Unsolved Homicide Tidbits

As part of our Sunday special report on unsolved homicides, Scripps Howard News Service provided us a number of fascinating facts and figures about such cases. Among them:

*A survey of 1,001 adults interviewed by telephone from Feb. 3 to March 9 by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University found that at least one adult in nine personally knew the victim of an unsolved homicide. Adults who do not personally know murder victims are much more likely to praise police than those who do, especially those who knew victims of unsolved crimes. The telephone survey was sponsored through a grant by the Scripps Howard Foundation. It has a 4 percent margin of error.

* Every year in America, 6,000 killers get away with murder. The percentage of homicides that go unsolved in the United States has risen alarmingly even as the homicide rate has fallen to levels last seen in the 1960s. National clearance rates for murder and manslaughter have fallen from about 90 percent in the 1960s to below 65 percent in recent years.

* Experts say that homicides are tougher to solve now because crimes of passion, where assailants are easier to identify, have been replaced by drug- and gang-related killings. Many police chiefs — especially in areas with rising numbers of unsolved crimes — blame a lack of witness cooperation.

*The deliberate killings of men, members of racial and ethnic minorities and young adults are much less likely to be solved than other kinds of homicides, according to a Scripps Howard News Service analysis of detailed FBI computer files of more than half a million homicides committed from 1980 to 2008.

*The study found that, for much the same reasons, police identify the killer 90 percent of the time in the homicides of children and infants under the age of 5. These killings often involve family members or close friends. The lowest identification rate of killers (68 percent) is among the homicides of young adults between 20 and 24 years of age. The killer is identified by police about 67 percent of the time when the victim is black or Hispanic, and only 64 percent for black victims between 20 and 24 years old. But when the victim is a non-Hispanic white person of any age, a suspect is identified 78 percent of the time.

*According to the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Report — in which police are asked if they can identify the killer rather than if they’ve made an arrest — 98 percent of all homicides involving a lover’s triangle or other lover’s quarrels are solved. About 95 percent of all homicides that erupted from an emotional argument over money are also solved. Also easily identified are the killers who take human life during an alcohol- or drug-influenced “brawl” — the term FBI statisticians used for a fatal fight regardless of the kind of weapons used. Police identify the offender in about 90 percent of these homicides. But solution rates quickly drop when human passion is not the cause.

Some techniques that helped departments improve their clearance rates:

* Make sure there is sufficient manpower at the crime scene, especially during the first minutes after the discovery of a killing. The latest Justice Department recommendations suggest that a minimum of two, two-person teams be sent to the scene as quickly as possible. Large police departments that regularly send eight or 10 experienced investigators to the scene have produced above-average clearance results.

* Make sure investigators get the time needed to solve murders. Don’t be stingy with overtime, especially when investigators are in hot pursuit of evidence. Departments that allow senior detectives to approve their own overtime have a 9 percent higher clearance rate, according to FBI data.

*Be generous with training. Make sure investigators know the current best practices through so-called “in-service” training rather than assuming they learned everything at the police academy.

*Utilize new evidence technology. DNA matching of blood or almost any other physical evidence from an assailant’s body is a powerful tool. But so are less prominent techniques such as voice-stress analysis and statement analysis, blood-stain-pattern analysis and criminal investigative analysis also known as profiling.

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