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Source Files for Older Cases: Luck or Skill?

Source Files for Older Cases: Luck or Skill?

Katherine Coate

Finding accurate source files is an integral part of coding cases because it is how we find the information to correctly fill in variables. Some cases, especially more well-known cases, are easy to find, but others, especially older cases, take a lot of digging and sometimes a little bit of luck. At the end of the Spring 2020 semester in the tPP class, we had to do a final project. The project requirements were relatively broad – we just had to do anything that furthers tPP in a significant way. My partner and I decided to scrape a document from the ADL called “Terrorist Conspiracies, Plots and Attacks by Right-wing Extremists, 1995-2015.” I scraped the cases from 1995 until 2004, and my partner scraped the cases from 2005 to 2015. We created case starters from the cases that were not already included in the database, which requires finding three source documents for each case. According to the tPP manual, our goal with source files is “to utilize primary sources whenever available, and use secondary sources for verification and explanation,” but this can be tricky with cases from the 1990s where there are very little primary resources available online. The most obvious place to find primary sources is PACER, which stores federal cases online and has been discussed in the blog before, but unfortunately there are very few cases prior to 2003. Occasionally, I will get lucky with some of the state court records and find older cases on individual court websites, but this is also very hit or miss. Finding good source files for older cases is something coders learn to get better at over time, but at the end of the day, there will always be some luck involved with what is available to us. 

An example of an older case that I ended up being able to find a good amount of source files for is Darwin Michael Gray. Gray was arrested in 1995 as part of an “FBI investigation that uncovered an alleged plot by Gray to use a fertilizer bomb to destroy the federal courthouse in Spokane, Washington” (“F.B.I reveals…,” 1995). For Gray, I was able to find a New York Times news article from the time of the arrest. The New York Times is a trustworthy source and allows its readers to see original articles with its TimesMachine Viewer. This has been a very helpful source in finding old cases because it gives background on cases from when they were happening instead of just getting short summaries from years later.

An example of a case that I struggled to find source files for is Louis Elward DeBroux, an anti-government extremist who was arrested for plotting to kill a Rockdale County judge who ruled against him in a 1984 traffic case. Unfortunately for this case, I had to rely on short summaries from more recent books and reports. I was unable to find any news sources or original documents from the time.  Short summaries like these include the facts of the case, but often do not include all of the information that allows us to code trickier variables such as “ideological affiliation” and “ideological target.”  Having original documents and news articles from the time of the incident can make the coders job much easier; however, these recent sources often make it possible to find the information we need. 

Finding trustworthy sources for older cases is a long and sometimes very frustrating process.  However, finding a reliable source that gives you all the information you need can be very rewarding. There are some tools that can be used to find documents more easily, such as Advanced Search Operators on Google, which can help narrow down search results, as well as databases the Miami Library provides access to, such as EbscoHost. There also needs to be a healthy amount of doubt with anything found on the internet, especially with information about events that happened over 20 years ago. In his book, Internet Searches for Vetting, Investigations and Open-Source Intelligence, Edward J. Appel confirms this by writing, “All inquiries seek certainty, but all collectors must admit that a certain degree of doubt is healthy, even for cases where convincing evidence is found. In the end, the people entrusted to investigate must seek the truth, but the process should always include verification whenever it is available” (Appel, 2011). Finding source files for cases, especially before the 2000s, will always be a tricky process, and finding a source will always be satisfying, but every coder should have a healthy amount of doubt with every source so that we can try to get the best information possible.  There is definitely a skill learned in finding reliable sources from the 1990s for tPP, but there will also always be some luck involved in what has been made available online. 


Appel, Edward J. Internet Searches for Vetting, Investigations, and Open-Source Intelligence. (2011). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press/Taylor & Francis. 

F.B.I. Reveals A Man’s Plan To Blow Up A Courthouse. (July 4, 1995). The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/1995/07/04/us/fbi-reveals-a-man-s-plan-to-blow-up-a-courthouse.html 

Terrorist Conspiracies, Plots, and Attacks by Right-wing Extremists, 1995-2015. (March 25, 2015). ADL, 03/25/2015. https://www.adl.org/news/article/terrorist-conspiracies-and-attacks-by-right-wing-extremists-1995-2015

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