Roughly one-third of homicides in the U.S. go unsolved.
In the Midwest, it’s even less likely a killer will be caught: Just more than half — 52 percent — are identified, according to FBI data referred to as “clearance rates.”
Criminologists and forensic death consultants such as Jim Adcock estimate more than 200,000 homicides have gone unsolved in the United States since 1980.
And the longer a case goes unsolved — the colder it becomes — the harder it is to crack.
Advances in forensics and social media have helped identify some killers, but the bitter truth for victims’ families is that the national clearance rate has remained relatively static for more than 20 years.
“It’s a tough question to answer,” Adcock said, noting the number of murders in the U.S. has dropped from about 25,000 in 1993 to 13,000 today. “We have half as many homicides. Why aren’t we solving more?”
Adcock, a longtime law enforcement instructor and author of several cold case books, says the answer is tied to a complex web of issues.
Among the hurdles to finding justice, he said: too little money for law enforcement investigations, witnesses’ fear of the killers and public apathy.
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There’s also something called the “white woman syndrome,” a term used by social scientists to explain the short-lived news coverage and lack of public interest when murder victims are members of minority groups.
“If you are blonde and blue-eyed, you’re most likely to get more attention from the news media,” Adcock said. “And if you’re a prostitute or homeless, you’re also less likely to get attention from the news media and even potentially from the police. These are what I call devalued victims.”
From 2009 to 2011, Iowa had a special cold case unit that was part of the Iowa Department of Public Safety. But its two agents and a criminologist were reassigned after a federal grant, which pumped $500,000 into the program, ended.
The state continues to follow leads in the roughly 160 cold cases that are part of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation’s files.
But with no full-time staffing dedicated to it, far less time is spent seeking new leads, said Mike Motsinger, the special agent with the public safety department who was in charge of the cold case unit.
Among the unit’s first tasks in 2009 was to evaluate and identify cases — some going back to the early 1960s — with evidence that could be tested for DNA. Of 40 cases tested, 34 DNA profiles were identified.
Most did not result in a hit in a national DNA database of felons, but are nonetheless critically important if law enforcement agents can match the samples to a suspect, Motsinger said.
“These cases are important. They affect a family forever,” he said. “You and I hear about these cases for a day, maybe a week. But, until there is closure, that family is stuck in that moment in time.”