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Notes From the Field: Expanding the Cold Case Team Beyond Law Enforcement

Notes From the Field
Date Published
October 16, 2019

This is my 40th year in law enforcement. I know what skills I’ve acquired over time, but I also know what skills I need: The ability to see a case differently from the ones we’ve handled before. Over time, you develop blinders. If a wife gets killed, everyone suspects the husband. Sure, look at the husband, but look at other people, too. These types of cases must have a dual investigation.

The need to open a wider lens on suspects and leads prodded me to look outside law enforcement for people to help review cold cases. The cold case unit in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CPMD), North Carolina, was created in 2003. We have welcomed retired FBI agents, a criminal justice professor at a local college, a bank analyst, and a real estate professional as volunteers to review cold case files. Their ages and perspectives add deeper and different insights into a case file.

Since 2003, CMPD’s homicide cold case unit has reviewed 178 homicides, some dating back to the 1970s. We have cleared almost 50 cases.

I first handled cold case sexual assaults. Then, in 2010, I started working both sex assaults and homicides. There were fewer detectives working cases back then, often only one or two. If a witness said something like “Junebug knows who did it,” but the detectives had moved on to working another suspect, that lead would probably have been lost or stuck in the file and not seen again. A review of the case with fresh eyes picks up on those unexplored leads. The reviewers will spot those leads because they’re analyzing the entire file, which can involve boxes and boxes of accordion files, documents and exhibits.

Necessity Is the Mother of Volunteers

At first, I reached out beyond law enforcement by necessity. Our unit started losing people through attrition — mostly retirements. One of our volunteers was a retired engineer. He was instrumental in helping me prepare cases for review. He took all of the work off of my plate by copying the case files and logging them in and out as they were handed off to the reviewers. Although he had no experience as an officer, he was possibly the most critical piece of the cold case puzzle.

The cold case unit fluctuates between five or six members. Currently we have six reviewers, but they are not full-time. They each have other jobs. A case is pulled for review if a detective determines there is a “solvability” factor—a chance the case could be solved. Sometimes a review is prompted if the victim’s family contacts us. I give a copy of that file to the reviewer, who will spend 5-6 months reviewing the case. The reviewer then summarizes the case and prepares a document that is between 40-60 pages long.

Every month, a reviewer presents his or her review of that case to the entire team. Part of this review is a task list. What hasn’t been done? Can this person be re-interviewed about this missing piece of information? Let’s double-check the lab information.

I realized that the review team all started to think a bit alike. Law enforcement officials are like that. We have received the same training and worked on the same type of cases for decades. All reviewers and police officers were roughly the same age, in their 50s or 60s. I reached out to a real estate professional in Charlotte in her 30s. She didn’t think like any of us. She didn’t remember what it was like not to have a cell phone or pager. Her first couple of reviews were enlightening. Over the two or three years she’s reviewed files with the unit, she would ask questions about some of our procedures and question why we didn’t try other ideas. Based on some of her questions, the unit would sometimes pursue different paths in our investigations.

The participation of non-law enforcement personnel requires patience and education. Of course, non-police people have, on occasion, made suggestions based on things they’ve see on television. So at first the education seems to consist of saying, “We can’t do that. We can’t fingerprint a rock.” I recommend that all volunteers from outside the force just sit back and observe first, before asking questions.

On a side note, while we cannot fingerprint a rock, new technologies do make it possible to obtain a DNA sample from a rock.

As far as the time commitment for being a volunteer goes: One volunteer logged 2,000 hours last year. Others worked a fraction of that.

Most people who have never witnessed a murder will remember every detail for the rest of their lives. But people living in some neighborhoods in the inner city may have seen or heard about dozens of murders. They might get confused between one murder and another. Re-interviewing them can be worthwhile. The passage of time is not always a hindrance.

I’ve learned to use different techniques when interviewing people, specifically in cold cases. Instead of asking them to recount events chronologically, I ask them to go backwards, starting from the murder. People have to think harder to remember what happened just before the murder. They stop telling the story and start thinking a bit. Every time we do it, we get another piece of information.

The most recent case that we solved was a quadruple murder that occurred in late 1990s. The cold case unit’s external review was instrumental in solving that case. There was a solid suspect named from the beginning, but no evidence against him. We re-interviewed the victims’ families, and did a media blast. We received a tip naming the original suspect. After the review, our unit was re-energized. We had a new witness to the crime that substantiated our previous witness statements.

In a case solved by our cold case unit in February 2019, the suspect in the murder of a 28-year old mother was in federal custody, scheduled to be released June 18, 2020. Thanks to our work, and improvement in crime lab technology, he has now been charged with first-degree murder. After exhausting all of our leads almost to the point of giving up, our lab analyst went through every piece of evidence with us and made a suggestion that the unit had not thought about at the time of the 1991 murder. Without going into too much detail, we were trying to put our victim at the crime scene, which was the suspect’s bathroom. After reviewing all of the evidence, the analyst suggested that we get DNA standards from the suspect’s family. We were able to put the victim’s daughter’s DNA on an item associated with the victim.

I am grateful that Charlotte-Mecklenburg has a cold case unit. I don’t see how you can’t have a cold case unit if you have an unsolved case. Offenders are out there, still offending.

How to Gather Volunteer Professionals for Your Cold Case Unit

  1. First, your department should have a volunteer program in place. Many do not. There are forms to fill out, sure. There may be roadblocks and a solid vetting process. However, the benefits far exceed the work required.
  2. Go out and do a media blast stating, “We are starting this program, we’re conducting interviews.” Explain what is involved and make sure people understand the time commitment.
  3. Recognize that some people aren’t cut out for the work. Analyzing two bankers’ boxes full of raw data is time-consuming, sometimes dull, and often emotionally wrenching. The information has to be organized, or re-organized, so it reads almost like a novel. It’s a lot of work. It can take between 50 to 200 hours. One reviewer needed a whole year to get the review done. Then the reviews are digitalized, and the original case files are put back into the archives.
  4. Reach out to others who have done this, and copy them. There is no shame in copying other organizations. Don’t recreate the wheel. We all face the same problems. Ask them about their lessons learned to avoid repeating their mistakes. We are always willing to share our practices, policies and procedures.

About Notes From the Field

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is the research, development, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. NIJ aims to address the critical questions of the criminal justice field, particularly at the state and local levels.

NIJ Director David Muhlhausen developed the “Notes from the Field” series to allow leading voices in the field to share their strategies for responding to the most pressing issues on America’s streets today.

“Notes from the Field” is not a research-based publication. Instead, it presents lessons learned by law enforcement executives and other on-the-ground leaders, from years of experience and thinking deeply about law enforcement issues.

Date Published: October 16, 2019