Away from TV, Cold Case Files Go Ignored
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
In spite of all the advancement in law enforcement in recent decades, many murders still go unsolved. Commentator Stacy Horn says that right now in New York you have a 40 percent chance of getting away with murder.
It's not just New York. Statistics show that every year more than a third of the murders in America go unsolved, and that's been true for decades. It's especially dramatic in New York City, where the number of murders has dropped 70 percent. But even as the number of murders goes down, the percentage of unsolved murders has been slowly creeping up and they're going up everywhere. The police are getting better at preventing murder, but not at solving it.
It's not that they're doing a bad job. Decades of advancement in forensic science, DNA analysis, more sophisticated techniques for lifting fingerprints and analysis of fibers and other trace evidence haven't made a difference, either. What makes a murder unsolvable? It's actually painfully simple: no evidence and no witnesses or, rather, no reliable or cooperative witnesses. All you have to do to get away with murder is shoot someone. That way you don't get close and leave behind trace evidence. You should also shoot them outside; even less trace evidence for a CSI to recover. Then use a gun that has never been used in a crime before and commit your murder in the middle of the night; fewer witnesses. The police are stuck. They can't go out and ask murderers to give them a break and leave more evidence behind. `Uh, excuse me. Could you please get a little closer and stab your victim during the day with lots of people around, preferably a bunch of tourists with cameras? Much obliged.'
The one thing law enforcement can do about these unsolved murders is establish a cold case squad and, if they already have one, fully support them. The degrading clearance rates are never going to change unless police departments start getting serious about the cases that are responsible for causing them in the first place, the cases that are going cold. And yet, as fewer and fewer murders are solved and the number of cold cases increases, all around the country police departments are allowing their cold case squads to slowly disintegrate. Normally, when police departments see an increase in crime they send in the troops. But police departments not only need to send in the troops, they need to send in some of the best troops they have because these cases are, by definition, the hardest cases of all, the ones that no one else could solve.
The Department of Justice gave $14 million in grants to law enforcement agencies this year to conduct DNA analysis in cold cases. It's a start. While counterterrorism is very important and money and manpower should certainly go there, try telling the families of the 6,000-plus murder cases that will go cold this year and every year that solving their loved one's murder is not important, too.
SIEGEL: Stacy Horn is the author of the book "The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City's Cold Case Squad."