03 February, 2009

Investigating Unsolved Murders in DC

When does a case become a “cold case”
Typically, all cases are worked by the original case detective for a period of up to three years. At that time, if all reasonable leads have been exhausted, the case is transferred to the Major Case/Cold Case Unit. This is not a hard and fast rule. If the original detective, or his or her replacement, has active leads, the detective may choose to keep the case until those leads are exhausted, before allowing the case to be transferred.

What is the Major Case/Cold Case Unit?
The MPDC's Major Case/Cold Case Unit is composed of eight detectives. They work closely with crime and intelligence analysts as well as homicide prosecutors from the US Attorney’s Office. Additionally, the Major Case/Cold Case detectives receive assistance as needed from the Special Victims Unit (who handle all child deaths), as well as other specialized units.
The Violent Crime Case Review Project is part of the unit. The project includes one detective, who oversees several college interns. These interns, primarily specially trained graduate students studying Forensic Psychology, Criminology or other related fields, are involved in the comprehensive and systematic review of all homicide cases going back to the 1960s. The interns determine if the case is open or closed, determine the status of all suspects, summarize the case, prepare it for entry in investigative databases and help to prioritize cases with high solvability factors. One of their primary functions is to identify cases that may benefit from advances in forensic technology – specifically DNA testing.

How are unsolved murders in the Major Case/Cold Case Unit assigned?
When a case is first transferred to the Major Case/Cold Case Unit, it is not assigned to any individual detective or team. Cases are assigned out for additional investigation when, during the review process unresolved leads are identified or new information becomes available.

How do cases get reviewed?
The Violent Crime Case Review Project is working to review all homicides that have occurred in the District of Columbia – going back as far as records are available. The review process is systematic – with years being reviewed in turn. It is a slow process and is expected to take several years to complete. Cases are pulled and reviewed out of turn when:

* The family of a homicide victim makes an inquiry about the status of their loved one’s case.
* New information – including forensic information – becomes available.
* An outside law enforcement agency makes an inquiry about a case.

What happens when a case is reviewed?
The first thing the review team does is determine the status of the case (open or closed). If the case is closed, they determine whether or not the case went to trial, the outcome of the trial and the status of the suspect.

All cases are being reviewed – even closed cases. This is because information in a closed case may help solve an open case. This review can also determine whether or not the suspect in the closed case ever went to trial. If it is determined that the charges against the defendant were dismissed without trial, the case is treated by the review team as an open case.

The case information is summarized and placed in a format to be entered into two separate databases. One is an MPDC internal case management database; the other is the national FBI Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP) database. The ViCAP database collects detailed behavioral information about the crime and allows for complex link analysis and searches. The most important thing that ViCAP does is allows analysts to link incoming clues to the cases. If an investigator cannot link the clue to the case, it does no one any good. MPDC's ViCAP case information is also shared with the national ViCAP database for additional analysis.

Finally, the review team identifies cases that might benefit from advances in forensic technology, or have unresolved investigative leads. Those cases are passed along for additional review, work and re-assignment, where appropriate. In cases with forensic potential only, additional lab work may be requested and the case put on hold pending the outcome of that testing.

How do I get someone assigned to work on my loved one’s case?
The review is the first step. Contact information for requesting a review is below. If you have any new information when you make the request, please be prepared to share it at that time. Once the request is made, we will check to see if the case has already been reviewed. If not, the case will be put on a list to be reviewed by the review team. How quickly this is accomplished depends on the current workload and the complexity of the case. You are encouraged to check on the status of the review with the persons listed below.
If the MPDC does not already have one, detectives will be requesting a photograph of your loved one. The photograph can either be mailed or e-mailed to reviewed. If mailed, the photo will be scanned and mailed back to the sender immediately. The photo may be posted on the Unsolved Murder website, as well as used to create a reward poster for distribution (for more information on rewards, see below).

Once the review is completed, the MPDC will make arrangements to meet with you and your family to discuss the case. This does not mean that the case will automatically be re-assigned for additional investigation. During this meeting, we will discuss the current status of the cases as well as possible investigative options.

Cases that are not chosen for additional investigation are placed in a “holding pattern” – awaiting any new leads or tips that warrant follow up.

Can a reward be offered in my loved-one’s case?
The Metropolitan Police Department will pay up to $25,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of a suspect in any murder case that occurs within the District of Columbia, regardless of how old the case may be.
If a photograph of the decedent is available, we will post a copy of the reward poster on our Unsolved Murder web page. We will also supply copies of the poster to the decedent’s friends and family for distribution. We have found that we often get better results if the family and friends distribute and post the flyers, as people who may have information are more likely to approach the victim’s family.

What happens when my loved one’s case gets chosen for additional investigation?
Typically, the decedent’s next of kin will be notified by the assigned detective that the case has been chosen for additional investigation. Usually, a specific investigative plan will have been developed – based on the review, new information or the results of new forensic testing. Depending on security and other concerns, the nature of the investigative plan may not be fully disclosed to the next of kin at the time the case is reassigned. Following the implementation of the investigative plan, the case will be re-evaluated by the detective team and their supervisors. Depending on that review, additional investigative steps may be taken or the case may be put aside, awaiting further developments. The next of kin will be notified of the outcome of the investigation to the fullest extent possible.

Though the murder happened years ago, we are still hurting. Can anything be done to help us?
You are not alone. Even if the murder occurred decades ago, many people tell us that it feels like it just happened yesterday.
The family members and friends of the decedent may be eligible for all sorts of programs, including compensation, free counseling and other services. Additionally, there are several victim support groups made up of persons just like you. They not only provide support and advice, but allow you to assist others who are now going through what you have been through. For information about these services and groups, please contact the MPDC's Family Liaison Specialist Unit at (202) 645-6363. The specialists are highly trained professionals skilled in assisting the survivors of homicide victims through the aftermath of crime and in locating and utilizing resources.

What else can we do to help solve our loved-one’s case?
The most important thing is to keep your eyes and ears open. We have found that persons who may have information will frequently approach family members before they approach the police. Pass this information along to us – no matter how insufficient it seems at the time.
If it has not been done already, get us a picture of the decedent so we can post it on the website and create reward posters. Get family and friends to help post the reward posters in the appropriate neighborhoods.

Don’t be afraid to discuss problems or shortcomings that the decedent had around the time of their murder. These do not minimize the importance of the case in our eyes and often provide very important clues as to suspects and/or motive.

If possible, maintain contact with the decedent’s friends and associates. Often times, they will have information that is relevant to the investigation. It may fall upon you to assist us in convincing them to cooperate. Continue to let them know that you care and need to find out what happened.

Become an activist – work with the victim support groups and other anti-violence and anti-gun groups. Not only are you turning your tragedy into something more positive, but continued exposure of your loved one’s case to the public may help generate additional leads.

Who Do I Contact?

Case Status Information & Case Reviews Contact Phone Email
Violent Crime Case Review Project Det. Jim Trainum (202) 727-5037 unsolved.murder@dc.gov
MPD Family Liaison Specialist Unit Carla Okonkwo (202) 645-6363
MPD Family Liaison Specialist Unit Bridget Jones-Smith (202) 645-5537
MPD Family Liaison Specialist Unit Marlene James (202) 645-9631

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