Getting away with murder

Staff and wire report

National data shows despite the rise of DNA fingerprinting and other “CSI”-style crime-fighting wizardry, more and more people in this country are getting away with murder.

FBI figures reviewed show that the homicide clearance rate, as detectives call it, dropped from 91 percent in 1963 —the first year records were kept in the manner they are now — to 61 percent in 2007.

Law enforcement officials say the chief reason is a rise in drug- and gang-related killings, which are often impersonal and anonymous, and thus harder to solve than slayings among family members or friends. As a result, police departments are carrying an ever-growing number of “cold-case” murders on their books.

The Clovis and Portales area has avoided the nationwide trend. All but one homicide out of more than a dozen investigated in the last four years — the shooting of a Honduran national in Texico two weeks ago — has resulted in an arrest or conviction, according to District Attorney Matt Chandler.

Curry County Undersheriff Wesley Waller said in smaller towns “residents have a greater tendency to know and interact with each other,” which often helps solve crime more quickly.

Chandler said the connection to drugs and gang violence holds true for the majority of homicides in the 9th Judicial District as well.

“When you have a small town, it’s easier to locate witnesses and to know the individuals that you’re dealing with as opposed to cities of large populations where it’s difficult to locate and track down witnesses,” Chandler said.

“I think in larger communities, response time may not be as rapid and in addition to that, witnesses scatter very quickly and become very difficult to locate.”

The clearance rate is the number of homicides solved in a year, compared with the number of killings committed that year. The solved killings can include homicides committed in previous years.

The number of criminal homicides committed in the U.S. climbed from 4,566 in 1963 to 14,811 in 2007, according to the FBI. The clearance rate has been dropping pretty steadily over the past four decades, slipping under 80 percent in the early 1970s and below 70 percent in the late 1980s. In cities with populations over 1 million, the 2007 clearance rate was 59 percent, down from 89 percent in 1963.

Detectives say homicides generally become harder to solve as time goes by, as witnesses die and memories fade. Yet cold-case detectives say their units are often understaffed. And local police are getting less help for cold cases from Washington. Funding for the main federal program for such cases was cut 40 percent from 2005 to 2007.

Research suggests that in about 70 percent of homicides during the 1960s and ’70s, victim and killer knew each other, according to Richard Walton, author of “Cold Case Homicides: Practical Investigative Techniques.” He said that figure has dropped since then, though he would not hazard a guess as to how much.

Also, gang-related killings are increasingly going unsolved because witnesses are too scared to help police, said Dallas Drake of the Center for Homicide Research, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit organization. Gangs have played on people’s fears by warning them against “snitching.”

Chandler credited local detectives and first responders who arrive quickly and work to gain the trust of witnesses.

The witnesses too, deserve credit, he said.

“I think in today’s society, people are more reluctant in gang and drug homicides to cooperate with police. Witnesses are in fear of retaliation and it becomes difficult to get information,” he said.

DNA and other physical evidence solve only about 30 percent of cold cases, said James Adcock, assistant professor at the University of New Haven in Connecticut. Finding witnesses and getting them to talk still plays a major role.

In fact, detectives warn that technology can be both a blessing and a curse, saying jurors who have watched shows like “CSI” come into court with unrealistic expectations of what science can do.

“They think we can pull a rabbit out of our hats,” said Houston police Sgt. Mike Peters. “Technology is great, but it’s the ability to get people to talk that’s important. That solves cases.”