Across US, a police push to solve old crimes

For 20 years, the murder in Burlington, Conn., remained unsolved, the police paperwork consigned to a seldom-opened file cabinet.

But last summer, a special police unit - one that investigates cases in which all leads have long grown cold - scored a breakthrough in that 1980 murder. Using a new national fingerprint database, the cold-case squad matched prints taken from the victim's bedroom with those of a suspect. Last month, the suspect went on trial for murder.

Across the US, law-enforcement agencies are taking a fresh look at thousands of so-called "cold cases" - some of them dating back more than 20 years - and using new means to crack them.

The trend began in the mid-1990s with the creation of cold-case units in large cities such as New York, Chicago, Washington, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. Massachusetts formed a state squad in 1997, followed by Connecticut in 1998.

Smaller jurisdictions such as DuPage County outside Chicago and San Marcos, Texas, dedicated manpower to cold cases last year. At the same time, Seattle beefed up its cold-case unit from one to five officers. Now, a number of law-enforcement agencies, from St. Joseph County in Indiana to Houston and the historic Texas Rangers, are considering forming such squads.

Driven by the advent of DNA forensics and a decline in crime rates that has freed police resources, the squads are meeting with success in a number of locales.

In Los Angeles, for one, a cold-case unit specializing in unsolved gang killings got its man in December, closing an old drive-by bicycle shooting. The team reinterviewed a reluctant witness, persuaded him and two others to testify, and helped put the shooter behind bars for 50 years to life.

In New York, where a cold-case unit began in 1996, 937 dormant homicide cases have been examined through 2000. Investigators have made 295 arrests.

The rise of cold-case teams, experts say, has been made possible by a convergence of several developments. Among them: a booming economy that led to higher tax revenues and more funding for police departments.

Jackson, Miss., for instance, last fall reached its budgeted goal of 450 police officers for the first time. Soon, it will get a grant from the US Department of Justice - and the number of officers on the force will likely grow to 680 over three years. This wealth of resources allowed the city to establish a cold-case unit in December 1999. Three detectives were assigned to the unit, and by March a suspect was arrested and later indicted in a 1994 murder case.

Another factor, beginning in the early 1990s, was the dropoff in new homicides - a development that freed detectives to go back and dust off old cases. This was the case in New York, where, by 1998, the homicide rate had dropped by 70 percent from 1993's high of 2,245 murders.

But DNA forensics may have the biggest part in the cold-case revival. Whereas early efforts to match DNA in criminal cases required large, well-preserved samples, the latest technique allows for use of small, degraded samples - the kind typically available in cold cases, where DNA evidence has not been properly preserved.

Such advances in DNA forensics - coupled with other advances such as national fingerprint, ballistics, and DNA databases - have proved to be invaluable tools in solving old cases, experts say.

But old-fashioned gumshoe techniques, like re-interviewing old witnesses, are also key to breaking an old case.

"A lot of times people who wouldn't talk to you years ago will talk to you now," says Dallas cold-case detective Dan Trippel, whose two- to four-person squad has cleared 45 homicide cases in six years. "Maybe a suspect is no longer their friend, or an ex-wife will talk, or a suspect is in jail and doesn't represent a threat to a witness anymore. DNA can be a big help, but oftentimes it doesn't even come into play in cold cases."

Although local police departments usually set up the cold-case units, that model can vary. In Massachusetts, the cold-case unit resides within the state police. In Connecticut, the state attorney's office operates the cold-case squad. Its make-up varies for each case, usually including local police, the local prosecuting attorney, and personnel from the state attorney's office. In three years, the squad has opened 15 cases and obtained arrest warrants for seven suspects.

"One of the hardest things you have to deal with in cold cases is the politics," says Christopher Morano, deputy chief state's attorney for Connecticut. "You're going into a case and looking at what other people have done.... You need to assure them that you're not doing it to second-guess them...."

But there's some speculation that the commitment to solving old cases may not last much longer. The slowing economy is expected to affect state and local coffers - and undoubtedly the budgets of crimefighters. In Los Angeles, a cold-case unit formed in 2000 to investigate 1,208 unsolved gang murders stretching back to 1985 saw its funding cut dramatically this year due to departmentwide budget considerations.

With this in mind, police remind that they aren't the only ones who gain when old cases are solved. In cracking a 1969 gas-station murder - a stick-up that went awry - Dallas police say the victim's family finally learned the truth. "The gas station is still there," says Detective Trippel. "The family of the victim was still driving by after all those years, wondering what really happened.... Clearing the case for us meant closure for them."

Dallas's cold-case squad reopened the case after a prisoner already in jail - said to have had a religious awakening - confessed to the murder in a letter to prison officials. The team located 30-year-old case reports and matched the prisoner's account with autopsy information. Last year, the prisoner was convicted of the homicide.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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