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Cold Case Homicide Investigation: How To Influence Its Direction

Jan 1, 2008
In every community someone yearns for resolve and closure of society's most heinous crime--the unlawful killing of a human being. Yet few know why many homicides remain unsolved, or how a private citizen can influence the outcome of an investigation.

The simple and unpleasant reality is that homicide detectives--nationwide--are typically overwhelmed by their caseloads. With no break from a revolving on-call schedule, a steady diet of new cases and several cases preparing for trial at any given time, big city homicide detectives simply cannot dedicate the time necessary to solve every case. The unsolved cases--even recent cases with workable information--begin collecting dust as new cases redirect their time, energy and priorities. As days, weeks and months pass, so do the good intentions of getting back to "that one murder."

That one murder may be that of your loved one.

Some cases will never be solved regardless of the effort put forth. Drug-related homicides and gang murders are among the more challenging, for various reasons: fearful, unwilling or uncooperative witnesses, diminutive evidence, unsubstantiated motive, anonymous offenders and random victims, to name a few. However, when innocent victims (law-abiding citizens, children, the elderly, etc.) become victims of homicide, a tangible suspect and motive almost always exists. The key to solving these murders is experience coupled with time and tenacity.

According to the Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation's Crime in the United States 2005 report, the national solve rate of murder and non-negligent manslaughter cases of cities exceeding 250,000 in population, was 56.5 percent. These numbers don't vary much from year to year. It is likely this statistic is elevated by the inclusion of manslaughter cases where oftentimes the offender is known by the victim. It is also fair to say the statistic would be substantially higher if not for drug- and gang-related murders.

The following excerpt is taken from an article titled The Cold Case Concept written by FBI Special Agent Charles L. Regini (posted on the FBI Website):

Only the most experienced, innovative, and persistent investigators should work cold cases because these cases, by their very nature, represent some of the most perplexing and frustrating investigations that detectives face. These are the cases that other extremely competent investigators could not solve.

I would only argue that not all unsolved homicide "could not" be solved by other competent investigators, rather many times those competent investigators had neither the time nor tenacity to solve those cases.

Another unsightly truth is many "Cold Case Squads" or "Unsolved Homicide Teams" are comprised of experienced, veteran homicide detectives who are close to retirement, tired, burned-out, experiencing health problems, or in dire need of regular hours. Special Agent Regini (in his article) speaks to just the opposite, and I applaud the FBI for their efforts to change the make-up of unsolved homicide teams. Yet the truth still widely remains: the "most experienced" homicide detectives are typically burned out.

An additional problem is simple mathematics: every large metropolitan law enforcement agency has a library of thousands of unsolved cases, and the numbers grow each day. Meanwhile, these agencies typically staff one team for unsolved cases, usually comprised of no more than half-a-dozen investigators. Few cases are actually "reinvestigated" without new evidence or persistence from the family members of the decedent.

In order to have a case reopened by an unsolved homicide team, a private citizen should start by contacting the supervisor of the appropriate investigative unit to plea their case. If not satisfied with that supervisor's response, proceed to the captain or commander of the homicide bureau or detective division. If still unsatisfied, take your case to the office of the sheriff or chief of police of that agency.

A viable alternative is hiring a private investigator experienced in homicide investigation. The investigator will gather all available reports and documentation in order to conduct a thorough review of the existing investigation. At the conclusion of his review, the investigator should have a list of unanswered questions and investigative suggestions for the client. At this point, the client may choose to revisit the responsible agency with a report of the case review to show cause that the case should be reopened, or the client may request the private investigator pursue the case to conclusion. Either way, the unsolved case is off the shelf, so to speak.

A common tactic of homicide detectives is to ask others to review the investigation with a fresh set of eyes. During my tenure as a homicide detective I approached many investigators with problem cases and had many approach me. On one particularly difficult case, I asked a defense attorney whom I trusted to read through my investigation for a completely different view of the evidence; that was quite enlightening. Having a cold case reviewed is a very powerful tool that may rejuvenate a stalled investigation. It also drives home a point that is indisputable: There is no unsolved murder that doesn't deserve another look.
About the Author
Danny R. Smith, a retired homicide detective from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, is now a private investigator located near Boise, Idaho. He is also a consultant in death investigation and available nationwide. For more about information visit: http://www.drsinvestigations.com
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