Friday, March 6, 2015

Reed City's Unsolved Homicides

According to Michigan State Police, from 1970 to present there are 7 unsolved homicides attributed to the Reed City MSP Post, (now Mt. Pleasant – the Reed City building is currently a detachment). I started researching what goes into the solvability of a case in an effort to determine if I thought Janette’s had a chance, based on what I knew, which, admittedly, isn’t as much as I’d like.

In 2007—using information collected from a conference which included more than 100 law enforcement and related personnel including chiefs, commanders, detectives, crime scene personnel, crime analysts, prosecutors, and defense attorneys—The Police Executive Research Forum, in conjunction with the US Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services put together a report titled Promoting Effective Homicide Investigations. This was a collective effort to determine strategies for raising the national clearance rate by pinpointing areas of concern.

What is a clearance rate, you ask? Well, a clearance rate is the percentage of cases that are closed and it is determined by dividing the total number of homicides reported in a year by the number of arrests and “exceptional means” homicides. An exceptional clearance is made when an investigation has established an offender, there’s enough information to support an arrest charge, and the location of the offender is known, but there is a reason outside police control that prevents arresting, charging, and prosecuting the offender. This happens, for example, if the offender has died.

While the number of homicides in the US has fluctuated since the 1960s, the number of homicides being solved has decreased in that time by around 30%. What this means is that, while the crime rate varies, the cases getting closed are markedly decreasing—something that doesn’t bode well for communities. From Promoting Effective Homicide Investigations:

In 1965, the average national clearance rate for homicide was 91%; in 1976 it was 79%; and in 2002 it was 64%. The decline in clearance rates may be the result of organizational changes in law enforcement agencies, including changes in the structure and placement of homicide units, decentralization, lack of resources, substantial turnover of experienced personnel, poor working relationships with prosecutors and crime labs, inability to keep pace with advances in forensic technology, and poor procedures for processing and analyzing evidence. Additionally, backlogs and heavy caseloads within crime labs and coroners’ offices may reduce investigative effectiveness. The length of time it takes to get results of DNA analysis leaves offenders on the street to perhaps kill again or become victims themselves.

Unsolved homicides have significant negative impact on family and friends of victims, but also the community. In order for residents to feel comfortable cooperating with officers during an investigation, there must be a level of trust with local law enforcement on the part of the community. A lack of trust can foster the opposite, and a lack of willingness to cooperate on the part of possible witnesses can hinder an investigation.

“Unsolved homicides effect communities by lowering the public’s confidence in police, increase fear in the community, and affect officer performance. Of course, the most important consequence of an unsolved homicide is that a killer remains free, able to commit additional murders. …as a result, police may encounter reluctance and resistance from possible witnesses who fear retaliation from an offender still on the loose.”

Another negative effect too many unsolved homicides risk is invalidating any possible deterrence effect. When the clearance rate decreases, it tells criminals our justice system is unable to hold them accountable—that they can literally get away with murder. When the public sees this happening on a regular basis, any hope of deterrence being a factor in someone not committing a crime can be expected to deteriorate. To complete the vicious cycle, all of this contributes negatively to officer performance due to lack of resources, morale, and pressure from their superiors and the community.

Cold case units play a large part in breaking the cycle illustrated above. But how do they decide which case(s) from the pile to tackle first? The answer is solvability. Remember, there’s usually not just one old, unsolved case investigators are dealing with. In some places, the cold case pile is literally that, a pile. At some point, as sad as it is, this pile of unsolved cases—each with a victim and grieving family behind them—must first be organized into a list, at the top of which sit the cases that give the investigators the best chance of positive results.

Case closed! That’s what everybody wants, another bad guy taken off the street.

The criteria used by the Las Vegas Metro PD when choosing cold cases to re-investigate includes a five point solvability scale. Their Level 1—top priority cases—have a named suspect, forensic evidence (DNA, latent fingerprint, firearms ballistics), witness identification of the suspect, and physical evidence that connects the suspect to the victim (photos, writing, fibers). This gives investigators a great deal to work with.

Level 2 cases would have all of the above except a named suspect, but would still require physical evidence connecting the suspect to the victim. This means, they have all that stuff to work with, but no suspects or persons of interest have been identified.

At Level 3, the suspect is unknown and while there might be physical and forensic evidence, there are no witnesses.

Levels 4 and 5 both have an unidentified victim and little or no evidence. Suffice to say you don’t want the case you’re rooting for in the Level 4-5 range.

It has to be a gruesome task for investigators, picking and choosing who you will put all of your effort and resources into getting justice for, when it is something every victim and their family deserves. When we say resources, though, we mean money and manpower, and the only way to effectively make those decisions is to pick the cases you believe have the best chance of being closed.

Does viable physical evidence exist? Are there any witnesses? Is the suspect living, dead, or incarcerated? Is there an opportunity for multiple clearances (meaning, is this a possible serial killer)? Has the case been presented to the prosecutor before and been denied for any reason? Once investigators answer all of these questions, they prioritize their list of unsolved cases based on the answers.

North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenberg PD has a process that’s been touted by the Department of Justice as having a good track record for cold case clearances. They have also received international awards. A civilian review team (retired members of law enforcement with differing areas of related expertise) review each case based on a set forth criteria, and then present each at a monthly meeting to the entire cold case team according to a strict format:

-summary of crime
-Medical Examiners report
-evidence and/or property collected
-lab reports
-witness locations
-parallel investigations
-potential suspects
-recommended follow-up

The case is then discussed with the entire team and a solvability rating from 1 to 5 is assigned. When available, former detectives on each case are present because they’re an invaluable resource, particularly on very old cases. Some things don’t make it into the official reports. There will always be subtle nuances and small details that only the former investigators on a case will be able to convey. As they say, sometimes the devil truly is in the details.

So the civilian review team has done the initial legwork for active investigators. At this point, a DNA lab staff member is assigned to the team to get evidence processed as quickly as possible. The next step is meeting with witnesses again. Particularly with older cases, this is important because often with the passage of time, folks who were once reluctant to talk are now willing to cooperate. Time passes; people age. Where once a witness was afraid to come forward, now they’re older and enough time has passed for them to process it. They may decide there’s no longer a reason to remain quiet.

Engaging the community is important. Tapping into knowledge that others may have through personal relationships or secondhand gossip might shed light where there was once only murkiness. Police use media resources to their advantage as well. Human interest stories featuring details of the case and interviews with family generate interest from the public and get folks talking about the case again, sharing what they remember.

When I spoke to MSPs District 6 Inspector, Cam Henke, and he told me the next cold case he assigned a team to would be from the Reed City list, we discussed solvability as being one of the key determining factors. I wanted him to choose Janette’s case and I was trying to assess, based on solvability (and what little I knew) whether it had a shot. I wanted her to have that shot. The shot. The next one, like right now. Let’s get this done.

Pick her. Pick Janette Roberson.

It feels bad to write that, now. I wanted him to pick Janette’s name from the list of others I’d gotten from the Michigan State Police, but behind every one of those unsolved cases is someone who would wish the same for their loved one. Each case, at its heart, is about a person, and those people have names.

Pick Sue; Pick Nick; Pick Esther; Pick Tom; Pick Billy... I can almost hear their family members’ pleas. I keep a list of the open homicide cases attributed to Reed City on my desk—Burton Scott, Janette Roberson, Sue Clason, Thomas Hancock, William Essex, Esther Gaffney, and Nicholas Beebe—and decided to learn more about each case because they, too, deserve justice.

You've read about some of them already, and I plan to update each if and when I get more information. I will spotlight three more in the coming weeks: Sue Clason, Nick Beebe and William (Billy) Essex.

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