Open Cases: Why One-Third Of Murders In America Go Unresolved Police today are identifying fewer murder suspects than they did a generation ago. One criminologist says that may be because departments are more focused on preventing crimes than on making arrests.
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Open Cases: Why One-Third Of Murders In America Go Unresolved

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Open Cases: Why One-Third Of Murders In America Go Unresolved

Open Cases: Why One-Third Of Murders In America Go Unresolved

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A close look at crime statistics reveals a grim reality. Overall, the news is good. The nation's homicide rate has dramatically dropped in recent decades.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

But when a murder does take place, police often struggle to solve it. Across the country, 1 in 3 murder cases goes unsolved. Some communities do even worse. No one is brought to justice in two-thirds of killings or even more.

INSKEEP: An NPR analysis now sorts out which communities do better or worse. And this story begins to explore why. Here's NPR's Martin Kaste.

DELICIA TURNER: Hi, come in.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Hi. Delicia?

DELICIA TURNER: I'm Delicia.

KASTE: Nice to meet you.

DELICIA TURNER: That's my girl, Deja.

DEJA TURNER: Hi.

KASTE: Hi, how are you?

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

DEJA TURNER: Shut up, Lola.

KASTE: Delicia Turner watches a lot of true crime TV. In her home outside Boston, she keeps the big screen tuned to something called Investigation Discovery.

DELICIA TURNER: I watch this channel all the time. This is why I drive myself crazy.

KASTE: Crazy because for her, murder is a personal reality. She's lost two men in her life to homicide, first, the father of her children in 1996 and then in 2009, her husband, Anthony Glover. He was killed in Boston along with a friend who was, as she puts it, into some bad stuff. The police never ID'd their killer.

DELICIA TURNER: It's like the boogeyman. You don't know if you're walking next to the person, if you seen the person, if the person sees you, if the person knows you. That's the worst part about it.

KASTE: So she watches crime TV. She's hoping that she'll see something that could be applied to her husband's case. She calls in her ideas to the detectives in Boston, and she says they tell her to stop being a TV cop. She thinks they're getting tired of her calls.

DELICIA TURNER: Ms. Turner, you know, we are working on this. We're working the case. Unfortunately, we have no suspects. We are looking into it. You can best believe we're putting our best effort forward. You know, to me, I think that the police just give up.

KASTE: There are a lot of Delicia Turners out there. When police talk about solving murders, they refer to the clearance rate. That's the percentage of cases in which they arrest someone or otherwise identify a culprit. Fifty years ago, the national clearance rate was 90 percent. Now it's in the 60s. But it's not the national rates that interest Charles Wellford.

CHARLES WELLFORD: Those rates are made up of thousands of agencies. And if you look at those agencies, you find quite a bit of variation.

KASTE: Wellford is a criminologist who's been studying clearance rates for years. If we want to understand what's really going on, he says we need to compare the track records of individual police departments.

WELLFORD: Some agencies have declined tremendously. Others have declined a little. And there are some agencies that, throughout this 30- or 40-year period, have remained at very high levels of homicide clearance.

KASTE: But the government doesn't make it easy to compare those local rates. The FBI publishes clearance numbers by region, but not city by city. You have to make a special request for those. So NPR did, and now you can find them on our website. When you dip into the clearance data, you find perplexing differences between cities. You may think that's just a matter of the richer, safer cities doing a good job, but it's not that simple. There are some places that are doing a great job solving murders despite poverty and drug crimes, places like Richmond, Va.

MARK WILLIAMS: The chances of you getting caught doing a murder now are a whole lot greater than it was 10 years ago, in my opinion.

KASTE: Mark Williams is a veteran detective in Richmond. He says there was a time when their rate was bad. Twelve years ago, investigators there were just overwhelmed.

WILLIAMS: Some of them guys are getting five and six homicides a week. Basically, you were doing assembly line homicides. If there was something there that you could do to use to get an arrest, you stayed on it. But if it was nothing there, you moved on to the next case. So what was happening? People were getting away with murders.

KASTE: So Richmond took stock of the situation, and it refocused itself on solving homicides. It reduced detectives' caseloads, and it did more to take care of witnesses. To encourage their cooperation, the police there now pay for things like food, cell phones, even rent.

WILLIAMS: We move you. We relocate you. There are people out there that want to cooperate, but you got to take care of them.

KASTE: Now Richmond has years when the clearance rate is above 90 percent. Criminologist Charles Wellford says the lesson here is that to clear homicides, a city has to make it a priority.

WELLFORD: If you apply the right kind of resources and the right level of effort, you could clear every homicide that's known to police.

KASTE: Maybe. But resources are finite, and the fact is for the past few decades, the police have been pushed toward different priorities - broken windows, safe streets, stop and frisk. The emphasis nowadays is on preventing crime, not so much solving it. And also, when you talk to police about the low clearance rates, they say something else. They say the real factor for them is how little cooperation they're getting from the public.

VERNON GEBERTH: I don't like what I see. The trend is not good.

KASTE: Vernon Geberth is retired NYPD, and he wrote the manual on homicide investigations. He says new technology like DNA analysis has helped, but it doesn't replace the need for witnesses.

GEBERTH: If there is a distrust of the police themselves and the system, all of these scientific advances are not going to help us.

KASTE: Police complain a lot about the reluctance of witnesses. And it's a complaint that gets sympathy, even from Delicia Turner. Even though she spent the last five years wondering why the police don't solve her husband's murder, she says she also knows full well that detectives often get stonewalled.

DELICIA TURNER: Because we did it.

KASTE: She says her family once hid things from the police on another case, and now she's seeing people clamming up about her husband.

DELICIA TURNER: I am not going to just put the blame on the police because they can't squeeze the information out of them. They can't see. You know, if you don't tell, they don't know. But then, the first thing everybody wants to yell is what the police is not doing.

KASTE: So which is it? Are murder clearance rates down because of the no snitch culture, or are they down because solving murders has become less of a priority? Criminologist Charles Wellford says maybe those two things are connected. He says you have to think about the fact that since the 1960s, there have been more than 200,000 unsolved murders.

WELLFORD: Those homicides tend to occur in poor communities, minority communities. What is the impact of an unsolved homicide when those unsolved homicides are primarily in the very communities we're trying to build stronger relationships with law enforcement?

KASTE: In other words, what happens when people in high-crime areas start to think that their murders aren't being solved? Wellford wonders whether that's been eroding the trust between the public and police, the very trust the detectives rely on to be able to solve their next murder. Martin Kaste, NPR News.

INSKEEP: As Martin mentioned, we built a tool at npr.org that allows you to look at your police department's record for solving homicides and other crimes. I've been using that tool to look at Detroit where the clearance rate is not good.

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