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Research / Discovery

Families of cold case murder victims seek justice

August 3, 2009
by Melinda Swenson

In 2008, the Colorado State University Center for the Study of Crime and Justice was approached by the Colorado nonprofit, the Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons, and asked to design and carry out a study of co-victims (bereaving family and friends) of cold case homicide victims.

Families of homicide victims take the lead

If homicides are becoming more challenging to solve and law enforcement is relying too heavily on DNA analysis to solve cases, it stands to reason that clearance rates are on the decline. But are there other variables at play?

According to CSU sociology Professor Prabha Unnithan, at the time that the study at CSU was being considered, very little research had been done on co-victims of homicide victims.

And in Colorado, a growing number of people felt that co-victims might be the key to discovering other factors contributing to declining solvability rates.

“The Colorado non-profit, The Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons, which advocates for families of unsolved homicides and missing persons in Colorado, decided that they wanted to do something about it,” Unnithan says.

“They asked the Center [CSU’s Center for the Study of Crime and Justice] if we could design a study that would examine the experiences of co-victims and hopefully come up with evidence that would shed light on why their cases remained unsolved.

“We were thinking this would obviously be something that’s good socially, but also research-wise, it would be a contribution,” says Unnithan. 

Chance relationships and common purpose

Unnithan learned about FOHVAMP in a rather roundabout way. “Strangely enough, I was talking with my dental hygienist. She said she had an unsolved murder in her family, and then she mentioned FOHVAMP.

“So I went to their website and read about all the things they do. I knew that Michael Radelet (chairman of the Sociology Department at CU-Boulder) was active in the group. I called Michael, and he invited me to come to a meeting. ‘We can use all the help we can get,’ he said.” 

FOHVAMP: From support group to strong political entity

Unnithan, who says he’s very impressed by what FOHVAMP has done, notes that the group started with six co-victims who met yearly to remember loved ones. “At some point they said, ‘To heck with that – let’s do something!’ So they’ve become a pretty strong entity, politically.”

FOHVAMP’s executive director, Howard Morton, realized that FOHVAMP would have to come up with some concrete data to see any change in the system or to advocate for new legislation.

Morton and all of the sociology professors in CSU’s CSCJ (Unnithan, Michael Hogan, Tara O’Conner Shelley, and Paul Stretesky) came up with the idea to identify a sample of co-victims through FOHVAMP forums that occurred throughout the state.

“We attended all of these forums,” says Stretesky. “Prabha and I each moderated a forum to learn what we could from these families to help better construct the survey and conduct the interviews.” 

Study looked for common experiences

“Paul did all the laborious work of interviewing the people,” says Unnithan. “He came up with commonalities in the experiences the families had and what they reported in terms of dealing with law enforcement and prosecutors."

Stretesky interviewed 36 victims from ten different law enforcement jurisdictions in sessions that lasted up to three hours.

(At right: Paul Stretesky, Ph.D., the prinicipal investigator in the study)

Unnithan alluded to the emotional strength and mental resilience it took for Stretesky to complete the nine months of interviews. Stretesky witnessed the despair and grief of each family. “He told me that in the beginning, listening to the families tell their stories took an emotional toll on him,” Unnithan says.

The study’s findings turned out to be a powerful exposé on the experiences of unsolved homicide co-victims, revealing the co-victims’ perceptions about: 

  • investigations into their cases
  • victim status
  • prosecutors 
  • law enforcement - resources available for pursuing the case

Lapse in communication had detrimental effect

One of the major findings was that a lapse of communication between co-victims and police had an effect on the resolution of cases.

“A drop in communication from police was an almost universal sign to co-victims that the case was cold and thus not likely to be resolved,” the study’s report said. 

Interviewer: “You don’t think (the investigator) really cared about you in the first place?”

Co-victim: “I do think he did, but I think he got to a point where I’m sure he had dozens of these. Here’s where I try to put myself in their shoes and just imagine what it’s like to have a couple dozen unsolved murders that date back, like you said, 25 years. I’m sure it’s hard. But still – they signed up for it. I almost look at it like, you can’t go in expecting that you can have 100 percent success, but you need to be prepared that when you don’t, you’re still gonna need to ante up and fess up to the family and keep them current. That’s hard.”

The report went on to say: “Such lapses in communication may lead to unpleasant officer-family interactions. Open lines of communication between co-victims and law enforcement can be important to case resolution, and one possible side effect of poor communication is that the flow of information from co-victims to police agencies may be compromised.”

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