read Caged with the personal point of view from your experience.

  151. Patricia Nicklas

    Interesting insight into this profession. Looking forward to reading the book

  152. Barbara Lima

    It sounds like Law & Order is not far from real life!

  153. ViolinGeek

    Great article! Sounds like an interest book!

  154. Antwanette

    Very interesting and informative post !!!
    I can’t wait to delve into Caged!

  155. Lisa C

    Wow, I’d love to read a new crime novel and I’m local so this would really be a treat! Thanks for the chance and good luck with your debut novel.

  156. nancy wolfe

    I loved you sharing the information with us. Can’t wait to read Caged! Your book sounds amazing. Thank you for the giveaway.

  157. Kay Memoli

    Your experience enables you to lend so much validity to a story – can’t wait to read Caged! and share it with the Forensic Science teachers at my school!

  158. Joanne Galasso

    Can ‘t wait to start reading this book,sounds like it may be my best new summer read!

  159. johnna smith

    a subject I never tire of hearing or reading about

  160. Barbara Bates

    Wow! You sound like a very well-rounded lady! Would love to read your book!

  161. Rebecca Boukikaz

    This is useful insight.I can see how your experience would help with the writing of realistic fiction. Caged is on my to read list.

  162. Beth Talmage

    I think #2 is so important, and it’s good to read books written by someone who is aware of that truth.

  163. Daniel M

    sounds interesting

  164. Leland Lee

    Fingers crossed

  165. Linda Cosby

    Sounds like a good book.

  166. Karen Minter

    Looking forward to reading your debut crime thriller!

  167. evieintx

    Sounds captivating to be able to include realistic details

  168. Vernon Luckert

    Looks like this would be a very interesting read!

  169. Valerie Wiesner

    This book sounds like it would be fascinating. I have always been interested in the possibility of brain differences between those of us who are criminals and those who are not.

  170. Laurent L

    Very interesting facts. Thanks for sharing.


    Thank you for sharing. I love to read both fictional and true crime books, and I am grateful that my experience ends there.


    thanks for the chance

  173. Susan Pertierra

    I’d love to read this since the author has so much experience.

  174. Deb Philippon

    Really enjoyed reading the article. I,m looking forward to reading the book. Wish me luck!

  175. Susan

    I’d love to read Caged. Sounds great!

  176. Jody Darden

    I always wondered about that antagonistic relationship between law and lawyers. Thanks for the info and the giveaway!

  177. desertraindrops

    I have always been fascinated by murder investigations, forensic science, etcetera. My favorite show as a child was Quincy M.D. Solving these terrible crimes is obviously fulfilling, and gut wrenching all at once. I admire those who work so diligently to bring about justice, and speak for the victims. I would be thrilled to win a copy of Caged!

  178. Marcia Haulsee

    I can’t wait to read it.

  179. Renee Nash

    I have read so many book reviews where the author’s research on the subject matter was so meticulous and well done that it really enhanced the reading experience. Of course, you have taken that to a whole other level. Looking forward to Caged.

  180. Jane Schwarz

    Thanks for the opportunity to win “Caged”.

  181. suekitty13

    I started out in forensic anthropology but soon realized I couldn’t deal with the families of the victims so I switched to archaeology. Now all the bodies I deal with have been dead for 2000 years! No living relatives. 🙂

  182. Gordon Bingham

    Always loved the start of an investigation. Looking forward to this book!


    looks very good

  184. Sally Winkleblech

    Good to read about what happens behind a crime scene.

  185. Nancy Bovy

    Every time I read a debut novel I go on to read all their novels in the future. This one sounds really good!

  186. cl whipple

    I think I would like this book.

  187. kk

    looks like a great read. thank you

  188. L Peters

    thanks for the chance to learn about this and the background.

  189. Rose Jones

    Such an interesting topic.

  190. Tina Jolly

    Absolutely love reading pieces from people such as yourself that have in field experience. It truly allows me to be enveloped within the story. Bravo!


    Fascinating read!!

  192. Denah Gordon

    Had to smile……i used to be a Guardian ad Litem and interviewed multiple children who, too often and sadly, had witnessed things they shouldn’t have. Was also a paralegal for almost 30 years and completely understand your outlook on the legal system.

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