San Francisco Private Investigator

Cold Cases

A cold case can be defined as an unsolved serious crime. The length of time it has gone unsolved varies, possibly as little as two years. Cold cases can be notorious incidents; most are unknown to the public. Many major law enforcement agencies have Cold Case Review squads or committees that now routinely reopen files. Both American and Canadian TV have presented popular shows depicting the work of such units.

    Regardless of media presentation, factual and fictional, or the current existence of cold case committees, such crimes can remain fascinating to the public on emotional and political levels. Examples of such cases include Jimmy Hoffa, the murder of Emmett Till, and the hijacking by DB Cooper. The latter seems to have a life of its own in the collective imagination, and recently new work has been conducted to try to solve that crime. Nationally the JFK assassination, although not considered a cold case, remains one in the eyes of a large sector of the population.  In local and regional areas, unresolved heinous crimes, serial killings etc. live on with the public, as is the case of the Zodiac killings in the SF Bay Area, which was made into a Hollywood movie.  Professor Martin Innes forwarded the notion of such cold case investigations as "fixing the past," both scientifically and socially through the production of a conclusion. Nazi hunters chasing old war criminals clearly evoke the image of righting past wrongs.

     I hypothesize that the interest in solving Cold Cases has arisen from a confluence of phenomena. These include technological/scientific advances, judicial shifts towards greater prosecutorial powers, the victim's rights movement, and to a lesser degree, a rising consciousness of wrongful convictions.  The single strongest factor appears to be technology, but others should not be ignored.  
    Technologies, especially related to DNA identification, have been used in many of these matters, and their use is indispensable in today’s police work. A Cold Case police detective mentioned to me that often cases are driven by new information from witnesses who were once reluctant to come forward. Individuals or groups grappling with deep psychological wounds describe the crying need to have "closure" so they can move on with their lives.

    However, we need to proceed with care. Un-prosecuted, open crimes and cold case investigations might drive us to tamper with centuries old statutes of limitations, as suggested by Scott Turow. Although a few DNA-based exonerations garner much attention, budgetary limitations, prosecutorial stubbornness and socio-political factors have also prevented review in many cases. Cold cases might also do away with ideas of redemption and rehabilitation we cherish. Use of Restorative Justice measures, such as victim-perpetrator meetings, as used in Australia, go unaddressed in our current cold case formula.

    More research on exactly which cold cases are getting re-opened must be done.  Are there economic, demographic, racial, political, or other factors at play when resource allocations in pursuing specific cold cases are made?  I merely suggest we have honest, open, and broad public, academic, and legislative debate on this trend, so that we may fully understand its consequences. 

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