By REUVEN BLAU                        SUNDAY, July 5, 2009

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In December 2005, on his way home from work, accountant Lewis Shayne was stabbed to death outside his Forest Hills, Queens apartment.


The killing was tragic, but luckily, not common. The murder rate in New York City had dropped tremendously since the early 1990s, when there more than 2,000 homicides annually. Investigators, meanwhile, concluded that rage, not robbery, was the likely motive, typical of the diminishing number of random crimes in the victim’s safe neighborhood.


But in one way, Shayne’s murder was disturbingly

That's because, four years later, detectives have still not cracked the case, despite several leads, including a witness who called 911 describing the killer as a 5-foot-7 white man in dark clothing who was seen running away from the scene.

Even with major forensic advances and falling murder rates, the city's yearly homicide clearance rate remains at the same level as it was 15 years ago -- with a little more than 70% of the cases solved.

"My students are always shocked that almost 3 out of 10 get away with murder -- that's pretty scary," said Andrew Karmen, a sociology professor at John Jay College who studies the city's homicide rate.


Theory One: New Priorities

Michael Palladino, head of the Detectives Endowment Association, blamed the 72.2% overall clearance rate in 2008 on the NYPD's new effort to use investigators to solve crimes previously given scant attention. "Years ago, detectives only investigated the major crimes," he said.

The department now assigns detectives to petty larcenies traditionally handled by beat cops, according to the union.

"Right now we take cases on everything, even if someone leaves a bag behind a chair and it gets stolen," one veteran detective based in lower Manhattan told The Post. "Now a grand larceny is getting as much attention as a homicide, which isn't a bad thing if we had the personnel to do it."

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the department has slashed the Detective Bureau by 15%, from 7,100 detectives to the current 5,500. Despite that, police spokesman Paul Browne stresses, "the NYPD continues to maintain a murder clearance rate that is at least 10% better than the national average" -- which was 61% in 2007.

Theory Two: CSI Conundrum

Blame TV. Criminals are also becoming tech savvy.

"Technology has increased to help investigations and also help criminals," said Staten Island DA spokesman William Smith.

He cited the recent case of Douglas Mercereau, a Staten Island fire marshal, shot three times in the head by his wife as he slept in their bed on Dec. 2, 2007. Janet Mercereau tried to cover up all the evidence -- including fingerprints, gun shot residue, hair fibers or any blood splattering -- by washing her clothes and placing the gun through a dishwasher. She was sentenced to 25 years-to-life last week.

While it wasn't enough to get her off, lack of DNA evidence has hampered other cases, said Joseph Pollini, an assistant professor at John Jay College. "The TV shows criminals how not to leave trace evidence behind or any witnesses. It's sort of an education for the criminal."

"CSI" also misleads jurors, who expect a much higher level of forensic proof than real-world technology can provide.

Theory Three: Don't Snitch

Karmen, who wrote a book called the "New York Murder Mystery," said that cracking murders is harder in today's "don't snitch" climate. "There's some sort of ethos with poor young minority people not to cooperate with police," he said. "So police are suffering from strained relationships with the communities they are supposed to protect and serve."

While there has been a huge drop in overall killings, murders of African-Americans has remained largely the same. The number of whites murdered decreased 46%, from 276 in 1999 to 147 in 2008, according to the state Department of Criminal Justice Services. But the number of black victims has only decreased by .03%, from 363 in 1999 to 350 in 2008.

Theory Four: DA Discretion

Famed homicide detective Vernon Geberth, who headed the Bronx Homicide Task Force, blamed district attorneys. "[Detectives] have to wait for the DA to approve their arrests, which is a really bad thing."

Prosecutors are more concerned about maintaining near perfect homicide conviction record than arrests, Geberth added.

In the end, it may be a combination of all these things -- as well as the nature of modern murder itself. In 1963, the national homicide clearance rate was as high as 91%. But gangs were not as widespread then, or as violent, and the drug trade was in its infancy.

Ironically, a random murder can be easier to solve than a premeditated one. Witnesses are more likely to cooperate, community outrage is greater, and killers are more apt to make errors.

But if Lewis Shayne was killed -- as investigators believe -- by someone he knew, no one is talking about it. There's not enough physical evidence. And the person who was most affected, the victim's ailing mother, has since died. Friend Ben Gamoran says Shayne's old buddies are trying to use his estate funds to hire a private investigator.

"When someone doesn't have any family," he says, "there's no pressure on the police to solve the case."