It’s been called a cold case backlog, and it’s a staggering problem. Hundreds of thousands of unsolved homicides in the United States, with little hope of ever being solved. In fact, data shows that there has been “a steady decline in clearance rates since the 1980’s, when police cleared about 70% of all homicides, a decline that experts say was exacerbated by the pandemic.” For example, clearance rates fluctuated between 2017 and 2019 in New York State from 13% to above 60% depending on the region.
With the right tools and resources, I believe we can assist law enforcement to clear this backlog and give closure to those who need it most.
Taking a more open-source crowdsourcing approach to solving cold cases, leveraging new technologies and the collective genius of experts from all walks of life may just be the progressive approach that’s needed.
I have a mantra regarding Cold Cases: Every tool in every case, every time! With the advancement in forensic testing as well as Phenotyping and ancestral linkage there’s no excuse in not employing these tools to cases. The killer’s name is most likely in the case file already and the family can be beneficial in painting a picture of the victim’s life at the time of the crime better than anyone. Having family members, new technology and fresh eyes can’t be denied as a proven avenue to solving cold cases! Sheryl “Mac” McCollum, CSI Atlanta and Director of the Cold Case Investigative Research Institute (CCIRI).
The murder of JonBenet Ramsey is just one example of why an open-source approach is needed. This case has gone unsolved for decades and the family is asking law enforcement to retest evidence with new DNA technology in hopes of finding the killer. All these years later, they are fighting to get another set of eyes on the case file and have an active petition calling for Gov. Jared Polis to allow an outside agency to review the case.
John Andrew Ramsey, half-brother to JonBenet Ramsey when asked if he would endorse a more open-source approach to solving cold cases stated:
“To be clear, my preference to work a cold case homicide is a room full of well-trained and passionate detectives, however, the reality of the situation is our police departments are saddled with an enormous workload coupled with an increase in violent crime. The current local police department is responsible for a wide-ranging list of issues from traffic safety to tactical responses and the occasional cat stuck in a tree…simply put there are not enough resources to focus on a cold case homicide. In my experience, the best investigators are heavily invested and passionate about the case. It’s the first thing they think about when they wake up and the last thing before they fall asleep. For better or worse, the true-crime community has plenty of passion. This is not a one size fits all approach however in JonBenet’s case specifically a large volume of information is already in the public domain.
How The Cold Case Backlog Came to Be
The current cold case backlog is the result of years of underfunding that has resulted in inadequate staffing to properly address the more than 250,000 unsolved cold cases in the USA.According to the FBI uniform crime report, more than 17,000 people are murdered every year, and close to 40% go unsolved. When you add the issue of the limited funding available to test physical evidence in state crime labs, this results in cold cases being treated as an afterthought by law enforcement agencies across the country. With insufficient resources and little public pressure, cold cases languish unsolved for decades.
Typically, cold cases are only revisited when new evidence comes to light or a witness comes forward. But even then, cold cases are often a low priority for overworked detectives. This reality has a devastating impact on families and communities who have lost loved ones to unsolved murders. For them, the cold case backlog is a daily reminder that their loved ones’ killers are still out there, possibly walking the streets and continuing to commit crimes.
Some of the effects of an unsolved homicide on families and loved ones include:
- Grief that never goes away
- A sense of powerlessness and frustration
- Difficulty moving on with their lives
- PTSD and multi-generational trauma
Michael Holbrook in his paper “Solving Cold Cases Using Modern DNA Technologies” cites research that found:
Secondary victims reportedly experienced insomnia, feelings of insecurity, remorse about happiness, and perpetual anxiety about memories of the deceased and homicide being triggered. They also report loss of innocence, of peace of mind, and of trust and faith in other people
The psychological impact of unsolved homicide is just one of the reasons why we should take a new, progressive approach to solving cold cases. Morrall (2011, para. 36)
Using an Investigative Crowdsourcing Model
We need to move away from just relying on the traditional law enforcement model of waiting for new evidence to come to light to implementing a more proactive open-source approach. We need to bring more visibility to unsolved cases, push for accountability, and invest in the use of proven investigative technologies.
The new Federal Homicide Victims Family Rights Act of 2021 provides a framework to craft state legislation to support a more open-source investigative approach to solving cold cases.
Specifically, the framework could allow for law enforcement to use progressive solutions such as :
- Allow for cold cases to be reviewed periodically, regardless of whether new evidence has come to light. This would allow law enforcement agencies to identify and solve more cold cases.
- Leverage the collective genius of experts like retired investigators, skilled citizen detectives, and OSINT analysts who are willing to help solve cold cases
- Invest more resources in advanced DNA technologies to help identify suspects using DNA samples collected from case evidence. Genetic Genealogy and phenotyping have also been used to identify unknown suspects using public DNA databases like GEDmatch; this process was used to identify the Gold State Killer and is a valuable crime-solving tool. Just one example of this is the case of 14-year-old Stephanie Isaacson who went missing in June 1984 on her way to school. Thirty-two years later this horrific crime would be solved after LVMPD partnered with Othram labs to process the DNA evidence in the case.
- Othram labs and most recently, Parabon labs have a crowdfunding option that allows the general public to make donations to help fund DNA testing on unsolved cold cases. Season of Justice has a law enforcement funding option for investigators to request financial assistance to get case evidence tested.
- Partnering with academic institutions has been proven to be effective at solving cold cases in collaboration with law enforcement. Michigan State Police partnered with Western Michigan University to crack the 35-year-old cold case of Roxanne Wood, killed in 1987 in her own home. In New York, the College of St. Rose has a cold case analysis center and podcast where they work on historical cold cases in partnership with law enforcement.
- Developing a system of information sharing that spans law enforcement agencies, academic institutions, and private citizens. Uncovered.com has created a digital cold case database with digital visualizations and geo-mapping technology. This platform could be used to share information on cold cases between law enforcement agencies and allow for certain aspects of the case to be viewed and worked on by a diverse investigative team.
Paul Grattan Jr. a sergeant and veteran of the New York City Police Dept. echoes this sentiment:
The future of law enforcement will include unprecedented communication and input from a variety of sources — other agencies, private consultants, citizens, and fellow employees who may not be directly involved in decision-making are just some of the potential contributors” Paul Grattan Jr. a sergeant and veteran of the New York City Police Dept.
If we are going to solve the cold case backlog, we need to consider implementing progressive alternatives to have a real impact. The recent passing of the Federal Homicide Victims Family Rights Act by Congress is a step in the right direction, and each state can pass a similar law to ensure that homicide victims’ families and law enforcement have the tools they need to solve these cases. Georgia recently passed a state law in honor of Tara Louise Baker and Rhonda Sue Coleman who were both murdered and their cases were unsolved for over 30 years.
By working together, we can solve more cold cases and bring some closure to the families who have been affected by them.