Cold Cases With No DNA... No Problem

Cold Cases without DNA are often devalued as being difficult to prove in court because of the absence of physical evidence and minimal chances of success. Prosecutors and defense attorneys face juries who have unrealistic expectations about evidence and its application to cases which are considered or have been determined to be “cold.”

Having DNA evidence can be a double-edge sword in a courtroom, as introducing such evidence faces the scrutiny of how it was collected, stored and tested. Alternatively, not having DNA increases doubt with the state’s prosecution as impressionable jurors have high expectations about evidence and its use. This has resulted in prosecutors going to great length to “lower the expectations of jurors about such evidence.”

Advances in technology have made it possible for cold case investigators to bring once unsolved cases to a successful closure by an arrest or a successful prosecution. However, investigators should not ignore cases without DNA evidence. Establishing investigative protocols to review cold cases with DNA evidence has led to positive case closures.

A Proven Review Process

The review process is crucial because it gives investigators the ability to share information, which may help solve an open case. The process in some respects can be the same as the process used for cases that possess biological evidence, yet should allow for alternative strategies to solve these challenging cases.

Law enforcement in recent years has relied at times too heavily on technology and less on proven investigative techniques to solve violent crimes. Many techniques used to solve cases without biological evidence have much to do with tactically efficient police work, rather than DNA evidence. There is no magic recipe to solving cold cases that do not include biological evidence.

The foundation to any cold case without DNA evidence is having a systematic process designed to review cases for solvability factors. Having an organized approach will likely reduce investigative failures, which can plagued cases regardless of the evidence they possess. Case management is critical because having a systematic and organized approach can allow investigators to determine which case to devote available resources.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in North Carolina uses a successful model for a systematic review of their cold cases. Their case review process has been recognized by the Department of Justice as a model for other agencies. Each case is reviewed by cold case detectives and briefed at a monthly unit meeting to the entire cold case team.  

Selected Criteria for Opening Cold Cases

Victim(s) - What were the circumstances surrounding the victim’s death? Can a motive be established? Summary - A short concise narrative detailing important aspects of the investigation. Medical Examiner’s Report - Having these reports is essential in determining what additional theories or thoughts pathologists had in determining cause and manner of death.

Evidence - Is the evidence still there? Chain of custody concerns are important, especially if the investigation reveals a suspect, and criminal charges are warranted. Witnesses - Were there witnesses? Can they be located? If so, are they still willing to assist in prosecution?

Suspects - Who are they? Are they still alive or in the area? What connection do they have to the victim? Other Crimes / Parallel Investigations - Were other agencies investigating similar incidents? Was a suspect ever named? Recommended Follow-Up - Being able to utilize a team approach to assign roles to those best suited for the tasks.

At the conclusion of the presentation, unit members discuss the case as a team and determine solvability factors. Detectives previously assigned to the case are also invited to participate in the review, even if they are retired. This approach has yielded positive results for many departments as a team approach has replaced one or two man details.

What is appealing to many departments is the success of the team approach in reviewing cold case files. Being able to review the case file, and revisit the crime scene can sometimes develop new information that was not documented in written reports. Common knowledge among the original investigators when the case was actively worked has proven to give never-before-seen insights into the complete facts of the case.

Crafting an Investigative Strategy

Finding an original case file can be a difficult process and is where the practical aspect of a cold case investigation begins. Personnel changes, evidence storage, and records management practices are challenges to consider when reopening unsolved violent crimes.

Case files often suffer from years of neglect. Investigators will need to realize their initial time and effort will be spent reviewing and organizing a case file before ever re-interviewing or revisiting any crime scene. Depending on the condition of the case file, organizing a case can be a daunting task as compiling and locating data and evidence can be a tedious and time-consuming task.

Investigators understand the importance of the crime scene, how it was managed, how it has changed, and what potential clues it yields. By revisiting the crime scene, cold case investigators can observe firsthand what could only be described within an old police report. It is important for investigators not only to read about the scene, but to experience it firsthand. Revisiting a crime scene and gathering information can sometimes explain relationships or possibly reveal a suspect’s motive.

The strategy employed by the cold case team will need to be flexible in order to meet the demands and challenges the investigation brings. Without DNA evidence, investigators will need to be able to conduct thorough interviews and methodically approach the interview process with skill and tact. 

Once investigators are ready to contact the suspect, they must decide on the approach. Should the investigator use a direct or indirect approach? The indirect approach is exploratory in nature. When the suspect’s guilt is uncertain, this approach allows the investigator to gather more information about the person being interviewed. In the indirect approach, the questioning is designed to develop a detailed account of the suspect’s activities.

Conducting interviews of witnesses and suspects will mean nothing unless the cold case investigator can develop a strategy. The craft of every investigator is the interview and its practice is honed over the years through training and more importantly, experience. In cases that do not have any biological evidence, investigators will need to have the necessary communication skills to deal with a wide variety of suspects to obtain a confession.

Quickly gaining rapport and eliciting information from individuals is one of the most valuable tools in law enforcement. Using this time wisely can assist investigators in determining an interview plan. Building a good relationship with the suspect, and allowing enough time for the interrogation, investigators can beat the odds and obtain a confession. While not all-inclusive, these factors may prove vital to successful interrogations. The goal has to be a confession; these types of cases depend on it.

The future of cold cases is undeniably focused around technology and improvements to current practices. With the majority of cold cases not possessing DNA evidence, investigators will need to be methodical in their approach. Not all cases can be solved, and the toughest, most challenging of these cases will have the least amount of evidence.

While police technology will continue to improve, one aspect will remain unchanged – the traditional police work of interviewing witnesses and victim, developing sources, and identifying pieces of the investigation. Some of these steps may have been overlooked or ignored by the original investigators. By managing their approach, investigators can solve preciously unsolved violent crimes.

Frank P. Tona is a detective in the Criminal Investigations Division of the Charles County, Md. Sheriff’s Office. He may be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Sep 2012

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