Prosecutors at crime scenes? Officials explain why it happens often

Wednesday morning Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser was in Lawrenceburg Ind., while dive and rescue teams inspected the possible location of a 6-year-old boy’s body allegedly thrown in the Ohio river by his mother and her boyfriend.

He is likely to be at the scene again if dive teams have a promising target. That caused multiple readers to ask recently why prosecutors are at crime scenes along with investigators.

Gmoser and Assistant Prosecutor Kelly Heile, who was also at the river, are trying the cases of Brittany Gosney, 29, and James Hamilton, 42, who are facing 31 combined charges alleging crimes against all three of Gosney’s children. They are accused in the death and disposal of 6-year-old James Hutchinson late last month.

The charges include murder, involuntary manslaughter, gross abuse of a corpse and endangering children for Gosney and kidnapping, gross abuse of a corpse, kidnapping and endangering children for Hamilton.

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Hutchinson, a Rosa Parks first-grader, was allegedly run over and killed Feb. 26 by Gosney at Rush Run Wild Life Area in Preble County as he clung to her minivan when she attempted to abandon him and his two siblings. The boy’s body was later dumped in the Ohio River, according to police.

The boy’s body was not recovered and continued searches are possible, weather and water level permitting.

It is not unusual for top prosecutors to be at crime scenes right along with investigators and happens more often than you might think, according to area officials.

“Five minutes on the scene is more valuable that a thousand photographs,” said Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell.

He and assistants in his office routinely visit serious crime scenes, including those involved in homicides.

“It’s critical for prosecutors to be at crime scenes. Ultimately, the prosecutor is the one who has to understand and evaluate all evidence so they can clearly and concisely present it to the jury,” Fornshell said.

“When you are on the scene, you are able to understand the layout, spatial orientation and also offer insight on matters that you anticipate may be raised by the defense at trial. That cannot be done if you never visit the scene, nor can much of it be done after the scene is cleared.”

Gmoser said he routinely began visiting crime scenes as an assistant county prosecutor in the 1970s and ’80s under Butler County Prosecutor John Holcomb.

Credit: Greg Lynch

Credit: Greg Lynch

“It was standard procedure then to make sure the scene was protected for the purposes of future litigation,” Gmoser said.

As photo and video technology has advanced, so has the frequency of crime scene visits. But, not in most homicide cases, Gmoser said.

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“In a case like the Hutchinson matter ... we had forensic coroner from Indiana standing by, coroner from Boone County standing by and having received a report of a target of interest,” he said. “I thought it was important I be there if a body were recovered so protocol was followed and preservation was followed so that I didn’t have a problem with evidence down the road.

“There’s noting like a first-hand experience, since the prosecutor is the one who is ultimately going to be prosecuting the case. The down side is a prosecutor has to be very cautious not to become a witness in a case. We are outside the evidence field, but we are making sure that the matters that are reported to us are properly cataloged, identified and protected.”

Montgomery County Prosecutor Mat Heck Jr. said he and his assistants have visited a lot of crime scenes over the years either right after the commission of the offense or preparation for trial.

“It didn’t surprise me at all to hear the Mike Gmoser went to the scene , because it’s an import case for his community and it was certainly significant if they could find the body. He is a seasoned, experienced prosecutor who knows the importance of seeing the scene,” Heck said.

“It is important. We do it for a couple of reasons. For our own purposes to see exactly what happened at the time and also to assist, if we can, the investigators if they have any legal questions.”

When prosecutors step into the courtroom to try the case before a jury they realize, “there is no better vantage point than seeing it for yourself” Heck said.

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