On April 28th, 2023, a historic moment unfolded in Georgia as Governor Brian Kemp signed the Coleman-Baker Act into state law. Formerly known as “Rhonda’s Law,” this cold case legislation is a testament to the relentless efforts of families, legislators, and advocates united in their pursuit of justice.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation states they have 600 open unsolved homicide cases that qualify for review under the newly enacted Coleman-Baker Act in Georgia. The Act is officially known as House Bill 88 (23 LC 48 0754).
How It Started
Named after Rhonda Sue Coleman and Tara Louise Baker, both victims of unsolved homicides, the Coleman-Baker Act originated from an idea presented in the Fox Hunter podcast by host Sean Kipe. Rhonda’s law gained momentum as petitions circulated, various Bill versions were drafted (culminating in House Bill 88), and the Coleman and Baker families joined forces.
The Legislative Journey:
March 29th marked a significant milestone when the Georgia General Assembly unanimously passed the Bill. Just one month later, it became the first law of its kind at the state level in the nation’s history. The impact is resonating beyond Georgia, inspiring other states to follow suit.
The Coleman-Baker Act mandates state and local law enforcement agencies to review unsolved homicides, evaluating the potential for a full reinvestigation that could yield new evidence or identify the perpetrator. Families dissatisfied with the GBI’s findings can seek review by an administrative law judge.
Inspired by true crime podcast Fox Hunter, the Act is a critical step in Georgia’s commitment to resolving unsolved homicides. It complements the GBI’s Cold Case Homicide Unit, now bolstered by a $5.4 million appropriation for ten full-time agents dedicated to solving these cases.
Former State Senator Scot Turner, leading the pro bono effort, collaborated with various entities to bring this cold case legislation to fruition. The Act requires reporting unsolved homicides to the Carl Vinson Institute, allowing the state to gauge the extent of the issue and allocate resources accordingly.
A National Model:
The Coleman-Baker Act draws inspiration from the Homicide Victims’ Families Rights Act at the federal level, showcasing Georgia’s commitment to combating unsolved homicides in line with national efforts.
The key points of the new cold case legislation are as follows:
- Review of Cold Case Murder Files:
- Law enforcement agencies, upon written application by a designated person, must review cold case murder files to determine if a full reinvestigation would yield probative investigative leads or identify a likely perpetrator.
- Criteria for Cold Case Murder:
- A cold case murder is defined as a homicide committed more than six years prior to the application, previously investigated, with exhausted leads or no identified likely perpetrator.
- Designated Person:
- A designated person is an immediate family member or their legal representative who is a member in good standing with the Georgia State Bar.
- Review Process:
- The review includes analysis of missed investigative procedures, assessment of witness interviews, examination of physical evidence, and updating the case file using current investigative standards.
- A full reinvestigation may be conducted if the agency determines it would yield additional probative leads or identify a likely perpetrator.
- Limitations on Reinvestigation:
- A reinvestigation is limited to one at a time per victim, and a subsequent review is prohibited for five years unless new, materially significant evidence is discovered.
- Application and Reporting Requirements:
- Agencies must develop an application process and promulgate procedures within one year of enactment.
- Reporting requirements include confirmation of receipt of the application and a searchable public website for tracking cold case murder investigations.
- Coordination of Investigations:
- If multiple agencies conducted the initial investigation, they must coordinate case file reviews or reinvestigations to avoid simultaneous efforts.
- Effective Date and Repeal:
- The Act becomes effective on July 1, 2023.
- Conflicting laws are repealed.
- The Act applies to cold case murders occurring on or after January 1, 1970.
- Coroner/Medical Examiner Authority:
- Authorizes coroners or medical examiners to issue a death certificate with a nonspecific cause of death and manner of homicide, provided it does not hinder the investigation.
- Probate and Administration:
- No hindrance to probate or administration of the estate or distribution of death benefits due to withholding the cause of death of a homicide victim.
- Funding Provisions:
- Provisions are subject to the availability of funds specifically appropriated for this purpose.
The signing of the Coleman-Baker Act marks a historic victory for justice, ensuring families more rights and access to advanced techniques and resources for cold case investigations. Beyond Georgia’s borders, this legislation will serve as a beacon of hope for families of unsolved homicide victims across the nation.