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.
A number of techniques have been developed which highlight or locate indicators of deception in the written document. Very similar to body language, which reveals deception, human beings write out statements that give away phrases and patterns. These phrases and patterns dramatically show the writer is lying or omitting essential details. Re-examining these old documents is akin to being able to see the original state of mind of the defendant and may provide significant clues of the real story.
Evidence Identification by Chemicals
Another new tool used by forensic investigators involves a series of chemicals and alternate light sources that have been developed to identify evidence, such as hidden blood or biological stains that aren’t visible to the naked eye. The American public is well-versed in this technique through numerous television crime scene shows, but cold case detectives have applied it to old crime scenes with considerable success. Blood that’s been spilled and cleaned up may still be found years later by exposing the invisible stain to chemicals or light waves, which cause the area to glow or fluoresce under certain conditions. Blood stains have been found in floors and on walls even after both have been cleaned with solvents and re-painted.
The new cold case protocols have also benefitted from information sharing initiatives among law enforcement which started after 9/11. Prior to that time, information held by local police departments could usually only be accessed by the originating department. Other agencies would submit requests for information only if they knew it existed or suspect it existed. Post 9/11, the cooperation between federal, state and local agencies were encouraged and mandated at the national level. The resulting initiatives have been great facilitators to general criminal investigations, as well as to cold case crimes.
NCIS launched the Law Enforcement Information Exchange (LInX) initiative in 2003. LInX provides participating law enforcement partner agencies with secure access to regional crime and incident data and enables investigators to search across jurisdictional boundaries. LInX sites are currently operated by NCIS and its partners in nine regions throughout the U.S. There are over 760 NCIS LInX partner agencies with approximately 30,000 trained users. Users are able to see reports, photos and historical contact information from various partner jurisdictions and use computer-based link analysis to show correlations or reoccurring hits. The program has been a tremendous success and almost immediately allowed remote jurisdictions to link their evidence with other criminal contacts in regional data bases far outside their normal investigative realm.
Another system that’s had dramatic investigative impact is the Combined DNA Information System (CODIS) system. CODIS is a DNA database maintained by the FBI which stores DNA profiles submitted by federal, state and local crime laboratories in the U.S. All 50 states have passed DNA legislation authorizing the collection of DNA profiles from convicted offenders for submission to CODIS. Submission of evidence from old crime scenes for identification and comparison with known samples has led to a number of resolutions in violent crimes and cold case homicides. Cold investigations have gone red hot when recent arrest-based DNA profiles hit the CODIS system. It’s much akin to leaving fingerprints at the scene with no similar prints on file with the FBI until years later.
Modern cold case investigators have also benefited from the development of missing person data bases in each state, as well as the outstanding National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). NCMEC helps with searches for missing children, does database research and battles child pornography. They send out missing child posters and mailings, and the program is even able to do projected mock-ups of dated photos to show what a child may look like years later. NCMEC is staffed by dedicated detectives with a world-renowned reputation.
Changes in our society have also resulted in enormous amounts of personal data being recorded and viewable via the internet or computer-based search engines. Tracking murderers and serial killers across America or internationally has always been difficult and led to the formation of organizations like INTERPOL and EUROPOL. Now, investigators with simple internet access can routinely find records documenting a suspect's movements over a period of years in mere seconds. Birth, marriage, divorce, real estate, newspaper citations and personal information about friends, hobbies, travel or current location may all be viewable via deep web search engines and voluntarily posted via social media sites like Facebook.
Forensic science related to DNA has continued to advance by leaps and bounds. Twenty years ago, DNA testing was very expensive and time consuming. Twenty-five years ago, DNA testing in law enforcement cases was at its infancy and rarely used. Today, laboratory technicians are now able to extract identifiable evidence from wider ranges of products using smaller submitted samples. Formerly, a large amount of blood or blood stain was required for analysis and blood type and/or secretors (blood-type antigens). With the development and practical application of DNA testing in criminal foresnics, the amount of resulting data routinely provides the DNA map to match a drop of blood or saliva to a suspect with a mathematical certainty that exceeds the population of the earth.
One of the most revolutionary processes since the development of DNA testing is known as “Touch DNA.” It’s relatively new to the American public, but has had sweeping and dramatic results in forensics labs and subsequent prosecutions for several years. Touch DNA is a forensic method for analyzing DNA left at the scene of a crime or brushed onto items through casual contact. It’s called Touch DNA because it only requires very small samples for testing. For example, skin cells may be left on an object after it’s been briefly touched, much like leaving a fingerprint. Touch DNA analysis only requires about seven or eight cells from the outermost layer of human skin.
This technology is the epitome of Dr. Edmond Locard's theory "Every contact leaves a trace." Fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous Sherlock Holmes mysteries have been familiar with this concept since 1887! Remember Holmes looking inside a man’s hat and deducing a man had a recent haircut by the traces of hair inside and the type of job he had by residue deposited on the brim? With touch DNA, current detectives can swab a hat band and recover enough skin cells to develop a full DNA profile which can identify the precise man who wore the hat—not just that he had a recent hair cut!
Old evidence that’s been sitting sealed up on evidence shelves for many years is being evaluated and submitted for Touch DNA analysis. Those dead skin cells never left the packaged evidence and don’t “go bad” or spoil. Surfaces that have been previously dusted for fingerprints or submitted to cyanoacrylate fuming are analyzed by Touch DNA. They’ve also analyzed DNA on surfaces that were recovered from underwater crime scenes and on the brass of expended cartridges. The future of this type of analysis is practically unlimited and may be left up to the imagination of investigators who attend crime scenes and suspect certain areas or articles were handled by suspects during a crime. Example: A recent cold case robbery/homicide was resolved when the victim’s pants were submitted for Touch DNA processing. DNA matching a known suspect was recovered from inside the victim’s rear pants pocket—the same pocket where the thief and murderer inserted his hand to remove the victim’s wallet—eight years ago.
Blood Splatter Analysis
The scientific analysis of blood splatter (or spatter) isn’t a new study, but has continued to develop as a valuable investigative technique based upon the patterns exhibited by blood spilled or spread at crime scenes. In old unsolved cases where the crime scene was processed years ago, specialists can examine original evidence and even photographs to glean evidence that may have not been evident to the original investigators, like the absence of splatter indicating the presence of the killer who may have been splashed during the killing. New reviews can determine direction of impacts, trails indicating movement and identification of low- and high-velocity impacts. This information can explain a great deal about a weapon, how it may have been used and where it was in the room, even if no weapon was found at the death scene. Crime scene investigators literally work backwards in time by examining the newly found evidence to explain the crime scene.
New Cold Case Team Members
The development and use of criminal analysts in the cold case arena has brought some new thinkers into the hunt. Analysts approach the problems from a slightly different angle: They use computers to hunt for data, trends, patterns and crunch numbers to provide leads and insights to the detectives. Criminal analysts have been plugged into cold cases to develop targeting packages for suspects, to review and identify phone records, cell phone tower mapping, locate financial records and to provide link analysis of previously unconnected or unobserved information. They use a variety of software to sift and collate data which may be helpful to display and organize the information in graphic presentations suitable for viewing by prosecutors or in court.
Forensic consultants in a variety of evidence-related fields may be called upon to review old crime scenes, case files, photos or physical evidence. They may be involved with creating 3D recreations of crime scenes, evaluating old evidence for use with new computer or scientific based analysis, recreating faces on skulls or helping to gather fresh bio-metric hair, DNA or trace evidence. The consultants may be experts in a single field, or be a jack-of-all-trades, like a super CSI agent rivaling TV stars!
Another expert that has been brought into the search to catch cold case and serial killers is the forensic psychologist. This specialized field has psychologists discussing profiles of killers based upon observed behaviors and crime scene evidence. They’ve also been used to do psychological autopsies of victims to try and recover their thinking or behaviors prior to death. They’ve been very effective working with investigators to understand a suspect’s criminal motives and behaviors, but also in suggesting ways to approach, how to talk, act and even dress for showdown interviews with suspects. Forensic psychologists have reviewed recorded interviews, written statements and even live interrogations in an effort to bring yet another viewpoint to bear on the murderer.
When cold case investigation was invented, one of the revolutionary concepts involved investigators bringing their imagination to the cases. Police procedures have been taught to thousands of officers in the U.S. But with a cold case, a vivid imagination could be brought to bear after all of the traditional homicide solving methods had been applied and failed. With these new protocols and scientific developments in play, detectives now routinely apply behavioral and technologic developments to cold cases, solve the unsolvable murder and bring the offender to trial.