There’s a lingering list in Maine with about 120 names that belong to the victims of homicides that have gone unsolved. Some have been on there for decades.
Politicians of all stripes have united around the cause of clearing those cases and delivering justice for the murder victims’ family members.
Lawmakers in the past have supported forming an investigative unit dedicated to solving cold cases, but the move has amounted to a feel-good measure because they haven’t backed it up with the necessary funding. A cold case measure will likely be back before the Legislature this year with a proposal to use state funds to start it up.
If lawmakers agree it’s a priority, they should consider a number of measures to make it more likely the unit will offer taxpayers a return on their investment they wouldn’t otherwise realize. With funding scarce, they’ll likely also need to decide on which budget areas will see fewer resources as a result. A cold case unit would cost about $500,000 to start up and then require more than $400,000 in funding annually.
In 2001, the Legislature created a cold case unit but never funded it. More recently, Gov. Paul LePage last April signed a bill creating an investigative unit for the state devoted exclusively to solving unsolved homicides. Its formation was contingent on Maine receiving a federal grant, but the state was not among the grant recipients. The unit would have been staffed by an attorney from the attorney general’s office, two State Police detectives and an employee from the state crime lab.
Cold cases have received renewed attention in recent decades as crime-solving technology has improved, allowing investigators to discover fresh leads through DNA testing and automated fingerprint matching. Still, cold case units are rare overall, and their effectiveness is largely unproven. The Rand Corporation in 2011 found that 10 percent of 1,051 law enforcement agencies it surveyed had dedicated cold case investigators; a smaller proportion had fully formed cold case units.
“[A]lthough there are many anecdotal reports of success, often sensationally showcased in the popular media, it is not clear at present that cold-case squads are either effective or efficient,” the researchers, Robert C. Davis, Carl Jensen and Karin E. Kitchens, wrote.
One problem they found was with how cold case units often measured success. A “cleared” case was not necessarily a case that resulted in a conviction. “We were surprised at the lack of accountability in cold-case work,” the researchers wrote. “Specifically, there is little emphasis on convictions as a goal of cold-case investigations.”
They also found success was more likely when investigators looked into cold cases for specific reasons — a new lead, the availability of a new type of forensic testing, the location of a sought-after witness, or other circumstance. Success was less likely — and investigations were more costly — when detectives reopened cold case investigations simply because a specific length of time had elapsed or because of family or media inquiries into the case.
In Maine, the attorney general’s office has an assistant attorney general on staff dedicated to prosecuting cold cases. On the police side, investigators look into the cases as they’re able, which doesn’t guarantee focused attention on difficult investigations that become more difficult with time.
In the past 15 years, the attorney general’s office has started prosecuting 13 previously unsolved cases, then-Deputy Attorney General William Stokes told lawmakers last February, meaning a suspect was found and there was enough evidence to bring him or her to trial. The Rand researchers found, overall, a one-in-five success rate among law enforcement agencies investigating cold cases, but only one in 20 cold-case investigations resulted in arrest and fewer — one in 100 — resulted in a conviction. In Maine, the overall clearance rate for homicide cases is greater than 90 percent.
If Maine lawmakers pursue the same structure they did last year for a cold case unit, they would already be doing one thing right. A unit that includes a prosecutor along with investigators makes coordination and, therefore, the development of court-worthy cases more likely.
The cold case unit should also consider rules for their investigations that ensure staffers are spending time on investigations more likely to lead to resolution.