Cold Case Q&A
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Cold Case Q&A

The FBI reports that since 1995, more than 100,000 cold case homicides have accumulated in the United States. Homicide cases actually have the highest solve, or clearance, rates of all crimes, but it continually decreases. To wit, in 2016, the national homicide clearance rate was just under 60%, down 18.9 percentage points from 1975, according to the National Institute of Justice. From all indications, the decline will continue.

What makes an unsolved case a cold case?

BCI has established these definitions:

Cold case homicide

A cold case homicide involves any investigation that remains unsolved after being reported to law enforcement and in which all significant and viable leads have been exhausted. The category includes the following:

  • Unsolved homicide investigations
  • Questioned death investigations in which the cause of death is undetermined but suspected to be homicide
  • Suspicious missing person cases in which the person is suspected to be the victim of a homicide
  • Unidentified remains investigations

Cold case sexual assault

A Cold Case Sexual Assault Kit Investigation (SAKI) involves any unsolved crime of a sexual nature, or an attempted such crime, in which:

  • A sexual assault evidence kit was collected as part of the investigation.
  • There are no further apparent investigative strategies or unexplored investigatory leads.
Why do cases go “cold”?

Every case is different, so it’s impossible to single out a main cause. However, many factors come into play.

Organizational factors:

  • Lack of manpower, time constraints on investigators or excessive workloads
  • Budgetary constraints
  • Original investigators no longer involved, potentially because of retirement, resignation, promotion or relocation
  • Missing or incomplete documentation of original case investigation
  • Lack of thoroughness in the initial response and investigation
  • Lost or destroyed crime scene evidence
  • Personnel or leadership conflicts, concerns and considerations, including institutional friction
  • Changes to records management practices
  • Failure to follow policy or protocol
  • Disbandment of law enforcement agencies

Case-specific factors:

  • Lack of physical evidence
  • Uncooperative witnesses, lack of witnesses or victim’s family members who refuse to work with law enforcement
  • Political pressure
  • Insufficient technology for evidentiary analysis at the time of the investigation
  • Unidentified remains or inability to identify the victim
  • Undetermined cause of death
  • Lack of information about the victim
  • Suicide staged as a homicide
What makes a cold case reexamination successful?

Some cases come to be solved years later because:

  • Time will often change the attitude of uncooperative witnesses or individuals, or erase their communication barriers.
  • Results can come from renewed cooperation when victims’ families and law enforcement come together again.
  • Advances in scientific resources, technology and criminal intelligence can provide new leads or methods to examine evidence.
Why do some cold cases get reexamined?

There are many reasons why a case might get renewed attention. For example:

  • Familial interest
  • Media or social media interest
  • Societal interest or popularity of cold cases, such as after a podcast or TV show
  • Political interest
  • Public safety
  • Technological advancements or more sophisticated data and records management
  • New leads or cooperation
What happens when BCI reexamines an unsolved case?

Methods can vary from case to case depending on what has already been done and what investigative practices a case might benefit from. Generally, though, a new look at the investigation could entail these steps inside BCI:

  • Investigators review and organize the case file and evidence, including:
    • Mining different case files from sources beyond the originating agency, such as retired investigators, crime labs, medical facilities, prosecutor and coroner offices, and private organizations’ incident files.
    • Gathering the evidence, potentially from previously involved sources and new sources.
    • Updating identification and backgrounds of witnesses, suspects and victims.
    • Preparing a new case synopsis of the facts and evidence, which can lead to new leads.
  • Investigators evaluate the next best steps, including by identifying the deficiencies of the original investigation and deciding whether to interview original or new-to-the-investigation witnesses.
  • A multidisciplinary team examines the case file and all available physical, digital and investigative evidence, potentially performing advanced DNA testing, other forensic analysis and a criminal intelligence review that can include comparing case details to crimes in other jurisdictions, tapping national databases and performing deep-dive research on the people involved in the case.

BCI provides any and all resources to aid the lead (originating) law enforcement agency in solving the case and undertakes all such work only with that agency's full cooperation.