WASHINGTON D.C. – More than 216,000 homicides committed since 1980 remain unsolved – a body count greater than the population of Des Moines, Iowa.
That figure is not readily apparent in the U.S.
Department of Justice’s annual estimate of killings considered cleared through
arrest, but a little digging by the Murder Accountability Project revealed it.
The bottom line: Forget about what you see on the TV
crime shows. Murders aren’t solved in 60 minutes by beautiful investigators
surrounded by glitzy monitors and high-tech gadgets.
Truth is homicides are less likely to be solved today
than they were 40 years ago. Police fail to make an arrest in more than a third
of the nation’s murders, resulting in an ever-increasing accumulation of cold
“We are just starting to address the cold case issue,”
said Mike Corrado, president of the International Homicide Investigators
Association. “At our last national convention last year, we had a two-day
breakout just on cold cases. We’ll be doing that again next year.”
Corrado is a homicide investigator in Atlantic City,
N.J., which has more than 200 unsolved homicides according to FBI data,
including the serial killings of four women found in 2006 in a drainage ditch
near the city’s casino district. The women had been strangled or suffocated and
left in the ditch over a period of months.
“We are still working that case today,” Corrado said.
The rates at which homicides are considered cleared –
meaning someone was actually arrested and handed over to the courts for trial –
have declined alarmingly in America. The FBI estimates that the homicide
clearance rate in 2012 was only 64 percent, down from 90 percent reported in
1965 when the government first reported statistics.
In many communities, it has become statistically unlikely
that a murder will be solved. The Detroit Police Department reported making
arrests in only 34 of its 386 homicides in 2012, which is a solution rate of
only 9 percent.
New Orleans reported solving only 15 percent of its 193
killings that year.
“The numbers of murders have increased so substantially
over the years that the cold cases are overburdening many police departments,”
said Florida attorney Paul Marino, a retired supervisor at the Hillsborough
Sheriff’s Office and chief counsel for the homicide investigators association.
“Active duty detectives have a never-ending run of homicides. To work older
cases, they need some sort of support.”
Just about every major police department faces a
bewildering number of cold cases. Atlanta, Ga., has about 1,800 unsolved cases
going back to 1965, while Phoenix, Ariz., has nearly 2,400 and Cleveland, Ohio,
has about 2,100 unresolved killings still on the books.
“It’s a question of economics and of having sufficient
numbers of personnel so that our people can do the routine policing on the
streets,” Marino said. “Police are dedicated folk trying to do their jobs. But
they need the resources.”
Although the total number and the rate of murder have
both declined since the 1990s – when killings peaked at nearly 24,000 a year –
the remaining 14,000 or so committed in recent years tend to be more difficult
to solve. Crimes of passion have declined as courts have taken more aggressive
action in domestic violence cases. But gang- and drug-related homicides
continue and are much more difficult to solve because witnesses are reluctant
to challenge organized crime.
Some police departments in recent years have stopped
reporting to the FBI how many homicide arrests they make each year, making it
impossible to know exactly how many cold cases are still on the books.
Among these non-reporting departments are New York City,
Chicago and Gary, Indiana, where police recently arrested a suspected serial
killer who said he’d been active since the mid-1990s.
The Murder Accountability Project calculated the number of cold cases across
the country by using the U.S. Department of Justice’s annual estimate for the
percentage of killings that are cleared through arrest, taking the remainder of
that figure (the percentage that aren’t solved) and multiplying it against the
federal estimate for total homicides committed each year.