Thursday, December 18, 2008

Why so many uncleared homicides?

Bridget Johnson at PJM has an article looking at the Adam Walsh case and the number of uncleared homicides in the US:

Earlier this month, an Associated Press probe of FBI figures revealed that, despite technological advances in criminalistics, it’s just easier to get away with murder nowadays. The clearance rate of homicides, or cases solved in a year, stood at 61 percent nationwide in 2007, a steady slip over the decades from the first year of modern record-keeping, 1963, when the clearance rate was 91 percent.

In addition to DNA and other scientific advances that should be helping catch more criminals, not fewer, law enforcement also now has the benefit of reaping tips and captures with the help of modern media. America’s Most Wanted, the longest-running show on the Fox network, boasts 1,049 criminals caught with the program’s help as of this writing — yet for 27 years, host John Walsh has been at the center of one of America’s most infamous unsolved mysteries.

I remember when we talked with Bill Bass, forensic anthropologist and author of Death's Acre, he mentioned that due to all of the CSI type shows, people think that it is easier to catch criminals these days when indeed it is not. Part of the problem, he said (and I am recalling this from memory) is that since many of us are strangers and there is less community cohesiveness, no witnesses will come forward when there is a murder or they are reluctant to talk to the police.



Blogger uncle ken said...

I think you answered your own question. It may not be reluctance on the part of witnesses, but the fact that no one witnessing the crime knew either perp or victim. We live in an inceasingly isolated urban society, lacking the cohesion of small town America. Without societal glue, it's not such a wonderful life.

6:51 AM, December 18, 2008  
Blogger Cham said...

It doesn't matter how close you are to your neighbors, if there are no witnesses you can't expect anyone to come forward. It has become incredibly easy to kill somebody and not leave any evidence. If you shoot someone in a home or in an alley at night, stay far enough away so you aren't leaving any fingerprints or your own blood or DNA at the scene, and are smart enough not to talk about it, you can pretty much expect to get away with it. CSI is nice, but it is a TV show.

8:19 AM, December 18, 2008  
Blogger Scott Pierce said...

I wonder how many people are now eliminated as suspects or not designated the perpetrator because of technology versus those who were seemingly guilty and went to jail for it in 1963 regardless of actual guilt because the means of determining their innocents wasn't available as it is today.

9:49 AM, December 18, 2008  
Blogger John said...

Hmmm... I wonder if part of the reason clearances have gone down is that police are less likely to close an unsolved case. Victim's rights groups have become more active, and I wonder if that makes it harder for them to sweep a case under the rug.

I can verify that CSI viewing affects people's expectation. I was on a jury where the guy was just obviously guilty, caught in flagrante, but the jury started out wanting to acquit because they hadn't seen any PHYSICAL evidence. They said "They always have it on CSI!".

The two or three intelligent people on the jury quickly disabused them of that notion and we put the guy away.

11:07 AM, December 18, 2008  
Blogger Danny said...

I once heard an "expert" on CNN, who complained that all the CSI type, and the reality/crime/detective/forensic shows made things harder for the cops. Seems a lot of the smarter criminals have learnt how cops and detectives do things,and hence they can plan ahead of time, to avoid leaving clues behind.

Dont know how true that expert's comments were, but, it seems plausible to a certain extent

11:17 AM, December 18, 2008  
Blogger LarryD said...

One factor not mentioned yet, is that in the 1960s almost all murders were of people the murder knew. The clearance rate for such murders is very high, even today. Motive connects victim to murder, and usually come out during an investigation.

"Random" killing, where the victim is not personally known to the murderer, is much more significant now. Example, a gang member killing a member of a rival gang (or even someone mimicking the gang signs). Nothing connects the victim to the murderer, other than membership in rival gangs.

12:57 PM, December 18, 2008  
Blogger Cham said...

LarryD: You make a good point. If you are a drug dealer there is a good chance a customer or supplier might have been involved in your murder. You might have 200 regular customers and 10 suppliers, each with a rap sheet a mile long. That is way too many possible suspects, the police department wouldn't know where to start. If you are a gang member and somebody murdered you, not only do you have every member of every rival gang member as a suspect but also your own gang as potential suspects. That's a lot of people whom nobody can believe anything they say.

2:07 PM, December 18, 2008  
Blogger Mark Roulo said...

Are they scoring as solved cases where they have "convictions" or cases where the "police know who did it" even if they can't get a conviction?

I'm thinking that the rules may make it harder to convict now than in the early 1960s (Miranda rights, etc. ... although Miranda rights may have been earlier).

As a (possibly charged) example: How is the OJ case scored? Is the Nicole Brown Simpson murder "solved" or not?

-Mark Roulo

2:46 PM, December 18, 2008  
Blogger Quasimodo said...

1963: the cops said he did it, so he must have done it .... We find the defendant guilty your honor.

...intervening years of erosion of respect for authority (arising out of the authority not deserving it, in too many cases)...

2009: the cops said he did it, the DNA is not conclusive or says he did not do it ... it may not even make it to trial - why bother? Case remains open

2:46 PM, December 18, 2008  
Blogger Cham said...

Mark: Convictions or knowing who did it aside, another question would be what constitutes a homicide? The definition of homicide is fluid.

5:22 PM, December 18, 2008  
Blogger Mark Roulo said...

Cham, sure, add that to the mix of things that might change the rate.

I guess what I'm wondering is if the change is because we don't *know* "who dun it" or because we the standard of proof for "who dun it" has moved. We also shouldn't forget that the 90+% rate in the early 1960s might include convictions of people who didn't actually commit the crime. I bet the KGB could have had close to a 100% "solved" rate if they wanted to. But that doesn't mean that the right people were being sent up the river :-)

You've added to my question the issue of "is/was it a homicide" at all. Maybe a lot of the "tough" cases in the 1960s weren't considered homicides? [Two bullets in the head, throat cut, cement overshoes and at the bottom of a lake. Obviously a very determined suicide. Case closed!]

-Mark Roulo

8:02 PM, December 18, 2008  
Blogger Cham said...


My city hasn't reduced the homicide rate, but with a sleight of hand by the police department it has miraculously reduced the murder rate. It's all about those "pending" autopsy findings and questionable classifications by the police department. Give the mayor an attagirl!

8:23 PM, December 18, 2008  
Blogger Slamdunk said...

Thanks for the link to the PJM article Dr. H.

I think that your point about less cohesive communities and the reader replies including lack of witnesses, the change in the evidence required to convict (from the 60s to today), and the impact of drugs are all relevant factors.

In the literature, it has been strongly argued that the decline in homicide clearances is due to a host of factors that have altered the contexts of the most common cases. Examining data between 1960-2002, Ken Litwin and Yili Xu's research indicated that primary factors influencing the decline in homicide clearances could be attributed to: 1) significant increase in the number of minority victims (meaning less cooperation from minority communities and/or fewer resources dedicated to solving the cases of the less powerful--depending on your world view), 2) a 196% increase in the number of bodies recovered from vehicles, 3) a 14% increase in cases where firearms were used, and 4) 13% increase in male victims.

Crime writer and blogger Stacy Horn tackled this issue in 2006, and after talking with a number of detectives offered that the retirement of veteran investigators could be contributing to the decline in clearance rates. She also briefly mentions improvements in police reporting practices as a factor--one that I would agree with. For instance, in the 1960s, I believe that many missing persons cases never made it to be classified as homicides--cases that modern forensics teams could have at least established that a crime had been committed and thus labeled the incident as a homicide.

Just my thoughts...

11:01 PM, December 18, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why does an increase in male victims reduce clearance rates? I have an idea, but I wanted to hear what you think.

2:27 AM, December 19, 2008  
Blogger Helen said...


Good question, I wonder if people are more likely to try and find the murderer of a female than a male? Afterall, we mainly hear on the news about women who are murdered or missing. Perhaps families are more likely to push the police to solve the murder cases of women?

4:24 AM, December 19, 2008  
Blogger Slamdunk said...

I am not sure if researchers have a definitive answer as to why gender is a factor in whether a homicide is solved. Researcher Wendy Regoeczi tested the idea that women victims are less likely to be killed by a stranger, but she did not find a convincing relationship between the two variables.

Other researchers have offered reasons similar to what Dr. H. was thinking--that the victim's gender (some argue socio-economic status and race as well) is relevant as to the amount of police resources assigned to a case. Further, you could argue that men, specifically those who frequent places that involve higher levels of violence, are less connected to their community--thereby making witness and other evidence information weaker when a homicide does occur.

7:13 AM, December 19, 2008  
Blogger Cham said...


As viewers of many forms of media we could all make a guess as to the level of importance each demographic group plays when a news source decides which murder to report and how long the article will be. My guess would be the list goes something like this, from least important to most important:

Unemployed urban poor black men
Unemployed young white men
Employed men
Single older women
Married men
Employed married women
Black children
Married women, SAHMs
Older white children
Pretty single young women
Good looking young girls/toddlers
Caylie Anthony

I would be willing to assume that police departments also have some sort of hierarchy as to which cases they work on and where the devote resources.

8:47 AM, December 19, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good question, I wonder if people are more likely to try and find the murderer of a female than a male? Afterall, we mainly hear on the news about women who are murdered or missing.

That was my thought exactly. Jon-Benet Ramsey gets hundreds of hours of TV time while dozens of missing boys get no time whatsoever. Laci Peterson got similar treatment, while the greater number of dead men goes unremarked.

11:31 AM, December 19, 2008  
Blogger Unknown said...

The clearance rate of homicides, or cases solved in a year, stood at 61 percent nationwide in 2007, a steady slip over the decades from the first year of modern record-keeping, 1963, when the clearance rate was 91 percent.

I don't have any figures to back up my speculation, but I would wonder if, among other things, the difference can be attributed to the fact that it is no longer as easy (because of technology) to pin a murder on some random guy (more specifically, some random poor, often black, male).

10:19 PM, December 19, 2008  
Blogger mbet said...

A few random thoughts:
1) The Adam Walsh case could have been closed *years* ago - possibly even decades ago - had some quasi-incompetent police work not been involved. It didn't get closed now because they found a smoking gun; it was closed after a new review of the case confirmed what John Walsh had long contended about the identity of the killer.

2) Yes, I know that juries have gotten more demanding about physical evidence in the wake of the CSI phenomenon. However, there's a counterbalancing factor here. If the OJ trial were being held today, how many of the jurors would be totally ignorant about the basics of DNA? Maybe one or two, but that's it. The Precious Doe case - in which the headless body of a little girl was dumped in Missouri - was solved when a relative of the girl's mother tricked the woman into providing a hair sample, then sent the sample into authorities. This was not a guy with a science degree. Ten years ago, would he have known how to do this? No. Why did he know now? Because virtually everyone knows the bare basics of DNA now. It's sort of like how kindergartens were able to start requiring that would-be attendees know their alphabet after kids - even kids in low-educated families - started watching "Sesame Street."

We are all somewhat more knowledgeable about the basics of forensic science now than we were before. That means (I would assume) that fewer people pick up murder weapons when finding a dead body, or take away stuff from a murder scene. Upon coming home to a ransacked house, they're less likely to try to straighten everything up before the cops arrive. Etc. This isn't going to show up as often on juries, because when an expert witness presents testimony that a jury understands fairly easily, no one remembers it as anything special. But I do think it's a factor.

And yes, I realize that means that criminals also know more about not leaving evidence behind. But not leaving *any* physical evidence behind is pretty darn tough. A smart, thoughtful person who wants to kill one person after careful planning and get away with it has a good shot at doing so. This does not describe the vast majority of murderers (or criminals in general), despite what crime fiction tells us. Kill one person in an alley away from witnesses, and you have a decent shot of getting away scot-free...until you get caught after sticking up a liquor store and your gun is compared to the bullet found in the dead guy through a database search. Nothing like being busted by a computer.

I think that those in law enforcement have some of the most important and difficult jobs that exist. I have a lot of admiration and sympathy for them. I do think that law enforcement shows give people unrealistic expectations, just as medical shows give people unrealistic expectations. But both also serve to educate the public to some extent, and overall I think having a more knowledgeable public is a good idea. I also think that, in an era in which I hear not a few people oozing with sympathy for murderers while ignoring the victims who are no longer around to speak up for themselves, having a #1 TV show in which victims are essentially made real again isn't a bad thing, but that's another discussion...

11:46 AM, December 22, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A couple more thoughts:

1. Police organizations are pretty much all resource constrained, and somewhere up the chain of command is a politician. So, by definition, more-political crimes (or more publicized, maybe the same) will get more resources assigned - as opposed to the ones most likely to be solved.

2. "Guilty beyond a reasonable doubt" may have a somewhat different meaning today - maybe closer to 100% sure for most juries. So fewer borderline cases will make it to court because "the State" doesn't want a bad won-loss record.

3. Jury selection and manipulation has become a fine art, and it isn't too hard to identify a few people who believe everyone is a victim and there are no criminals, or the death penalty is cruel and unusual - without ever asking the question during jury selection. This reality will also reduce the number of cases going to trial and resulting in convictions - and thus being "solved".

7:41 PM, December 22, 2008  
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