The evidence tells the story. Crime scene photos, police reports, videos, toxicology results, physical evidence, and testimony from officers and witnesses come together like pieces of a puzzle revealing a picture of the truth behind a crime—and the guilt or innocence of a suspect.
Dawn Wilson, the criminal investigator for Navajo County Public Defender's Office, is the one who pieces together the critical snippets of evidence for crimes that occur within the borders of this northeastern Arizona jurisdiction. On any given day, she may be examining photos of a victim's injuries, interviewing forgotten witnesses, reviewing DNA reports or mapping out the sequence of events that led to a crime.
On the surface, Wilson seems an unlikely person to wind up working for the defense. A former deputy sheriff and construction investigator, she spent years operating with a prosecution mindset. "To me, it was always 'guilty until proven innocent,'" she admits. A chance job opportunity in 2010 changed all that when she applied for the position of criminal investigator for the public defender's office—and got the job.
Making the switch from the prosecution to the defense wasn't easy. In fact, her early days in that role were a bit of a struggle.
"After a week on the job, I went to one of the lawyers and asked, 'How do you defend these people?'" Wilson recounts. "He said to me, 'Your job is to get the facts: what people are testifying to and the evidence against the client. Guilt or innocence is the judge's job, not ours.'" It completely shifted her mindset. "That's when I realized I could do this," she says.
Wilson says a very high percentage of the defendants she works with actually are guilty, whether through indisputable evidence or confession. But every once in a while, a truly innocent defendant comes across her radar. For Wilson, there was one such case that made her realize she was in the right job.
It was six months after she started at the public defender's office that the case came across her desk. The accused already had a lengthy rap sheet. The current charges against him included kidnapping and sexual assault. She read the police reports and researched his extensive criminal history. But after interviewing him, Wilson knew her client was innocent. She just needed to prove it.
Determined, Wilson went beyond the police reports, locating previously overlooked witnesses and digging for information that the officers and prosecutors hadn't pursued. Each witness account and piece of information she uncovered buoyed her client's claim of innocence while undermining the accuser's story. The mounting evidence Wilson gathered was so convincing that the prosecution dropped the charges just before the case was to go to trial. Had the defendant been convicted, he would have faced 14-28 years behind bars for crimes he didn't commit.
"There are so many innocent people in prison, on death row or serving a life sentence whether due to no DNA evidence or bad testimony," says Wilson. "They didn't have someone who cared enough to go in and look at the evidence and check alibis. If I can be that one person to help prove someone's innocence and keep them out of prison, then that's what I want to do."
– Dawn Wilson
Wilson is "that one person" for people charged with crimes in Navajo County. As the sole criminal investigator for the public defender's office, she works alongside five defense attorneys. At any given time, there may be 350-400 cases on their desks. Of those, Wilson's own caseload is around 20-30, and often includes thefts and drug offenses, as well as more serious crimes such as murder, child molestation and sexual assault.
Working these kinds of cases every day—especially when accompanied by sometimes graphic, disturbing evidence—isn't for the squeamish. But criminal justice has been in Wilson's blood since she was 11 years old when she declared she wanted to be a police officer. And it's been an underlying theme throughout her career path—as a police dispatcher, deputy sheriff, legal secretary, construction investigator and criminal investigator.
Her career trajectory took an interesting jump when she was laid off from her legal secretary job. The Arizona Department of Economic Security determined she was eligible for retraining through a local community college. Wilson chose to enter a paralegal program that was part of the associate in applied science degree at Northland Pioneer College in northeastern Arizona. Unfortunately, that program was cut short abruptly during her studies. The only degree she could get with her credits without starting over was an associate of general studies.
She had caught the education bug and wanted to take it a step further, but with more focus. "Criminal justice has been my career," Wilson says. "I know it, I’m comfortable with it and I don’t plan on leaving the criminal justice field." She looked into several colleges before ultimately selecting University of Phoenix. "I found that the advisors were much more personable and helpful than the other colleges," she says. "I was impressed by that and felt important to them." After transferring 58 of her 60 credits, Wilson began her undergraduate program and earned a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice/Human Services degree in 2013.
And she's not done. She's now working on her Master of Science in Administration of Justice and Security/Law Enforcement, which she anticipates receiving in Spring 2016. Wilson has two very compelling reasons for pursuing a master's. Personally, it enables her to set an example for her teenaged son about the value of education and hard work to achieve a goal. Professionally, she would like to teach in the field someday.
"I'm working in a field I've always wanted to be in. I love my job," she says. Having worked both sides of the criminal justice system, she's gained a unique perspective on her role within it: "I'm not on the side of the prosecution. I'm not on the side of the defense. I'm on the side of the truth."
For gainful employment information, including on-time completion rates, the median debt incurred by students who completed the program and other important information, please visit phoenix.edu/programs/gainful-employment.html.