Unsolved murders, often referred to as “cold cases,” are criminal investigations of homicides that have not been solved and remain open. These cases can remain unsolved for various reasons, including lack of evidence, witnesses, or leads. Over time, as memories fade, witnesses move or pass away, and evidence degrades, it becomes increasingly difficult to solve these cases. However, advancements in forensic science, especially DNA technology, have led to the reopening and resolution of many cold cases in recent years.
Here Are Some Of The Most Notorious Unsolved Murders In History
The Black Dahlia Murder (1947): Elizabeth Short, an aspiring actress, was found brutally murdered in Los Angeles. Her body was severed in half, and her face was slashed from the corners of her mouth to her ears. Despite extensive investigations, her killer was never identified.
The Zodiac Killer (Late 1960s – Early 1970s): This serial killer claimed to have murdered 37 people in Northern California but was only linked to five deaths. The killer sent cryptic letters to newspapers and taunted the police but was never caught.
The Tamam Shud case (1948): An unidentified man was found dead on Somerton Beach near Adelaide, Australia. A scrap of paper with the words “Tamam Shud” (meaning “ended” or “finished” in Persian) was found hidden in a concealed pocket of the man’s pants. Despite extensive investigations, the man’s identity and cause of death remain a mystery.
The Original Night Stalker (1970s – 1980s): This unidentified serial killer and rapist committed at least 12 murders, 50 sexual assaults, and over 100 burglaries in California. Although the Golden State Killer, a separate criminal, was caught in 2018, the Original Night Stalker remains unidentified.
The Boy in the Box (1957): The body of a young boy, estimated to be around 4 to 6 years old, was found in a cardboard box in Philadelphia. Despite extensive efforts, the boy’s identity and the circumstances of his death remain unknown.
Jack the Ripper (1888): This unidentified serial killer is believed to have murdered at least five women in the Whitechapel district of London. Despite numerous suspects and theories, the killer’s identity remains one of the biggest mysteries in the annals of crime.
The Olof Palme Assassination (1986): Olof Palme, the Prime Minister of Sweden, was shot dead while walking home from the cinema with his wife. Despite numerous leads and suspects, the murder remains unsolved.
It’s worth noting that while these cases remain unsolved, they continue to fascinate the public and inspire numerous books, documentaries, and films. Additionally, law enforcement agencies around the world continue to use new technologies and investigative techniques in hopes of solving these and other cold cases.
How DNA Testing is Slowly Solving Cold Cases
In the annals of criminal justice, countless unsolved cases have haunted detectives and left families without closure. However, the advent of DNA testing has revolutionized forensic science, offering a glimmer of hope in solving these cold cases. This powerful tool has been instrumental in both exonerating the innocent and identifying the guilty, even decades after the crime was committed.
The Science Behind DNA Testing
DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is the genetic material present in the cells of all living organisms. It carries the genetic instructions for development, functioning, growth, and reproduction. Every individual, except for identical twins, has a unique DNA profile. This uniqueness makes DNA an invaluable tool in forensic investigations.
When a crime is committed, perpetrators often leave behind biological evidence, such as blood, semen, hair, or skin cells. By extracting and analyzing the DNA from these samples, forensic scientists can create a DNA profile of the potential suspect. This profile can then be compared to DNA samples from known individuals or entered into a national database to find a match.
The Rise Of DNA Databases
One of the significant advancements in the use of DNA in solving cold cases has been the establishment of DNA databases. In the U.S., the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) allows federal, state, and local crime labs to exchange and compare DNA profiles. When a new profile is added to the database, it is automatically compared to all other profiles, leading to potential matches and breakthroughs in unsolved cases.
Solving Cold Cases: Notable Successes
Several high-profile cold cases have been solved thanks to DNA testing:
The Golden State Killer, responsible for at least 12 murders, 50 sexual assaults, and over 100 burglaries in California between 1974 and 1986, was identified as Joseph James DeAngelo in 2018. Investigators used a novel approach by matching the killer’s DNA with that of distant relatives on a genealogy website.
In 2019, DNA testing identified the killer of 20-year-old Helene Pruszynski, who was murdered in Colorado in 1980. The suspect, James Curtis Clanton, was arrested and pleaded guilty.
Challenges And Ethical Considerations
While DNA testing has proven invaluable in solving cold cases, it’s not without challenges. Degraded samples, contamination, and small sample sizes can lead to inconclusive or incorrect results. Moreover, the use of genealogy websites to track down suspects, as seen in the Golden State Killer case, raises ethical concerns about privacy and consent.
There’s also the issue of backlogs. Many crime labs across the U.S. have a significant number of untested DNA samples, mainly due to lack of resources. This delay can hinder the timely resolution of cases and prolong the agony for victims’ families.
The Future Of DNA Testing In Cold Cases
The future holds promise for the role of DNA in solving cold cases. Advancements in technology, such as Next-Generation Sequencing (NGS), allow for the analysis of even more complex DNA samples. This technology can extract information from degraded samples that were previously deemed unusable.
Additionally, the rise of citizen science and the popularity of commercial DNA testing kits mean that more people are getting their DNA sequenced and added to databases. While this raises privacy concerns, it also increases the chances of finding matches and solving cases.
In conclusion, DNA testing has ushered in a new era in the realm of forensic science. Cold cases that once seemed destined to remain unsolved are now being cracked open, thanks to the meticulous work of forensic scientists and the unparalleled insights offered by DNA. As technology continues to advance and databases grow, there’s hope that more families will find the closure they’ve been seeking for years, if not decades.
How Do Cold Murder Cases Get Retried?
Cold murder cases, often referred to as “cold cases,” are unsolved criminal investigations that have stalled due to a lack of evidence, leads, or resources. However, when new evidence emerges or old evidence is reexamined with modern techniques, these cases can be reopened and potentially retried. Here’s an in-depth look at how cold murder cases get retried:
Reopening The Investigation
The process often begins when a detective or a specialized cold case unit decides to revisit an unsolved murder. This decision can be prompted by various factors, like there being new evidence. Such as a previously undiscovered witness, a newly found piece of physical evidence, or even a confession.
Also, the advancements in technology allow for there to be modern forensic methods, especially DNA testing, can analyze evidence that was previously inconclusive.
Public interest such as media coverage, public demands, or even true crime documentaries can push law enforcement to revisit old cases.
Re-examining Old Evidence
Before considering a retrial, investigators will meticulously review all the evidence from the original case.
Witness Testimonies: Witnesses might be re-interviewed to check for any inconsistencies or to jog their memories for previously overlooked details.
Physical Evidence: With advancements in forensic science, old evidence like clothing, weapons, or other items can be retested using modern techniques.
Gathering New Evidence
To successfully retry a cold murder case, new evidence is often crucial. This can include:
DNA Evidence: As mentioned, DNA technology has revolutionized cold case investigations. Even minute samples can now be analyzed to identify potential suspects or link individuals to crime scenes.
Digital Footprints: In today’s digital age, investigators can also look into emails, social media activity, and other online records that might not have been available during the original investigation.
Once there’s enough evidence to suggest a potential suspect or to challenge the findings of the original trial, the case is presented to a prosecutor. The prosecutor will then decide whether there’s enough evidence to pursue a retrial. This decision is based on:
Strength of New Evidence: The new evidence must be compelling enough to warrant a retrial and stand up in court.
Statute of Limitations: While murder typically has no statute of limitations, other related charges might. Prosecutors will consider this when deciding on a retrial.
Double Jeopardy: In the U.S., the Fifth Amendment protects individuals from being tried twice for the same crime. However, if new evidence emerges that significantly challenges the findings of the original trial, exceptions can be made.
The Retrial Process
If a decision is made to retry the case, the process largely mirrors that of any criminal trial.
The first step will be an arraignment where the accused is formally charged with the crime.
Then the pre-trial motions for both the defense and prosecution can file motions to determine what evidence can be presented during the trial.
Next step would be the jury selection, this is where a new jury is selected for the retrial.
The case would be presented before the jury, with both sides presenting their evidence and arguments.
The jury decides on the guilt or innocence of the accused based on the evidence presented.
Challenges In Retrying Cold Murder Cases
Retrying cold cases is not without its challenges, such as memory degradation like witness recollection can be fuzzy as the years or even decades pass. Witnesses’ memories can become less reliable, the details can become fuzzy, and some events may be remembered differently than they occurred.
Law enforcement turnover is also a possibility, as the original investigators may have retired or moved on, leading to a loss of firsthand knowledge about the case.
Evidence degradation can happen to physical evidence where it just degrades over time, making it less conclusive. Examples of this are biological samples, such as blood, hair, or tissue, can degrade over time, making DNA extraction and analysis challenging.
Also, improper storage conditions can compromise evidence. For instance, moisture can degrade DNA samples, and fluctuating temperatures can alter certain types of evidence.
There is also the possibility that over time, evidence might have been handled by multiple individuals, increasing the risk of contamination or loss.
Witness availability can be difficult as there may have been witnesses that moved to different cities, states, or even countries, making them difficult to locate and interview.
Also, given the passage of time, some witnesses may have passed away, taking their testimonies with them.
Some witnesses might even be hesitant to get involved again, especially if they’ve moved on with their lives or if their previous involvement had negative repercussions.
The retrial of cold murder cases is a complex process that requires a combination of diligent investigative work, advancements in forensic science, and legal maneuvering. While challenging, the successful retrial of such cases serves the dual purpose of delivering justice to victims and their families and ensuring that the guilty are held accountable for their actions. As forensic and investigative methods continue to advance, the hope is that more cold cases will find their way back to the courtroom, ensuring that justice, though delayed, is not denied.
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