We’ve all heard it before, how important those first twenty-four to seventy-two hours are after a crime has been committed. The possibility of a case being solved diminishes exponentially with each hour that passes.
Lansing City Pulse did an article in March of 2013 which began as a piece intended to profile Lansing’s cold-case homicides and missing-persons cases over the past decade. The plan was to put the pictures of each victim in the article, hoping to garner new leads for the unsolved cases. Instead, what they got was some frightening insight into how unorganized Lansing is with regard to recordkeeping of unsolved homicides.
They began their research with a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request—the legal means by which the average citizen can obtain public records. Their request was as follows:
“The names of all unsolved murder victims in cases investigated by the Lansing Police Department between the years 2000 and 2012. This includes the date of the murder and the address at which the crime was committed.”
They also requested the same information regarding missing persons during that time period. Seems fairly simple, right? Boot up your computer and print off that list you use to keep track of your outstanding unsolved homicides—which probably has some indexing options so you can easily keep track of things that are similar in each case. Print off the pages for the dates in question, slap it in an envelo—
I’m sorry, what’s that? my inner monologue asked. You don’t keep an organized accounting of the missing persons and unsolved murders in your city? Okay. What would it take to get that information?
According to Lansing’s city attorney, what it would take would be somewhere around $613.00 – and that didn’t include “mailing costs and/or other miscellaneous expenses.”
Needless to say, The Lansing City Pulse was flummoxed. All they wanted was some sort of list, or spreadsheet with names, dates, and addresses. What they were told is that list does not exist.
An email exchange between City Pulse and LPD Sgt. Chris Baldwin on Dec. 10 portrays right from the start a cavalier attitude by the city to getting any information in the hands of the public, who could have potential tips.
“We have a list somewhere. I really don’t have time to help you on it. I don’t even know where the list is,” Baldwin wrote.
In another email that same day, Baldwin contradicted himself, saying: “Anything before 2002 is going to be tricky and expensive, as we went to computer based reports about that time. Anything really old is in storage somewhere, and it costs $$$ just to have them pull file boxes.”
So what they’re really saying is, ‘In addition to not being able to solve the cases in question, we’re shitty record-keepers, we’re kind of apathetic about it as well, so if you want public documents, you’re gonna have to pay us a lot—on top of what you already pay as a taxpayer—and then maybe we’ll pull the boxes out of a dusty closet somewhere and go through them.’
My fellow Michiganders, how confident does this make you about the homicide clearance rate (not to mention locating missing persons) in Lansing, if this was just a back-and-forth about cases from 2000 to 2012? Now let’s pretend you’re the family member of someone who was murdered in Lansing sometime in the 1980s and their case remains unsolved. How confident are you about ever getting justice?
One more question. How many municipal workers and lawmakers do you want to slap right now? Don’t answer that, it’s rhetorical. Also, don’t slap municipal workers and lawmakers because if you do that, you’ll get taken to jail and we really don’t need to give them any more work because it appears they can’t even get a single list of unsolved murders compiled. No need to further burden the rusty cogs in the wheels of justice any more than they already are.
When asked about the ridiculous fees Lansing wanted to charge, their Public Information Officer had this to say:
“We can’t just have one of our data people (do it), they don’t have the status to go into each of these secured cases. What happens is we would have to pull our Detective Sergeant Baldwin, pull him from his normal duties… I think that’s where they came up with the dollar amount. Is it possible? Yeah, it’s definitely possible for him to collect all of that for you, problem is: him and maybe two other people would be pulled from their normal duties to do that, and that’s just where they came up with their figure. It’s just a matter of our data support people don’t have the access to those sensitive cases. It would be very time consuming and they based the prices on having a Detective Sergeant pulled from his job to do the work.”
Oh, is that so? Time consuming, you say? I’m sorry to trouble you in an effort to TRY TO GET MORE LEADS ON THE COLD CASES YOU HAVE BEEN UNABLE TO SOLVE.
Clearly the City Pulse reporter was much more even-keeled than my inner monologue.
What’s wrong with these people? my inner monologue continued. How are they supposed to keep track of whether any of these cases have similarities that might suggest multiple unsolved cases around a single suspect if they’re NOT EVEN COMPILED TO A SINGLE LIST OR DOCUMENT OR SPREADSHEET OR WHATEVER THE HELL IT WOULD TAKE TO—
Settle down, inner monologue. Settle down.
In 2014, under public pressure due to that article, the department assigned a detective to handle cold cases. As of this writing, only one case had been submitted to the Ingham County Prosecutor’s office seeking charges. Baby steps, I guess.
From a Detroit Free Press article dated June 9, 2014, “He [cold case detective McCallister] assigns a solvability rating to each case, determining how best to deploy resources. McCallister’s focus, for now, is cases that are most likely to be solved.”
Again, my inner monologue is having trouble rising to the level of giddy enthusiasm I’d like to feel on hearing resources are being thrown at unsolved cases, mainly because I heard the same thing from Michigan State Police regarding “solvability” and “resources” and “we don’t keep those kinds of lists…”
In my inner monologue’s defense, the reason it’s so testy is because our experience was similar to that of The City Pulse after sending an email to Michigan State Police’s Manager of Public Affairs, Shannon Banner, when requesting MSPs list of unsolved murders dating back to 1970. I should note that the reason I was asking was because there was a huge chunk redacted from the Reed City Police Department report on the Janette Roberson that read as follows:
“85 pages is redacted from [this portion of] the Reed City first responder’s report which contain a MSP report that was appended to the RCPD report… concerns unsolved homicides between 1983 and 1984, including that of Janette Gale Roberson. The report contains copies of the investigating agency and lab reports… also lists of suspects, crime scene layouts, and various internal memoranda concerning investigators’ theories of the crime, and persons of interest.”
So, of course my inner monologue thought, Okay, we need to get more information on any outstanding unsolved crimes, because what if there are some that might have been committed by the same perpetrator that killed Janette?
What I got in response from the MSP Manager of Public Affairs when I asked for a list of Michigan State Police’s unsolved homicides from 1970 to present was the following:
“We do not maintain such a list. There may be a way to obtain this information by querying our records management system; however, I’m not sure it would date back to 1970. If you are interested in pursuing this, you can send a Freedom of Information request to MSP-FOI@michigan.gov and the technicians there can determine if these records exist and are releasable.”
My inner monologue barked out the kind of laugh usually associated with the clinically insane.
The Michigan State Police FOIA Department “technicians” and I had already tangoed—repeatedly, masochistically, much to both of our chagrin. It really didn’t end well for anyone involved. I never got the rest of the paperwork I wanted on Janette’s case file because I was told it would cost about six thousand dollars to get it, and I don’t have six thousand dollars lying around. I’m fairly certain I didn’t make any new friends, either. Michigan State Police may or may not have five thousand pages associated with the Janette Roberson murder investigation, (they said approximately) but I cannot verify that as fact because I don’t believe people just because they tell me something, considering I have been told many things in relation to this case that turned out to be untrue, and some of those things came straight from municipal employees.
I was told I was getting the Roberson file, for example, after I paid about five-hundred bucks to get it. That was FOIA # 1. Today I have a 1½ inch thick binder that is completely full of FOIA response letters. I’d count them but I’m not a masochist. When I received the fruits of my first FOIA request, the paperwork only covered up to 1986 on the investigation into the murder of Janette Roberson. After a bit of back-and-forth with MSPs FOIA department, I was told it would take about 16 to 18 hours for the local MSP Post—who had the rest of the file, which the first FOIA coordinator had failed to send me—to search, retrieve, redact, and copy the items. Why thirty years’ worth of work product on an old, cold case was never turned over to Lansing to put on microfilm in the first place was not something anyone had an answer for, either.
So, I waited a few weeks after being told it would take 16 to 18 hours at $55.00 bucks a pop, only to find out that Whoopsie, we miscalculated. Did we say 18 hours? We meant 84 hours. Our bad.
This letter does a better job of summarizing my concerns in a formal complaint sent to Colonel Kriste Kibbey Etue (director of the Michigan State Police) after my assistant and I had exhausted all appeals to MSP. Oh yeah, Trusty Assistant did her share of FOIAing, too. It was a bloodbath of primarily blank pages with chunks of information thrown in here or there to whet our appetite before the next wave of nothing arrived, for which we were being charged by the page and by the hour.
Yes, you heard that right. You can and often are charged for blank pages.
We would like to lodge a formal complaint with you regarding the FOIA process and some concerns we have. In April we began submitting requests for materials related to the Janette Roberson murder in 1983, a case that remains unsolved. Jeni Decker is researching this for a true crime book she is writing, and I am her research assistant, tasked to keep all of our FOIA requests from multiple entities organized, as well as provide assistance tracking down other information.
Our first FOIA was for the file on the Janette Roberson murder on January 19, 1983. What we finally received, after being quoted one price and then charged almost triple that after a very long wait, was a partial file, only up to 1986, and only what Carla Jones was able to find on microfiche.
We learned this later from Jessina Beckner, who called Ms. Decker in an effort – we thought – to assist us getting our problem resolved. According to Ms. Beckner, Carla did not look in the other areas file information is stored, nor did she seek information from the local MSP Post, which is where, it appears, most of the file remains, three decades later. Not indexed, not organized, not digitized.
We believe if there is any hope in solving these decades-old homicides, the information should already have been input into a computer system so that officers can easily access it, if and when new information comes in. With a file that is not digitized or organized, there is almost no hope of solving the caseload of unsolved murders. Secondly, in order to bring these very old files up to date, taxpayers are, essentially, footing the bill for work that should have been done all along, in an organized, efficient manner, during downtime. For people requesting materials, it could be argued that we are now paying MSP employees to do this tedious work twice. Once on the job, and then again when we request it. It is our contention that we are being double billed, and at a pretty high hourly rate, compared to other law enforcement entities we’ve worked with.
We paid over $500 for about 200 blank pages. It appears that Carla started separating the exempt from non-exempt material, and then began redacting everything. We later learned that there may have been intervention by a former Detective on the case. Since then we have had trouble getting any information, and are either denied flat out, or sent estimates for exorbitant fees, even for items we have told them exactly where they can be found, by page number.
When we sought relief from MSP to try to find out why we got nothing after 1986 on a file that certainly must have been worked on in the following 28 years, Jessina Beckner asked us by email to provide digital copies of every one of the redacted documents Carla Jones had already provided to us. I complied and scanned them all, finally sending ten digitized PDF files to Ms. Beckner. I hope those have been maintained for the next person who may request the information. I would hate to think MSP would have digitized copies yet still charge someone else the fees I incurred when those could have been stored easily.
Ms. Beckner told Ms. Decker by phone that she really wanted to help us and that there was a great deal more of the file at the local Post we were entitled to have redacted and supplied to us. Weeks passed and when we finally heard back, we were told that the Post estimated between 16 and 18 hours of work (which would have been at the $45 to $55 an hour of work price). Jessina told Ms. Decker over the phone she thought it would be closer to 12 hours. Then, sometime later, we received an estimate by mail which stated it would take MSP approximately 84 hours and just under $6000.000 dollars to furnish our request.
I am not sure where the breakdown occurred, why the Post told Ms. Beckner one thing, and then decided it would take six times longer than the original estimate, but we feel this is concerning and questionable. If the information is so disorganized that it would take that many hours to copy and redact the materials, it is probably not organized in a way that is conducive to being worked, never mind solved.
We have now begun submitting smaller, very specific FOIA’s in order to determine specific exemptions, because some of our questions were either going unanswered or being ignored. It is our plan to formally appeal the original appeal at the court level, since we have exhausted our appeals on that FOIA with MSP. We were advised by council to begin submitting smaller FOIA requests from the original in order to establish specific exemptions that can be argued against in court – for example, how times of police officers arriving may not be redacted, nor can every witness statement be legally redacted it its entirety, but must be gone through and the exempt and non-exempt material separated and the non-exempt materials provided to us.
Having begun this process, we have now established that we are basically being charged a flat $295 fee for even a one page report search based on page count, because we are told this file comes to over 5000 pages. Items cannot be easily found, so MSP FOIA department maintains that each time they do a search, they must search the entire document for single items, no matter where they are, apparently.
We maintain the public should not be penalized for seeking public documents because MSP is does not have the file indexed, organized, and digitized. This does not seem to go to what the Freedom of Information act intends to do, which is supply the public with records that help give a greater understanding of how government works. Right now, it appears to only be an effort to obstruct getting anything at all by overcharging for every item.
Col. Etue, we ask that you look into this matter and provide us with some relief with regard to our complaint. I have copied/pasted the relevant emails below, which will help to explain what I have outlined here. Many of the problems that occurred prior to my interaction with Ms. Beckner were with Carla Jones, which included being sent information under someone else’s name, and being charged for items, then getting letters saying they had being denied and monies being returned. Why Carla left and Jessina stepped in, I am not sure, but we continue to have issues around this so we now seek your assistance.
We look forward to hearing from you and thank you in advance for your time and attention,
Jennifer Carlson / Jeni Decker
As you read that, I bet I know what you’re thinking.
Man, she better not even go one mile over the speed limit for the foreseeable future, and obey every law, traffic or otherwise, for as long as she continues to draw breath.
Yes, I obey the law, and no, I don’t speed. So far, so good. But if I ever end up missing, go ahead and check the MSP Post janitors’ closets, evidence storage units, and assorted outbuildings. Look for oil drums or containers large enough to hold a 5-foot tall girl with a little more meat on her bones than she’d like.
The most disturbing thing about my phone conversation with Ms. Beckner was that before I offered to send her digital copies of what MSP had already sent me, she asked if I might meet her somewhere to see what the first FOIA coordinator, Carla Jones, had already sent me.
“Really? Aren’t you all the way in Lansing? I don’t get up there much.” Or ever.
“Oh, well I thought I could meet you half-way, maybe.”
Wait. Hold the phone… Me hopping in a car and lugging a couple hundred pages of information your department sent to me so you can refresh your memory as to what your department sent to me sounds like an idea that lives within the realm of complete mental health to you? Because it doesn’t to me. It sounds like the plot of a couple unfortunate after school specials I’ve watched, though.
I didn’t say that. Instead, I suggested maybe I could scan the pages and email them, which I ended up spending the better part of a day doing, because, among other things, it had to be broken into ten separate files in order to email. I did this as a courtesy, a term the FOIA department would begin using when we asked them why they did one thing for one FOIA we sent, and then later something different for another.
Oh, we did that first one as a courtesy.
But it begs the question: Exactly what did Ms. Beckner hope to accomplish in person? Why would the Michigan State Police Supervisor of the Freedom of Information Unit ask me to get in my car and drive an hour (because Lansing is two hours from me) so she could See what Carla gave you so I don’t send you the same stuff. Are they that unorganized up in Lansing that they don’t know what they’re mailing out?
I’ve never been afraid to point at something and go, “Um, no…” and I’m not going to start now. Michigan is not exactly a shining example of transparency and full disclosure, and it isn’t like I’m the only one saying it. The State Integrity Project, sponsored by The Center for Public Integrity gives Michigan an overall F rating on its Corruption Risk Report Card, ranking it #44 out of the fifty states.
That’s F, short for f*cked up. Yay, Michigan, for not being the absolute worst! That honor goes to Georgia. In the category of public access to information, Michigan got graded a D. When I was a kid, a D on my report card would get me into a whole heap of trouble.
Remember that rape kit deal? At the risk of getting re-chafed, I’ll just say this: If you aren’t even processing evidence in a timely, efficient manner, how can you expect to catch predators before they prey on someone else? Backlogs on evidence testing of anything more than a few weeks shouldn’t be acceptable. Period. End of story. Getting processed evidence back to use for investigative purposes is how cops do their jobs. They can’t effectively do their job if they aren’t supplied the tools to do it, and those tools are things like timely processing of evidence, and records being easily available for comparison. All information on all cases, (even old/unsolved cases) should be completely indexed and digitized for easy and immediate cross reference capabilities.
Why are we even discussing this in 2015? Seriously, how long has computer technology been available? There is no question that all these factors contribute to a low clearance rate.
We can’t expect cops to close cases if they are not provided the means to do so.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned while researching the murder of Janette Roberson it’s that there are multiple systemic breakdowns that need to be addressed in Michigan, and probably nationwide. In this day and age of technology, there really is no excuse for record keeping so horrendous that the public is charged fees like $55 dollars an hour for an ungodly amount of hours because someone’s having to rifle through mold-dappled boxes in a closet somewhere to find information. Neither is there any excuse for evidence not being processed in a timely, efficient manner.
There’s another side to this that I think bears mentioning, and I didn’t even consider it until I got this email from change.org with a header that read: This email contains graphic information that may be upsetting.
In 1995, I found myself on a journey I would never wish on another human being. I learned that the man whom I had identified in court as my rapist and was sent to prison – the man whose face, breath and evilness I had dreamt about for 11 years – was innocent.
Through post-conviction DNA testing, Ronald Cotton, the man I had hated and prayed for to die, walked out of prison an innocent man. The man who I believed stole everything from me had unfairly lost 4000 days, eleven Christmases, eleven birthdays, and relationships with loved ones.
The DNA tests also found the man who had actually raped me, Bobby Poole. Without the DNA testing an innocent man would still be in prison and a guilty man would be free. Now, the future of the law that allows for this type of DNA testing is uncertain – Congress must reauthorize it by passing the Justice for All Act. I started a petition asking Congress to protect victims and the innocent by reauthorizing the Justice for All Act, which allows for post-conviction DNA testing. Click here to sign it. I had identified Ronald out of a lineup using a police sketch that was based on my own description of the assailant. I was 100% certain I had chosen the right guy – but that’s just how fragile memory can be. And it’s why we need post-conviction DNA testing.
Bobby Poole, the man who really raped me, went on to rape five other women. In prison, he bragged about how Ronald was serving time for his crime. It wasn’t until Ronald heard about post-conviction DNA testing that he called his lawyers and urged them to get the DNA in his case tested. After Ronald was freed, I spoke with Poole’s last victim. She told me what happened to her and it pained me to know that it could have prevented if Ronald had not been locked up for something he had never done.
The Justice for All Act, which is up for reauthorization by Congress, allows men like Ronald to obtain post-conviction DNA testing that can lead to their freedom and to the conviction of the guilty. Without access to such testing, innocent men and women will remain in prison, real perpetrators will remain free, and new victims will have to experience the same horrors and indignities that I did. Please sign my petition asking Congress to reauthorize the Justice for All Act, which allows for post-conviction DNA testing.
Yes, I signed the petition. Of course I did. My point here is to illustrate how often the wrong thing happens because the right things aren’t done as far as DNA testing, as far as common sense legislation and actual law enforcement.
Sometimes balls get dropped.
Innocent people go to jail.
Guilty people remain free.
I want everyone reading this to pay more attention to how the system around you works. Next time a crime is committed, it might be you on the receiving end, and you’ll want a system that works the best it can. You’ll want justice, and you’ll want to live in a country where the system itself is set up to accomplish that.
You won’t want people traipsing around crime scenes and destroying evidence; you will want evidence to be tested accurately and in a timely manner. You won’t want a family member’s suffering to be further exacerbated by a system that can’t fix what has been broken.
You will want justice, and you will deserve at least that.
Now… do you want to get really mad? No, seriously. Like pissed off to the point that you feel the need to call your local Congressman? The Detroit Free Press ran an article written by Tresa Baldas in October of 2011 about the murder of a teenager from Detroit.
“Laura Wilson, a shy teenager from the Herman Gardens housing project on Detroit’s west side, walked to a nearby convenience store to buy a carton of Oleo and two bottles of Pepsi for her mother. She had pleaded to go alone. Nine days later, her body was found in some bushes just blocks away from home. She’d been raped and beaten. Her head was smashed in with a brick. Nearly four decades later, her family still has no answers. Short of a confession, it’s likely they’ll never know who killed the 16-year-old because all of the evidence was destroyed or lost.”
“Her bloodstained clothing was ordered destroyed in 1977; the Pepsi bottle followed in 1978. A brick and a chunk of concrete marked with blood and hair strands were destroyed in 1984. The fingernail scrapings and rape evidence -- swabs taken during the autopsy -- are nowhere to be found. Her story illustrates what legal experts say is a pervasive problem nationwide -- the mishandling of criminal evidence largely because of a lack of uniform standards for retaining evidence.”
Take a minute. Go ahead. I’ll wait. When I read that, I needed one, too.
Basically what it says is that even if you’ve somehow jumped every hurdle, even if the cops thought, “That’s our guy!” in some cases, they wouldn’t be able to put him away because there wouldn’t be anything to take into court. No fancy DNA that juries these days want in order to send someone away for life.
Jurors take their jobs seriously. They’ve seen Criminal Minds and Law & Order: SVU so don’t try and pull any crap on them. They know there’s supposed to be DNA evidence, prints, hairs, fibers, yards of area blasted with Luminol—you get what I’m saying. God forbid police decide they know who the bad guy is, but they can’t get anywhere close to a courtroom because someone decided it was time to make more space in the storage unit.
How about we decide that on ANY unsolved homicide case, if you get rid of related evidence while the case is still open, you go to jail? How about if you “loose” or “throw away” or “destroy” evidence on a case that is open, you get latrine duty for the rest of your days in some maximum security prison? How about we do whatever we need to do to make sure killers don’t get to keep walking around eating Taco Bell and watching shitty reality TV after slaughtering someone?
From the same Detroit Free Press Article:
“A federal law requires biological evidence be preserved in a murder case where there’s been a conviction, should the defendant wish to pursue an appeal. And 33 states, including Michigan, have similar laws. But when it comes to preserving evidence in unsolved cases, that’s up to police departments.”
Joe Latta, executive director of the International Association for Property and Evidence, who has helped train Detroit police on evidence-handling methods, said it’s not unusual for large police departments to be cluttered and unorganized, making finding items extremely difficult.
“Think of Costco. They’re that size,” he said of evidence rooms. “And if you’re looking for something that’s the size of an iPhone or the tag came off or it’s underneath something...”
You know what? I don’t want to think of Costco. That explanation, while it is an explanation, is completely and utterly unacceptable. When did we become so apathetic that a mere plausible explanation takes the place of what is just and right and okay?
Because it’s not okay, none of it—not if it’s your son or daughter or niece or sister or grandma, and it shouldn’t be okay for anyone else. At what point do we say I don’t want to hear your excuses and explanations, I WANT YOU TO FIX IT.
Make it right. Make it fair. Make it just.
Make it work. Make the system work.
Fix it, please.
...to be continued...