Prisons Gamble On Cold Case Playing Cards

There are thousands of cold cases in the Washington, D.C., criminal files, including homicides, violent robberies and missing persons. In an effort to solve some of them, D.C. has turned to playing cards. Jail inmates have been given decks of cards featuring the photos and information about crime victims with the hopes of sparking a lead. Host Scott Simon talks with Devon Brown, director of the Washington, D.C., Department of Corrections, about his department's distribution of the playing cards.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

There are thousands of cold cases in the Washington, D.C. criminal files -homicides, violent robberies, missing persons. In an effort to solve some of them, D.C. has turned to playing cards. Jail inmates have been given decks of cards featuring the photos and information about crime victims with the hopes of sparking a lead. Devon Brown is the director of the D.C. Department of Corrections.

Mr. Brown, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. DEVON BROWN (D.C. Department of Corrections): It's my pleasure.

SIMON: And would you hope might happen as some inmates play cards?

Mr. BROWN: We firmly believe that the best individuals who really know about crime are those who have committed them and that within their circles they come across or know where to find out information that could be of assistance in solving these cases.

SIMON: Do you have a - maybe give us a for instance? Do you've a deck in front of you?

Mr. BROWN: I do. This is a typical deck of cards, but it has the caption unsolved homicides - up to $25,000 in reward. And it gives a description of the particular case with the victim's photograph.

SIMON: And your hope is that among the inmates there might be somebody who knows something?

Mr. BROWN: Absolutely.

SIMON: Do they have any motive to cooperate?

Mr. BROWN: Well, there's always the monetary motive. A reward is offered, but in addition to that I believe that the photographs of the individuals, the victims, will put a face on these cases. It's one thing to read about them, but to actually see these victims I think serves as the motivation as well.

SIMON: Can you tell us if any leads have panned out so far?

Mr. BROWN: We do know that the police department has received several calls that have been a product of these cards. Now, whether or not those calls actually led to arrest, I do not know that.

SIMON: And are several other states using this system too, these playing cards?

Mr. BROWN: Yes, the state of Florida has been very, very successful in the utilization of these cards to assist their law enforcement.

SIMON: Is there one case in particular that kind of nags at you every now and then, Mr. Brown?

Mr. BROWN: Well, there is. All of these cases are heart-wrenching cases. But one in particular, of a Jennifer Zolk(ph) - and I'll just read...

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. BROWN: ..the caption here. She was 19 years old, in the prime of her life. On Friday May 23rd, 1998, her body was found in the parking garage of 930 Elm Street Northwest. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: May 23, 1998 was a Saturday.]

SIMON: And nothing has ever turned up.

Mr. BROWN: Nothing whatsoever. But each of the cases tell a very, very traumatic story.

SIMON: Mr. Brown, thank you so much.

Mr. BROWN: It's been my pleasure.

SIMON: Devon Brown, director of the D.C. Department of Corrections. And this is NPR News.

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Correction Dec. 21, 2009

Our guest incorrectly referred to May 23, 1998, as a Friday. In 1998, May 23 fell on a Saturday.

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