One of the new standard cold case practices used to pursue and link murderers to their crimes is to analyze old DNA samples with a technology called "Touch DNA."iStock
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It seems everyone in the U.S. is more than familiar with the concept of cold case homicide investigation. Television programs (both reality-based and fictional), mystery novels and global news reports have all spread the word about dedicated police taking unsolved cases off the shelf and working them to fruition. The dogged determination and imagination evidenced by these investigators has been augmented by new protocols and techniques that have made this field more successful than ever.
Subsequent to the original murder case Cain vs. Abel, there have always been a small percentage of murders that were unsolved for a variety of case-specific reasons. There have also always been detectives who’d occasionally look back at “the one that got away,” but the idea of dedicating a group of professionals to work solely on clearing these cases didn’t originate until the 1980’s.
The first cold case unit is widely credited to detectives within the Miami-Dade police in the 1980’s. In 1995, the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) used the Miami-Dade cold case protocols to staff and investigate the death of a U.S. Navy crew member in a two-year-old homicide in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. A task force of six NCIS Special Agents, five local detectives and a Deputy U.S. Marshal worked around the clock on this unresolved murder and 27 days later, the killer was taken into custody.
Following this success, NCIS initiated a full-time cold case program in 1995 based on the Miami-Dade protocols. This was the first cold case unit commissioned by a federal agency. Seasoned special agents were trained in the methodologies, forensics and concepts. Since 1995, NCIS agents, along with local police partners, have resolved 62 cold murders. NCIS began teaching the cold case protocols to other federal, state and local police, as well as international partners with hundreds of officers trained each year.
The Cold Case Protocols
The bedrock foundations of cold case investigations have always revolved around time. Time works against police if a killer isn’t captured after the first few days. Yet years later, it may now work in our favor. The original cold case protocols involved three simple concepts:
1. Relationships change over time
People change with the passage of years—oh, do they change! Marriages, friendships and—most importantly—trust relations, can alter over time, especially with murders hanging over their heads. Many old homicides are resolved when a former friend or ex-wife is located who will now cooperate against the killer. Ben Franklin is credited with saying, “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” Ben would have made a great cold case detective.
2. New science and forensics are being developed with the passage of time
This concept relates to the use of identifying and applying new scientific knowledge or forensic technology that didn’t previously exist when the crime occurred. New developments may be used to locate evidence previously thought to be undetectable to the investigation. Who would have ever thought you could recover fingerprints that have been under water, or matched DNA samples from skin cells left in a brass shell casing? The research and development of forensic technology has evolved at a stunning rate since the beginnings of cold case homicide investigation.
3. Reviews of the original data with fresh eyes and viewpoints may disclose gaps and leads, which were overlooked or missed when the case was fresh
This concept relates to the amount of information compiled in the original case file and the manner it was collected. In most cases, the volumes of information generated in murder investigations and number of officers involved, can result in critical pieces of information not ending up in the right hands at the right time. This is akin to assembling part of a jig-saw puzzle but leaving many pieces in the box. In-depth review of original files by a dedicated cold case agent frequently locates information that never connected with the right person. The use of investigative and case management software can help organize large amounts of information, but school-style timelines have been just as effective to locate time, alibi and movement gaps by victims, witnesses and suspects.
In recent years, the cold case methodology has quietly evolved to a new process that’s much more complex and elaborate than the original version. Police investigators, criminal analysts, forensic experts and cutting-edge scientists are now routinely staffed to these cases. Team concept has replaced a single detective pouring over old files with a pencil and a pad of paper. The following developments are now standard cold case practices used to pursue and link murderers to their crimes, obtain convictions and bring some sense of closure and justice to victim families.
Examination of Written Documents
A fascinating area that emerged subsequent to the origins of cold case methodology is the examination of written documents. One of the well-known beliefs in cold case is the idea each unsolved case file already contains the identity of the killer. They’ve probably been interviewed or interrogated years ago as the suspect or witness. Original written documents or statements made by these people can be reviewed via new analytical techniques. Those pages never grow stale.