Investigating deaths does not just rest on the shoulders of homicide units.
The Specialized Collision Reconstruction Team, a division of the Georgia State Patrol, is charged with investigating motor-vehicle accidents, specifically fatal wrecks with a probability of a driver facing criminal prosecution.
Last year, SCRT opened up 311 cases across the state, 270 of which were fatalities.
“Our primary criteria is prosecutable fatalities, but we do get called in to assist field troopers in those crashes where they need specialized assistance,” said Capt. Tharon Dukes, head of the SCRT unit for the state.
The SCRT unit has five teams, made up of six troopers each, throughout the state.
The Gainesville team covers “basically all of Northeast Georgia,” 26 counties from the North Carolina border all the way to Augusta.
Other teams are stationed in Calhoun, Forsyth, Reidsville and Valdosta.
Their job is to investigate fatal crash sites, collecting information that can be used in a court of law.
In short, they’re crash detectives.
“In essence, we’re bringing that crash scene into a court of law so we can show a judge and a jury what took place out there,” said Dukes.
The SCRT unit is called out to a crash site when the trooper working the scene believes there could be potential charges, if the crash is fatal.
Once on scene, the team begins to document any piece of evidence, from skid marks to debris to gouge marks in the road.
They photograph the evidence and mark tire tracks and other key pieces of information with paint or pin flags.
That initial documentation is done immediately after the crash.
“The evidence is short-lived,” said Dukes. “That’s our priority. We get on the scene and document that evidence, and once the scene is taken care of and we get the roadways opened up, we come back at a later time and actually map all that evidence that was documented on the day of the collision.”
To “map” the evidence, investigators use the same equipment surveyors use to create a scale diagram, or “forensic map” of the scene.
That map shows every piece of information collected at the site and provides a visual idea of what happened in the accident.
Investigators are also charged with getting toxicology reports of drivers and speaking with witnesses.
Their report, which can be upwards of 1,000 pages, can include medical reports, possible mechanical malfunctions, computer reports from the car, speed analysis, witness statements and everything in between.
From start to finish, the report takes, on average, about four months.
“I’m not going to say it’s ironclad, but we can answer just about any question anybody may have concerning a crash,” said Dukes. “If we can’t answer it, we can probably tell you why we can’t answer it because the information just wasn’t there.”
So far this year, the SCRT unit has opened up 102 new cases, 16 of which have been out of the Gainesville office.
“For the last three years, this team (in Gainesville) has opened up 177 investigations, not counting the 16 they’ve opened so far this year,” said Dukes.
Prior to November of last year, the Gainesville office was running one investigator short and was having trouble keeping up with the case load.
They’re running at full capacity now and have caught up, but still, Dukes says, the No. 1 complaint the department gets, statewide, is the length of time it takes to complete a case.
“One of the biggest challenges we face is the sheer volume of cases we have,” said Dukes. “We cover a vast area and we only have few people available to do this.”
The public perception, he says, can sometimes be skewed because of the way investigations are portrayed on television.
“(The public) see(s) all this miraculous technology used to solve the crime and they see it done in 30 minutes,” said Dukes. “To some degree there is a lot of technology out there that we use, but it’s not the dream stuff that you see on TV. And, unfortunately, it does take us a lot longer to do what we do. But I think our work product at the end proves what we do.”
Cases are done in the order they come in, unless the team receives special instruction from the district attorney.
The length of time, however, is something Dukes sees as necessary to develop all the details of the case.
He said out of the 109 cases that were prosecuted last year, 96 percent of those ended in conviction. Out of those, 84 were guilty pleas.
“I would much rather take longer and be successful than to rush through and have it fall through the cracks,” said Dukes.
And knowing their investigating could help provide some closure for a family is why the team says they do their job.
“I know when I go out there, my ultimate goal is to try and make sure justice is served for the families of the victims involved,” said Dukes. “To try and somehow give them some kind of closure or at least some kind of explanation as to why they’ve lost a family member.” Some families have stayed in contact with the troopers that worked their case.
“I have several families that I’ve worked cases for since 2005 that I’m still in contact with,” said Sgt. James Robillard, Gainesville post. “I’ll get an email on the anniversary: ‘Thanks for your effort.’”
That response and that sense of fulfillment keeps the investigators working long hours.
“When you’re sitting there working these cases, especially when you’re reviewing the photographs, you see the victim and you know that victim has a wife, daughter, son, mother, what have you, and I know they can’t speak for themselves so I have to,” said Dukes. “And that’s what motivates me.”