Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Anatomy of a Cold Case Murder

by Donna Pendergast

The subject of
cold case squads is a hot topic in the criminal justice world. With the popularity of television shows such as Cold Case and other shows of that ilk, the emphasis on solving old cases has taken on new importance in police departments across the country.

Many obstacles hamper
homicide cases in the early stages of an investigation. Overworked investigators often have sparse resources, nonexistent support staff and never-ending case loads. This frequently results in circumstances where investigators are forced to move on to another case if a crime is not solved quickly.

Conventional wisdom has always been that the
first 48 hours after a crime is the most critical period and that the likelihood of solving a case drops dramatically after 72 hours. While undoubtedly that statement remains true, cold case squads across the county are learning that the passage of time can sometimes benefit their investigations as well.

Cold case units attempt to breathe new life into old cases using all the
technology and resources currently available. Cold case units scrutinize their cases, going over each one with a fine-tooth comb in an effort to determine if something was overlooked or if circumstances have changed.

Investigators in a cold case unit are usually relieved of other investigative duties so that they are freed up to pursue leads that have long laid dormant. Fundamental to the success of a cold case unit is investigators who have the ability to give the case the intense sort of scrutiny which is only possible when they are freed up from the rigors of running from case to case.

Over the course of my career I've worked with several different types of cold case units. The type of cold case squad operating in any specific jurisdiction varies based on need and available resources. Cold case units can take a number of forms from a single investigator who investigates a single case to dedicated teams who do nothing but look at a number of older cases from start to finish. I've also worked with a dedicated task force team who did nothing but focus on a
single case for nearly for two and a half years. The efforts of that team resulted in the murder convictions of six individuals after nearly three decades.

The teams that I have worked with as well as other cold case teams from across the country have found that while the passage of time usually hurts an investigation in some cases it can be be to their advantage. As a case sits dormant on a shelf a number of things can happen. Relationships, friendships, and alliances can change and formerly uncooperative witnesses may become more willing to speak or provide information that they have not provided in the past.

On the other side of the equation the passage of time allows for perpetrators to become cocky or complacent. After a period of time perpetrators may, and often do, speak or brag about their crimes confident that they have gotten away with their misdeeds. Booze and drugs can fuel statements about a perpetrator's past criminal activity.

Other factors can change with the passage of time as well. Witnesses may have matured or may now need help with the criminal justice system making them more approachable and more likely to speak to investigators. Advances in technology and changes in the law can also benefit investigators working on cold case squads.

But all the time and technology in the world won't solve a cold case without the right personnel behind it. This isn't a squad for rookies. In most jurisdictions only the most talented and experienced investigators and prosecutors work cold cases.

Investigators need experience on the streets.They need to know how to locate witnesses and then gain their trust. They also have to understand the nuances of difficult litigation and be prepared to overcome the practical difficulties of bringing a case to trial.

Prosecutors need to be involved with the investigations from the start of the investigation and have the opportunity to attempt to flesh out areas of potential jury concern. They need to understand that the age of the case alone is going to subject the case to more rigorous scrutiny than a current case. Prosecutors need to interact with, direct, and scrutinize the investigations to make sure that potential jury questions and considerations are addressed as well as is possible. Prosecutors also need to be very experienced, trial savvy, and prepared to try the most difficult of cases.

The reality of a cold case squad is not nearly as glamorous as what people watch on TV, and unlike TV, these cases are not solved in an hour. However, cold case squads across the country are proving every day that what might have once appeared to be the perfect crime can now be successfully investigated and prosecuted as well. For that we all can be grateful.

Statements made in this post are my own and are not intended to reflect the views, opinions, or position of the Michigan Attorney General or the Michigan Department of Attorney General.


Anonymous said...

Interesting article. What is the success rate of a typical squad?

Unknown said...

I am researching a cold murder case, but one where there is strong resistance to finding the answers. You have to be lucky enough to get the involvement of investigators who are committed to the truth. In the case I am researching, even the media shuts down when the victim's name is mentioned. Documents in the case have surfaced that strongly indicate there is a cover up in the case. Any suggestions getting to the right people, or media that will hold authorities accountable?

Anonymous said...

your comment is so obcious that i can understand, ha it is just a joke. to be honest, you are a phylosphy.

Anita Valentin said...

I am a broadcast/journalism student interested in dedicating some of my time to researching a cold case murder investigation- My question is where do I start? Do I contact the local cold case squad in my area?