Cold Case Reviews

The investigation and detection of historic crimes is never far from front page news, says Dr Cheryl Allsop

Most recently in the UK the allegations against a number of ‘celebrities’ for historic sexual offences has dominated the media and the successful detection and conviction of offenders for long term unsolved major crimes continues to provide the police with positive publicity for the successful convictions. This was particularly evident with the conviction in January 2012 of David Norris and Gary Dobson for the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993. Stephen’s murder being one of the most high profile unsolved murders. In this blog, I briefly consider why such investigations continue to sustain policing and public interest and whether this will continue in the current economic climate, beginning with a reflection on what a cold case is and what is meant by the term cold case review.

There is no official definition of a ‘cold case’ in the UK or a set point in time when an investigation will go ‘cold’. It is generally accepted that a case becomes cold when all viable leads in an investigation have been exhausted and the Senior Investigating Officer (SIO) considers there is nothing further that can be progressed in the investigation at that time. Unsolved murders are never officially closed; it is simply that investigative effort stops, unless further information becomes available to enable fresh investigative effort on the case. A distinction is also sometimes made between ‘undetected’ and ‘unresolved’. Undetected is used to refer to instances where a suspect has not been identified or there is insufficient evidence to proceed to a prosecution, as opposed to ‘unresolved’ where a conviction has subsequently been overturned and a new suspect is yet to emerge.

Cold case reviews are a particular aspect of policing that has developed rapidly over the last two decades, gathering momentum and gaining support within the police service. The term ‘cold case review’ appears to have come into UK parlance from America in the early 1990s. Initially, developments in cold case reviews in both countries followed different trajectories. America relied on new witness testimony, making use of the fact that as people ‘fall out’; new opportunities can be explored to gather fresh information and investigative leads from them. In the UK, the focus has most often been on scientific and technological opportunities. Both countries now follow a similar trajectory. Indeed, cold case DNA work has become a Department of Justice priority, though the US still place prominence on new witness and informant information, which are much less relied upon in the UK.

Cold case reviews are a particular type of review activity, of which there are several. Reviews are also conducted during current on-going investigations which remain undetected after 28 days. These are to ensure that the investigation is progressing as it should be, and that investigative opportunities are not being missed. There has been a growth in the audit culture and organisational governance and the ‘live’ investigation reviews reflect this, designed as they are to ensure cases are progressing, and as a form of quality control. Having a review team in place to conduct 28-day reviews often also enables them to conduct cold case reviews on long-term unsolved crimes in between times.

The two crimes most likely to be the focus of a cold case review are murder and stranger rape, and this is for a number of reasons including; the severity of the crimes, the opportunities available to review them with the advances in forensic science, and the likely sentences that can be passed. For both crimes a cold case review will involve locating the original case files(s) and conducting a thorough review looking for, in the main, forensic opportunities to progress the case. It is successive advances in forensic science that have provided the greatest opportunities to progress unsolved cases, in particular in detecting historic stranger rapes where upgraded crime scene samples from historic cases have matched samples already held on the National DNA Database (NDNAD) identifying the previously unknown offenders. Serial sexual offenders and repeat offending can also be prevented in this way when the connections are made between the crimes. Cold cases can also be reopened if new information comes to light, allegiances change and witnesses provide new information relating to the crime and, although unlikely, the offender confesses to the crime.

Cold case successes achieved by using forensic science enables the police service to publicise how they have used innovative technology to solve previously unsolvable crimes. Cold case reviews are often publicised as innovative breakthroughs in science and are given a dynamic, dramatic aura in factual and fictional accounts of them, enabling the police to attach themselves to this glamorisation making them appear innovative, elite, professionals and as ‘moral crusaders’ fighting for justice. The added public interest in forensic science most often fuelled by fictional television programmes such as ‘CSI’ helps to reinforce its legitimacy within police.

More broadly, cold case successes, however achieved, can inspire public confidence in demonstrating a commitment to obtaining justice. No-one wants to think that dangerous offenders are getting away with such crimes and, especially for the victims and victims’ families; there is a moral impetus to detect these unsolved crimes. The vigorous campaigning by the parents of Stephen Lawrence to obtain a conviction is a simple reminder of the need to obtain justice for victims and their families, no matter how long after the event. For victims of stranger rape a successful cold case review can finally give them the opportunity to see their offender prosecuted and can help them to rebuild their life knowing the offender has been caught. But, with increasing budget cuts and changes to forensic science provisions how long will cold case review teams remain in place and for how long with historic unsolved crimes continue to receive policing resources?