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Back to Archives | Back to September 2009 Contents 

Helping Local Police Departments Solve Cold Cases

Chuck Heurich, Program Manager, Investigative and Forensic Sciences Division, National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.


Cecilia Crouse doesn’t mince words. “We’re putting the criminals on notice,” said the chief of Palm Beach County, Florida, crime laboratory. “Just because you committed the crime 10, 20 years ago doesn’t mean you got away with it.” Dr. Crouse is one of many law enforcement professionals in laboratories and police departments around the country who are solving old, seemingly intractable cases with help from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ).



Editor’s Note: It is the editorial policy of the Police Chief magazine to limit the use of the term cold case(s) when referring to open-unsolved investigations. This phrase describes the situation that police officers have used when referring to a case without any active investigative direction over a lengthy period of time. Recently, it has been made popular by the entertainment industry and the news media, and it is now being used in professional literature. This term does not reflect the views of victims; their families, friends, and neighbors; and the police officers who have investigated these cases. They have not forgotten the victims and crimes committed, and law enforcement agencies seek to solve all cases.

very day across the United States, investigations slow or stop, causing cases to go unsolved. Many police agencies lack the manpower, equipment, and funding to support units dedicated to investigating and analyzing older, unsolved cases without additional leads, evidence, or witnesses. As police departments’ active cases became backlogged, those cases lacking “solvability factors”1 do not receive significant follow-up investigation.

However, continuing advances in DNA technology mean that biological evidence from a crime scene that might not have yielded conclusive results a few years—or decades—ago may now be successfully analyzed using newer techniques. Police departments are now using various forensic techniques to take a new look at their older, unsolved cases.


NIJ Gets Science to the Field

NIJ’s Solving Cold Cases with DNA program is dedicated to getting that science to the field and to making communities safer by solving cold cases, taking perpetrators off the streets, and preempting future crimes. Since 2005, NIJ has awarded almost $50 million to state and local police agencies to identify and reinvestigate those older, unsolved rape and homicide cases that can be solved with modern DNA technology. Many departments have carefully preserved this physical evidence, and it is now available for DNA analysis.2 NIJ funds have been used for personnel, including overtime; equipment and supplies (both investigative and laboratory); travel related to investigations; training; and, when necessary, outsourcing samples to private DNA laboratories.

Many agencies that have sought NIJ funding are looking to establish a dedicated unsolved case unit or, in some cases, keep an existing unit in operation.


Why a Dedicated Unit for Older Cases?

Detectives take different investigative steps during an older case investigation than the ones they take investigating a newly committed crime; this is one reason having a dedicated older cases unit in a police department has proven so effective.

“It is vital that personnel assigned to handle cold case investigations be solely dedicated to that function,” said Detective Tim Marcia, a 23-year police veteran now with the Cold Case Special Section in the Los Angeles, California, Police Department (LAPD). Marcia said that detectives who work only older, unsolved cases create momentum as the investigation continues. “If they are pulled away to handle other crimes, this momentum is lost, and the chances of a successful resolution can be greatly affected,” he said.3

NIJ’s cold case training has echoed that theme time and time again.4 At a recent training session in San Diego, California, Janis McCall urged agencies to recognize the importance of dedicated cold case units. McCall is the cofounder of One Missing Link, a not-for-profit group that works to reunite missing persons with their families. “Borrowing officers from other units,” she said, “does not give cases the attention they need and, in some cases, creates shortages in other investigations.”5

In 1992, McCall’s daughter Stacy disappeared in Missouri along with two other women, Susie Streeter and Sherill Levitt. When asked at the NIJ cold case training what her greatest fear is, McCall said she has two: “That we will find Stacy or her remains, and that we won't find Stacy or her remains.”

Stacy, Susie, and Sherill have yet to be heard from or found.


NIJ Funding Helps Now

Sergeant William Springer of the Palm Beach County, Florida, Sheriff’s Office knows the value of a dedicated cold case unit. “A lot of cases are solvable, but it is difficult to solve cold cases if you are investigating active ones,” he said.6

Springer was the lead investigator in the case of five-year-old Kizzy Brooms, who was raped and murdered in 1985. Eleven years later DNA evidence from a cigarette linked someone to Kizzy’s murder, but the suspect was released because of evidence contamination.

Then, in 2007, after another 11 years had passed, the case was reopened; with the help of money from an NIJ grant, investigators tested three hairs found on Kizzy’s clothing and chest. The resulting DNA profile matched that of the suspect who had been arrested and released years earlier

Although it took 22 years—and the suspect was deceased—Kizzy’s mother finally has the resolution she deserves.


Which Cases to Choose?

There is no shortage of unsolved violent crime in the United States. The Palm Beach County, Florida, Sheriff’s Office, for example, has identified nearly 250 cold cases for review. LAPD has identified approximately 11,000 unsolved murders that were committed between 1960 and 2003.

With so many cases that could be reinvestigated, how does an agency determine which ones to pursue?

Experts who have been involved in NIJ’s cold case training programs say that checklists help set priorities. Points are assigned to factors such as statute of limitations, availability of witnesses and victims, and whether any evidence exists; cases with high point totals are considered to have a high solvability rating and are reopened.

The checklist used by the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department, for example, is divided into three categories—evidence, witnesses, and suspects. Within each category are factors that are assigned a point value. For example, evidence factors include whether the murder weapon and fingerprints were recovered and whether DNA analysis was requested.

Although each cold case unit follows its own processes when selecting a case for reinvestigation, most prioritize by solvability. Cases that rank high on the solvability scale include the following:

  • Those not prosecuted because suspects or witnesses could not be located or were uncooperative during the original investigation

  • Those that lacked sufficient evidence for prosecution but might now reveal compelling evidence if new DNA techniques were used

  • Those with latent print evidence that can be submitted to fingerprint databases or ballistic evidence that can be submitted to ballistic databases

  • Those that have probative DNA profiles that can be submitted to the Combined Offender DNA Index System (CODIS)

Last spring, LAPD detectives, supported by NIJ funding, identified a series of unsolved, sexually motivated murders of elderly women. DNA analysis of biological evidence in two of the cases yielded male DNA profiles, which were uploaded into CODIS and produced a match to a convicted offender. In April 2009, the suspect was charged with two murders, one in 1972 and one in 1976. Authorities believe that the suspect may be linked to as many as 30 murders, which, say authorities, would make him the most prolific serial killer in Los Angeles history.


Image of a DNA Forensics Laboratory Technician working
Continuing advances in DNA technology mean older case
samples may now be successfully analyzed.
Photo courtesy of Investigative and Forensic Sciences
Division, NIJ

In 2007, NIJ funded the RAND Corporation to identify key factors to a successful cold case unit. In addition to conducting a national survey of police and sheriffs’ departments to determine what policies and procedures are most effective in solving cold cases, RAND is also looking at four jurisdictions in particular. Results of the study—expected by the end of 2009—will help NIJ produce an evidence-based model program for cold case units.

The goal of NIJ’s cold case program is to make communities safer by solving cold cases, taking perpetrators off the streets, and preempting future crimes—and the evidence is coming in that this, indeed, is working. For more on NIJ’s cold case training, see www.dna.gov/training. ■

Notes:

1See Bernard L. Garmire, editor, Local Government Police Management (Washington, D.C.: International City Management Association, 1982), 165. In the late 1980s and early 1990s police departments adopted what was described as the Rochester, New York, model to managing criminal investigations. Rochester had analyzed 500 criminal cases to determine what factors had led to their solutions. From this analysis, 12 factors were identified, one or more of which was presented in every case cleared through investigation. These solvability factors were (1) the suspect could be named; (2) the suspect could be identified; (3) the address of the suspect was known; (4) the suspect could be located; (5) the vehicle plate number used in the crime was known; (6) the vehicle could be identified; (7) there was traceable property; (8) there were identifiable latent fingerprints; (9) a significant modus operandi could be developed; (10) it was reasonable to suspect that there was a limited opportunity to commit the crime; (11) there was reason to believe that the crime would arouse such public interest that public assistance would lead to crime solution; and (12) there were reasons to believe that further investigative effort would lead to solving the crime.
2Raymond J. Prime and Jonathan Newman, “The Impact of DNA on Policing: Past, Present, and Future,” Police Chief 74 (November 2007): 30-35.
3Tim Marcia, personal communications, May 16, 2009.
4See Beth Schuster, “Cold Cases: Strategies Explored at NIJ Regional Trainings,” NIJ Journal 260 (July 2008), www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij/journals/260/cold-case-strategies.htm (accessed July 21, 2009).
5Janis McCall, personal communications, May 12, 2009.
6William Springer, personal communications, May 12, 2009.


Resources for Police: Forensic Science Tools

How can people involved in the criminal justice process understand science better? The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is producing tools to help ensure that science—from DNA to fingerprints, and eyewitness evidence to digital evidence—is clearly presented and reliable. Here is just a sample of free tools.

  • Investigative Uses of Technology: Devices, Tools, and Techniques (www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/213030.pdf). Designed primarily for detectives and forensic examiners, this special report contains a chapter on using data from cell phones, computers, caller ID, credit card instruments, pagers, voice recorders, GPS devices, and more. It also features notes on search and seizure, privacy, and other constitutional issues.
  • Investigations Involving the Internet and Computer Networks (www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/210798.pdf). This special report is a resource for all practitioners—investigators, first responders, detectives, and prosecutors—who want to learn more about technology-related crimes and investigative tools and techniques.
  • Digital Evidence in the Courtroom: A Guide for Law Enforcement and Prosecutors (www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/211314.pdf). Criminals use computers to steal information, commit fraud, and stalk victims online. This special report (with accompanying training materials and mock trial video) discusses the legal requirements for handling digital evidence and guidelines for a successful prosecution, including a case study using this kind of evidence in a child pornography prosecution.
  • Online training at www.dna.gov

    • What Every Law Enforcement Officer Should Know About DNA Evidence—Issues surrounding DNA evidence and its collection at http://dna.gov/training/letraining/

    • Principles of Forensic DNA for Officers of the Court—An interactive program on handling forensic DNA cases at http://dna.gov/training/otc/

    • DNA: A Prosecutor’s Practice Notebook—A wide spectrum of topics relating to the science of DNA and its legal application in the courtroom at http://dna.gov/training/prosecutors-notebook/

    • Forensic DNA Analysts Training Courses—Practical skills for laboratory scientists in multimedia, self-paced modules, including lab exercises


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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVI, no. 9, September 2009. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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