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Cold-Case Investigations: An Analysis of Current Practices and Factors Associated with Successful Outcomes

NCJ Number
Date Published
January 2011
85 pages
Based on a national survey of law enforcement agencies regarding whether and how agencies conduct cold-case investigations, this report discusses the status of cold-case investigations in the United States and examines factors associated with successful cold-case investigations.
The survey findings indicate that only 20 percent of the responding agencies (total of 1,051) had a protocol for initiating cold-case investigations; 20 percent of cold-case work is funded through line items in the budget, with most funded by grants or supplemental funds; success rates for cold-case investigations are low, with approximately one in five cases cleared; one in 100 cold-case investigations resulted in conviction; agency factors associated with higher clearance rates included level of funding and access to investigative databases. Four sites were selected for a review of up to 200 case files of solved and unsolved cases that have been assigned to cold-case squads. Four key findings emerged from this case analysis. First, factors can be identified that predict whether a cold-case investigation will be successful. Second, clearing a cold case does not automatically lead to making an arrest. Third, in sexual-assault cold cases, even when a suspect DNA match had been made, approximately one-third of cases were not filed because of problems with victim cooperation, credibility, or suspects being deceased or in prison; however, cases that were prosecuted resulted in convictions with lengthy prison terms over 90 percent of the time. Details are discussed for each of the four key findings. The study recommends two topics for research: a cost-effectiveness analysis of investigator time spent on cold cases compared with new cases and an assessment of the conviction rate for cold cases that includes a determination of whether prosecutor involvement in the investigation leads to a higher conviction rate. 6 figures, 18 tables, references, and appended survey questionnaire and an example of a cold-case data abstraction form

Date Published: January 1, 2011