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How To Solve a Cold Case

August 3, 2011 10:32:31 pm

A new book breaks down why cases go coldand how police, the media and families can heat them up again.

Jack and Mary Branson know what it’s like to wait for justice.

In 2003, Jack’s 85-year-old aunt was brutally murdered in her Kentucky home. With the state forensics lab backed up, it took six months to test the evidence in the case, giving the suspect time to plan his escape. Just days before he was indicted, Russell Earl Winstead fled to Costa Rica, where he remained on the lam for two years.

“He’d done his research,” says Jack Branson, a former federal agent. “He knew that Costa Rica wouldn’t extradite him unless the prosecutor took the death penalty off the table.”

Finally, thanks to Branson’s persistence and help from America’s Most Wanted, Winstead was captured and brought back to the U.S. for trial.  In 2007, he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

“In the four years and seven months between the murder and the conviction, we tried to stay positive,” recalls Branson. “But we had plenty of dark moments when we believed that the perpetrator would never be apprehended. We came to understand the deep despair that surrounds an unsolved homicide.”

The case formed the narrative of Branson and his wife Mary’s first book, entitled “Murder in Mayberry: Greed, Death and Mayhem in a Small Town.” Two years later, they turned their experience and knowledge to the subject of cold cases. Their new book, “Delayed Justice: Inside Stories from America’s Best Cold Case Investigators” is part true-crime compendium, part guidebook for law enforcement personnel.

The Bransons spoke with The Crime Report’s Julia Dahl from their home in Cumming, GA about what they learned when they asked investigators all over the country how to solve a cold case.

The Crime Report: Why do cases go cold?

Mary Branson: There are a lot of reasons. Sometimes there are no witnesses, no tangible evidence. I think a stranger (murder) case, something like a drive-by shooting, where there’s no DNA, is more likely to go cold than when [the perpetrator] is a family member or someone close, where you can find communication between them and the victim.

Jack Branson: Cases can also go cold when an investigator focuses on the wrong suspect. Trusting your gut feeling instead of where the evidence trail leads can really throw you off on who the actual perpetrator is. It also allows the real perpetrator to get away, to establish alibis. The investigator has got to go where the evidence leads him.

TCR: Do investigators on cold cases ever run into problems with offending the original investigator? You write in the book that sometimes there’s a “stepping on toes”  phenomenon when re-opening an old case.

MB: One of our best sources, Special Agent Joe Kennedy of the Naval Criminal Investigative Services (NCIS), tries to involve the original investigator. Sometimes it’s touchy, but it always proves to be beneficial. A lot of these old homicides went cold because there was no DNA evidence, or witnesses were afraid to talk. Later, they’re not afraid. Maybe, they were married to somebody (and) now they’re not married. So acknowledging that situations have changed, and that’s how the case can become active again, can help.

I believe any cold case that’s solved is solved on the shoulders of a good original investigator. But there is a danger of listening to their theory. Because I think a lot of times, as Jack said, you think you’ve figured it out, and then you work toward proving your theory [instead of following the actual evidence].

TCR: Thirty years ago, there were no formal cold case units. Now, many law enforcement agencies have them. What changed?

MB: DNA made people realize that maybe they could go back and check evidence collected in these old cases. And there is also  the national DNA database [which allows agencies to check DNA samples against the samples of known criminals]. Those things shot life into cold cases.

JB: DNA really changed the entire atmosphere of cold cases. But the key is how well the old evidence was preserved. In many cases, if it wasn’t preserved properly, if it’s stuck in an old warehouse somewhere, the DNA or whatever evidence was gathered at the original crime scene can be contaminated or just ruined.

MB: Another factor is the crime rate. For example, we write about a case in California where a female police officer has actually committed a murder. It wasn’t until crime settled down a bit in Los Angeles that police had time on their hands and decided to go back and check old cold cases.

TCR: Last year I wrote an article for TCR about untested rape kits, and learned about the thousands of biological samples that, because of poor police storage, have become unusable. Have police agencies gotten any better at preserving evidence now that it’s clear that evidence can be of great use years down the road?

JB: Yes. I started as a police officer back in the late 1970s and there was virtually no training about evidence preservation, other than to just secure the crime scene and try to keep people away from it. When I retired last year, our department—and this was a small department here in Cumming—required annual training on evidence preservation. And that’s key to keeping younger officers aware of the importance of protecting evidence and securing that crime scene. Now, many state training authorities that certify law enforcement officers require this, so more and more departments are taking it seriously.

Having a DNA database and having the original evidence intact has just changed everything. There are 25-year-old cases that have been solved due to the DNA and due to good police work from the original detectives who were assigned to them. So police departments have to put a lot of money into preserving evidence.

TCR: How can lawmakers and other government officials help police solve these cases?

JB: Funding for police labs is key. If you can get your community fathers behind budgeting the police department, giving them manpower for the investigation and investing in labs, that makes a really big difference.

TCR: One thing I found particularly interesting in the book was your assertion that the media can be very helpful to police in reviving cold cases. Usually law enforcement is reluctant to work with the media. What is different about a cold case?

JB: Yes, they drill it into law enforcement, especially on a federal level, not even to talk to the media. But on a cold case the media is law enforcement’s friend far more often than it’s a foe. If a detective has good media contacts, he can call on his media friends to run a story on an old crime. Many times, that brings witnesses out. It can alert those who might know something, maybe something they saw when they were young and didn’t know who to tell.

MB: A good example in the book is the case of a murdered homeless woman. The detective had worked for years on the case with no breaks, but when the local media ran a story about the murder, a witness came forward and said, “I thought that was already solved!”

TCR: Another thing that is different about cold cases is the role the family of the victim can play in helping get the case solved. What do you suggest victims’ friends and family do to keep a case alive?

MB: Wyoming investigator Dan Tholson told us that if one of his family was murdered he would contact the police about once a week. I know that police get tired of getting (such calls); but in honesty the more contacts, the more the case is going to rise up in his stack.

JB: If the family keeps calling the police department and makes a bond with the investigating officer, that’s very helpful. It takes an officer or a detective who’s really interested in the case, who wants to get that perpetrator off the street, and honor the memory of the victim. That’s a key factor.

Julia Dahl is acting managing editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.

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