Today @ Colorado State has been replaced by SOURCE. This site exists as an archive of Today @ Colorado State stories between January 1, 2009 and September 8, 2014.

Research / Discovery

Families of cold case murder victims seek justice

August 3, 2009
by Melinda Swenson

In a Colorado State University study of co-victims (bereaving family and friends) of cold case homicide victims, the principal investigator in the study, CSU sociology Associate Professor Paul Stretesky, interviewed a sample of 36 co-victims. The interviews revealed commonalities in the experiences the families had and what they reported in terms of dealing with law enforcement and prosecutors.

Study details family interactions with law enforcement

In the research conducted by CSU, co-victims were initially contacted and asked to participate in the study by FOHVAMP, a non-profit group that advocates for families of unsolved homicides and missing persons in the state of Colorado.

Over a period of nine months, the principal investigator in the study, CSU sociology Associate Professor Paul Stretesky, interviewed a sample of 36 co-victims to determine: 

  • Their negative and positive interactions with law enforcement, including the sources of tension and conflict that can alienate co-victims
  • Their perceptions about what law enforcement could do to improve the handling of their loved one’s unsolved homicide, including patterns of interaction and communication that would encourage case resolution

Findings presented at Washington, D.C. conference

In June 2009, the study’s findings and recommendations were presented in Washington, D.C., at the National Conference of the National Center for Victims of Crime.

The presentation, a powerful exposé on the experiences of unsolved homicide co-victims, revealed that families had fewer positive interactions with police than negative and that this likely had a detrimental effect on the outcome of case investigations.

Findings: Four themes

The study found four common themes among co-victims’ perceptions: 

Theme 1: Perception of inactivity 

Most of the family members interviewed believed that law enforcement had stopped actively working on their cases. The co-victims’ perceptions were based upon:

  •  the number of calls initiated and returned by detectives
  •  the amount of information shared with families
  •  changes in lead detectives

Theme 2: Victim’s status had an impact on the investigation 

Co-victims perceived that the victim’s race, ethnicity, age, and behavior had a correlation to the amount of effort put into the case. Co-victims felt that cases were not investigated as diligently if victims had any of the following issues in their background:

  •  had a criminal history (including juvenile delinquency)
  •  were involved with drugs or prostitution
  •  were victims of domestic violence

Theme 3: Law enforcement and prosecutors knew who committed the crime but would not arrest or prosecute 

Police and prosecutors told family members that they knew who murdered their loved one; they just couldn’t prove it. Most of these cases involved domestic violence – the victims were killed by a husband, boyfriend, or stalker. 

Theme 4: Explanation for lack of activity in the case was lack of police resources
Nearly every family of an unsolved cold case believed that the inactivity was due to a lack of police resources. 

Study leads to action plan

Since the presentation of the study’s findings at the conference, Prof. Stretesky has been contacted by unsolved homicide groups from around the country who would like researchers to help them with similar projects.

Based on the study’s findings, CSU sociology Professor Prabha Unnithan developed recommendations for homicide detectives which are meant to improve interactions with co-victims and therefore help increase solvability. 

Suggestions for homicide detectives

“Our suggestions will go into a curriculum for two days of training that will be provided to homicide investigators in Fort Collins, Denver, Grand Junction, and Pueblo," says Unnithan, "The state of Colorado will pay for the training.”

Unnithan said he understands why some cold-case detectives eventually avoid taking calls from family members or fail to return them.
“From the perspective of the investigator,” Unnithan says, “the families of murder victims are calling and calling. They’re bugging you – you have nothing to tell them and you get exasperated.

“We’re sort of trying to help them [the police] out a little bit and say, ‘Please… put yourself in the place of these individuals who’ve lost loved ones.’"  

Just tell us something, even if it’s bad news…

Unnithan says that co-victims in the study uniformly complained about police giving them standard jargon about the investigation such as, “We’re working on it” or “There’re no new leads,” even when people had a pretty good idea of who the murderer was.

“And so,” Unnithan says, “what we’re asking police to do is tell them specifically – even though there are legal limits on how much information they can disclose – tell them a little more specifically, ‘This is why we can’t follow-up on this.’”

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Contact: Prabha Unnithan, Ph.D.
Phone: (970) 491-6615