CSU Study: Sociology of Cold Cases Reveals Continuing Difficulties in Relationships between Victims’ Families and Law Enforcement

A new study completed by the Center for the Study of Crime and Justice at Colorado State University reveals that families of cold-case victims suffer twice: when they lose a loved one to violent crime and again when the case goes unsolved. Researchers reveal factors about why cold cases remain cold in the new report, “Forgotten Victims: What Cold Case Families Want from Law Enforcement.”

In 2008, CSU’s Center for the Study of Crime and Justice was approached by Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons, a Colorado non-profit, to develop and carry out a study of “co-victims” – family members and friends of cold-case homicide victims. The organization advocates for families of murder victims whose killers have never been prosecuted and was looking for information that would help co-victims and law enforcement agencies understand each other better.

In Colorado, a cold case is defined as a felony crime reported to law enforcement that has remained unsolved for more than one year after the crime was reported.

In the study’s sample of co-victims, an average of 14 years had elapsed since loved ones had suspiciously disappeared or been murdered.

According to FBI statistics, the national clearance rate for homicide has dropped from 91 percent in 1963 to 61 percent in 2007. In Colorado, the number of unsolved homicides since 1970 now stands at 1,487.

With current DNA technology breakthroughs, people assume that DNA analysis solves a majority of homicide cases, but researchers say such analysis only accounts for 30 percent of the few cold cases solved.

“The popular perception is that with DNA, the solvability has increased, but it’s actually gone down,” said CSU sociology professor and director of the Center for the Study of Crime and Justice, Prabha Unnithan. “Sometimes in these old cases, the police haven’t taken DNA samples. At the time that some of these murders occurred, law enforcement didn’t anticipate the introduction of current DNA technology.”

Unnithan, who teaches and studies the sociology of violence, said that other factors influence the solvability of homicides.

“The nature of homicide has changed from what it was years ago. Previously, you had nearly 90 percent solvability and that is because in many cases you had a spouse or boyfriend, girlfriend, fiancé, somebody familiar, who after committing the murder thinks, ‘Oh my goodness, what have I done?’ Then they lift the phone and call the police,” said Unnithan. “Now you’re getting less of that. People are more mobile and the relationship between victims and murderers can be a very temporary one, if anything.”

During the course of nine months, then-CSU Professor Paul Stretesky, lead author and now criminology professor at the University of Colorado-Denver, interviewed 36 victims from 10 law enforcement jurisdictions across Colorado. Interviews revealed commonalities in the families’ experiences the families had and what they reported in terms of dealing with law enforcement and prosecutors.

One of the major findings was that a lapse of communication between co-victims and police had an effect on the resolution of the cases. A drop in communication from police was an almost universal sign to co-victims that the case was cold and therefore not likely to be solved.

“Such lapses in communication may lead to unpleasant officer-family interactions. Open lines of communication between co-victims and law enforcement can be important to case resolution, and one possible side effect of poor communication is that the flow of information from co-victims to police agencies may be compromised,” Stretesky said.

The research findings revealed that families had fewer positive interactions with police than negative and that this likely had a detrimental effect on the outcome of case investigations.

Four common themes were found among co-victims’ perceptions:

-Most of the family members interviewed believed that law enforcement had stopped actively working on their cases;

-Co-victims perceived that the victim’s race, ethnicity, age and behavior had a connection to the amount of effort put into the case. They believed that cases were not investigated as diligently if the victim had a criminal history, drug or prostitution background, or if they were victims of domestic violence;

-Police and prosecutors telling the family that they knew who murdered their loved one; they just couldn’t prove it. Most of these cases involved domestic violence; and

-Nearly every family of an unsolved cold case believed that the inactivity was due to a lack of police resources.

Based on the study’s findings, Unnithan developed recommendations for homicide detectives in order to improve interactions with co-victims with the hope of increasing solvability. These suggestions are being included in a new cold-case homicide training curriculum being developed by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation under the guidance of the statewide Cold Case Task Force. The training is proposed to be offered to investigators in Denver, Fort Collins, Grand Junction and Pueblo.

Unnithan said that co-victims in the study uniformly complained about police giving them standard jargon about investigations such as, “We’re working on it” or “There are no new leads.”

“And so what we are asking police to do is tell the families specifically why they cannot follow-up on certain issues. People just want to hear something, even if it is bad news,” said Unnithan.

In June 2009, the study’s findings and recommendations were presented in Washington, D.C. at the national conference of the National Center for Victims of Crime.