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Research / Discovery

Families of cold case murder victims seek justice

August 3, 2009
by Melinda Swenson

In March 1968, Connie Paris had just turned 18 and was looking forward to her graduation from high school in two months. On March 31, she left the Denver Library where she'd been working on a term paper and caught the 'O' bus. Some time after getting off the bus in the 3400 block of South Girard, she was abducted, sexually assaulted, and strangled. Her body was left in a ditch. She is one of more than 1,450 murder victims in Colorado whose cases remain unsolved. 'It breaks my heart that her killer is still on the loose,' says a friend.

CSU study shows unending family suffering

…As time went by, they just didn’t have any information; the clues dried up or whatever. It just started to get cold, so they didn’t—they used to call us up, but now, they don’t seem to have anything new.

(Family member of murder victim)

A new study completed by the Center for the Study of Crime and Justice at Colorado State University reveals that families of cold-case victims suffer twice: first as a result of losing a loved one to a violent crime, then from that time on when no one is prosecuted for the murder. 

Forgotten Victims: What Cold Case Families Want from Law Enforcement [1], a publication of CSU’s findings, notes: “As the time period after the homicide or suspicious disappearance of a loved one increases, feelings of despair and depression increase.”  

Cold cases in study remain unsolved an average of 14 years

In Colorado, a cold case is defined as a felony crime reported to law enforcement that remains unsolved for more than one year after the crime was reported.

In the study's sample of co-victims (bereaving family and friends of victims) that CSU Associate Professor of sociology Paul Stretesky interviewed, an average of 14 years had lapsed since their loved ones had suspiciously disappeared or been murdered.

Understandably, cold case co-victims feel that the people who killed their loved ones are literally getting away with murder.  

DNA not a cure-all

According to FBI statistics, the clearance rate for homicide has dropped from 91 percent in 1963 to 61 percent in 2007 [Karen Hawkins, AP, 2008]. In Colorado, the number of unsolved homicides since 1970 is estimated to be more than 1,450.

People today may assume that DNA analysis solves a majority of homicide cases, but in fact such analysis accounts for only 30 percent of the few cold cases solved. The remainder of the cases requires pains-taking, dogged investigation.

A family member who initiated her own investigation went online to find people and then methodically organized a list of investigators and witnesses. “…It wasn’t like it was an all-day, every-day thing, but it was consuming, and I wanted to know what happened… Some people would open the door and welcome me, and some people [told me to leave].”

“The popular perception is that with DNA, the solvability has increased, but it’s actually gone down,” says CSU sociology Professor and CSCJ Director Prabha Unnithan. “Sometimes in these old cases, the police haven’t taken the [DNA] samples. At the time that some of these murders occurred, law enforcement didn’t anticipate the introduction of current DNA technology.”  

DNA may be sexy but…

“Over time, information that may help solve a cold case may resurface because people and relationships change,” Stretesky says.

Unnithan agrees. “What’s essential in these cases is for witnesses and informants to be re-located and re-interviewed,” says Unnithan. “That’s not as sexy as DNA, but imagine that someone was a child when they witnessed a murder, and they knew what happened, but they were unable to express it.

“Now they’ve grown older; their relationship with whoever may have committed the murder has changed. Maybe they had a falling out, maybe they’ve separated themselves, whatever. So now they might be ready to talk, whereas years ago they couldn’t or wouldn’t say anything.” 

“The nature of homicide has changed”

Unnithan, who teaches and studies the sociology of violence, explains that other factors influence the solvability of homicides. “The nature of homicide has changed from what it was years ago.

“Previously, you had nearly 90 percent solvability, and the reason was because, in many cases, you had a spouse or boyfriend, girlfriend, fiance, somebody familiar, who after committing the murder thinks, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’ Then they lift up the phone and call the police.

(At right: Prabha Unnithan, Ph.D., director of CSU's Center for the Study of Crime and Justice)

“Now you’re getting less of that. People are more mobile and the relationship between victims and murderers can be a very temporary one, if anything. After the murder, the killer is not going to call police and say, ‘Hey, I murdered this person I met at the bar.’”

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Note: If you believe you have information about Connie Paris' murder, please contact Detective Bobbie Garrett at the Englewood Police Dept. at (303) 762-2459 or bgarrett@englewoodgov.org.

1. Stretesky, Paul B., N. Prabha Unnithan, Tara Shelley, and Michael Hogan. 2009. Forgotten Victims: What Cold Case Families Want. Fort Collins, Colorado: Center for the Study of Crime and Justice.


Contact: Prabha Unnithan, Ph.D.
E-mail: N.Prabha.Unnithan@colostate.edu
Phone: (970) 491-6615