The Human Element
The most important components of cold case investigation are the people—victims, witnesses, suspects—and the physical evidence. And no matter how organized the case file, usually some amount of work needs to be completed on the front end to update the witness list. This can be a daunting task. People move, get married, get divorced, get married again, and die.
Fortunately, the Internet offers some powerful tools for investigators. Even basic searches on free Websites such as www.anywho.com and www.qwestdex.com make it easy to locate people. In addition, your agency might want to consider setting up an account with www.flatrateinfo.com or other for-pay Internet search engines. These sites provide information that can’t otherwise be found online. Depending upon the site, you can search credit header information for most recent addresses, voter registration records, county clerk records, liens, foreclosures, marriages and divorces, and many other local, state, and national databases.
Finding people is critical to your success. You will often find that the original investigation left critical questions unanswered. Consequently, many cold cases are solved by conducting additional interviews.
They are also often solved by gathering additional evidence from the witnesses, suspects, and victims. People can voluntarily submit or be court-ordered to submit non-testimonial evidence—fingerprints, DNA, handwriting, etc.
Remember, advancement in all aspects of forensic science is the primary reason why now may be the right time for law enforcement agencies to reopen cold cases. So physical evidence is critical to your success.
No forensic technology has solved more cold cases than DNA matching.
However, physical evidence presents many challenges to cold case investigation. The newly assigned detectives have no power over how the crime scene was processed and what physical evidence was collected. This alone could grind the investigation to a halt if critical pieces of evidence were overlooked and never collected.
And unfortunately, time is not on our side regarding evidence. Biological evidence may degrade over the years, poor storage of items can result in ruined fingerprint evidence, poorly developed and fixed negatives and photographs may fade, and evidence may have been destroyed or lost by evidence technicians.
This is why one of the most important steps in a cold case investigation is to inventory the available evidence. You need to identify what items are still held as evidence. These items should be inspected and photographed. Once the items are cataloged, laboratory reports should be reviewed to determine what tests have already been completed on the evidence.
Perhaps you’re working on a case from the early ’80s in which serology was completed on a victim’s bloody shirt to determine the blood type of the offender. Now, you need that same bloody shirt for DNA evidence. If the shirt was properly dried and packaged in paper, it’s likely that the DNA will be intact and modern DNA testing can be completed on the item.
It’s important to discuss possible forensic testing with laboratory personnel. The lab technician can determine what type of testing is viable based on the condition of the evidence. Don’t assume that the evidence is no good just because it has been sitting in a property room for years. The FBI has developed comparable fingerprints on many items from the 1940s and DNA evidence is routinely used in cases that are decades old.
But when dealing with the technicians, be patient. Federal, state, and local laboratories are understaffed and overworked. In some states it’s not uncommon to wait over six months for DNA analysis on an active case. So it’s understandable that the laboratories may not give top priority to cold case investigations. Just remember, another six months will probably not have a negative effect on a case that has sat dormant for 20 years.
Consider involving your local prosecutors during the investigative phase instead of dropping the case on their lap at the time of arrest. Working with prosecutors early will help ensure specific tasks that the attorney deems important are completed up-front. This reduces the amount of work that needs to be completed after the arrest or when the case is filed.
Asking the prosecutor to be involved earlier in the process will usually foster a sense of teamwork and make the work proceed more efficiently. Remember, the ultimate goal of cold case investigation is to arrest and convict someone who thinks they are never going to get caught.
Cold case investigation presents many challenges. Adequate resources and personnel are often hard to procure; it can be difficult locating witnesses and suspects, and physical evidence might be degraded or destroyed. Is it worth it? For the answer to that question, all you have to do is consider the El Segundo Police.
Using the Computer
Analyst’s Notebook software from i2 Inc. can create timelines and help detectives organize complex and confusing information in ways that will help them see the bigger picture of the crime.
Unsolved violent crimes are often complex, with various people recounting different events and timelines, and it can be difficult for detectives to organize and analyze these crucial aspects of the case. This is why software designed specifically for investigations can be an invaluable aid while working a cold case.
Analyst's Notebook 6 from i2 Inc. (www.i2inc.com) allows investigators to build graphical representations of complex cases that include timelines, relationship charts, and phone and financial records. This software organizes and simplifies data in such a way that it helps you see the case more clearly and make connections that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. In addition to aiding the investigative process, these graphic charts can be critical in the courtroom during prosecution.
And it is being used to great effect by detectives nationwide. For example, detectives from the Gainesville (Fla.) Police Department and a crime analyst from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation recently employed Analyst's Notebook 6 to solve a series of rapes in north Florida and south Georgia.
"As all criminal analysts know, the amount of data and information involved in an investigation such as this one is enormous," says Elaine Posey, a crime analyst with the GBI. "Without the right analysis tools at your fingertips, investigations can take a long time and often lead down the wrong path."
Posey imported all of the seemingly unrelated data from the cases into Analyst's Notebook and created a link analysis chart that showed all of the suspect's associates. She then created a timeline of the suspect's movements and actions and used it to link him to 22 rape cases.
"Within two weeks of using this software, we had hardcore evidence against this suspect," Posey says. "Analyst's Notebook made my job easier, helping us catch a criminal much faster and creating a safer environment for the people of Georgia and Florida."