Open Cases: Why One-Third of Murders in America Go Unresolved
MARCH 30, 2015
If you're murdered in America, there's a 1 in 3 chance that the police won't identify your killer.
To use the FBI's terminology, the national "clearance rate" for homicide today is 64.1 percent. Fifty years ago, it was more than 90 percent.
And that's worse than it sounds, because "clearance" doesn't equal conviction: It's just the term that police use to describe cases that end with an arrest, or in which a culprit is otherwise identified without the possibility of arrest — if the suspect has died, for example.
Criminologists estimate that at least 200,000 murders have gone unsolved since the 1960s, leaving family and friends to wait and wonder.
"It's like the boogeyman," says Delicia Turner. Her husband, Anthony Glover, was found murdered — along with a friend — in Boston in 2009. Police never made an arrest. She says the open case preys on her mind. "You don't know if you're walking next to the person, if you've seen the person ... if the person knows you."
Turner watches a lot of true-crime TV, hoping to see something that could be applied to her husband's case. She calls her ideas in to the detectives in Boston, who tell her not to be a "TV cop," she says.
"'You can best believe we're putting our best effort forward," she says, recalling what they tell her when she phones. But she's convinced they've moved on. "I think that the police just give up."
Homicide detectives say the public doesn't realize that clearing murders has become harder in recent decades. Vernon Geberth, a retired, self-described NYPD "murder cop" who wrote the definitive manual on solving homicides, says standards for charging someone are higher now — too high, in his opinion. He thinks prosecutors nowadays demand that police deliver "open-and-shut cases" that will lead to quick plea bargains.
Geberth says new tools such as DNA analysis have helped, but that's been offset by worsening relationships between police and the public.
"If there is a distrust of the police themselves and the system, all of these scientific advances are not going to help us," says Geberth.
Since at least the 1980s, police have complained about a growing "no snitch" culture, especially in minority communities. They say the reluctance of potential witnesses makes it hard to identify suspects.
But some experts say that explanation may be too pat. University of Maryland criminologist Charles Wellford points out that police are still very effective at clearing certain kinds of murders.
"Take, for example, homicides of police officers in the course of their duty," he says. On paper, they're the kind of homicide that's hardest to solve — "they're frequently done in communities that generally have low clearance rates. ... They're stranger-to-stranger homicides; they [have] high potential of retaliation [for] witnesses." And yet, Wellford says, they're almost always cleared.
What that tells Wellford is that clearance rates are a matter of priorities.
Wellford says Americans should also understand that while the national rate is in the 60s, the local rates vary widely. But because the FBI doesn't publish local agencies' numbers, these differences are often invisible to the public.