Unresolved Cases of Homicide: A Solvability Comparison of Two Time-Based Definitions by Victim, Event and Investigating Agency Characteristics

AuthorDavid Rogers,N. Prabha Unnithan
Published date01 October 2021
Date01 October 2021
Subject MatterOriginal Articles
Unresolved Cases of
Homicide: A Solvability
Comparison of Two
Time-Based Definitions
by Victim, Event and
Investigating Agency
David Rogers1 and N. Prabha Unnithan2
We review the literature on the general solvability of homicides to learn if char-
acteristics pertaining to the victim, the event and the investigating agency may
help predict which unresolved or ‘cold’ cases are likely to be ultimately resolved.
We utilize two definitions of when a case becomes ‘cold,’ the conventional or
Traditional (unresolved after a year) and the Alternate (unresolved after 30 days).
We use binomial logistic regression (BLR) to analyse data collected from the
National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) and the Law Enforcement
Management System. Several factors (e.g., child victim, location of residence of
victim, location where body was found, region of agency, type of investigating
agency, agency salary level and educational requirements) are suggestive and need
to be examined further.
Unresolved homicides, cold cases, solvability
In cases of criminal homicides, as Leo Tolstoy noted regarding ‘unhappy families’
in Anna Karenina, every event is unique as a personal tragedy that is also a
victimological concern and an investigative challenge. If a homicide remains
unresolved or becomes what is popularly referred to as a ‘cold’ case, this Karenina
Original Article
Journal of Victimology
and Victim Justice
4(2) 142–159, 2021
2022 Rajiv Gandhi National
University of Law
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/25166069221093100
1 Boulder County Sheriff’s Office, Boulder, Colorado, USA.
2 Department of Sociology, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado, USA.
Corresponding author:
N. Prabha Unnithan, Department of Sociology, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado
80523, USA.
E-mail: Prabha.Unnithan@colostate.edu
Rogers and Unnithan 143
Uniqueness shifts to the extreme with both offender accountability and justice for
the victim and grieving loved ones jeopardized. Sometimes, these challenges are
overcome, and a long-unresolved case is closed.3 There are factors associated
with the victim, the event or the investigative agency which may serve to enhance
the likelihood that a cold homicide will eventually be resolved. There has been a
surge of recent interest in cold cases among homicide researchers4 and police
investigators.5 As homicide clearance rates in the USA declined from 91% in 1965
to 62.5% in 2012 to 61.4% in 2019, answers to questions about how case
characteristics affect the efficacy and efficiency of unresolved homicide
investigations become particularly pertinent.
In general, a cold case is a felony (not subject to a statute of limitation) that
remains unsolved because a suspected perpetrator was not identified and
prosecuted for committing it. Sometimes, even if a suspect is found and prosecuted,
his or her subsequent acquittal may result in the case reverting to cold status. For
investigators, renewed interest in resolving cold homicide cases is due to newer
forensic analytic techniques for physical evidence and large-scale databases
linking offenders to homicides becoming available. As older cases are reconsidered,
a discussion about improving the entire investigative process has also emerged.6
Thus, identifying determinants of cold case homicide resolution may assist in
triaging and prioritizing cases for reconsideration based on the likelihood of their
clearance. Increasing the odds of clearance will also help assure co-victims
(grieving family and friends of the deceased) that the police have not given up and
are likely to succeed in their efforts.7
This article will also address a gap in the existing homicide literature. It is
true that the larger topic of homicide case clearance has been studied,8 but
cold homicide cases remain less explored.9 Davis et al. note that ‘we do not
know whether findings [from the general case clearance] can be applied to
cold case investigations’.10 This is relevant in that ‘[c]old cases are emphatically
not a representative sample of all crimes, so it is not clear whether the same
3 See M. Bowden, A Case So Cold it was Blue, Vanity Fair, July 15, 2012.
4 L. A. Addington, Hot Versus Cold Cases: Examining Time to Clearance for Homicides Using NIBRS
Data, 9 (2) Just. res. Poly. 87 (2007); r. C. DaVis et al., ColD-Case inVestigations: an analysis
oF Current PraCtiCes anD FaCtors assoCiateD with suCCessFul outComes (2011); B. Chapman et al.,
A Review and Recommendations for the Integration of Forensic Expertise Within Police Cold Case
Reviews, 10 (2) J. Crim. PsyChol. 79 (2020).
5 s. Pettem, ColD Case researCh: resourCes For uniDentiFieD, missing, anD ColD homiCiDe Cases
(2012); r. walton, ColD Case homiCiDe: PraCtiCal CheCk list anD FielD guiDe (2006).
6 Chapman et al., supra note 2.
7 P. stretesky et al., the PoliCe haVe giVen uP: an emPiriCal examination oF Co-ViCtims’ BelieFs
aBout ColD Case homiCiDe inVestigations, 31(1) Viol. ViCt. 135 (2016).
8 K. J. Litwin, A Multilevel Multivariate Analysis of Factors Affecting Homicide Clearance,41 (2) J.
res. Crime Delinq. 327 (2004); R. J. Lundman & M. Myers, Explanations of Homicide Clearances:
Do Results Vary Dependent upon Operationalization and Initial (Time 1) and Updated (Time 2) Data?
16 (1) homiCiDe stuD. 23 (2012); S. R. Hawk et al., Reconsidering Homicide Clearance Research: The
Utility of Multifaceted Data Collection Approaches, 25 (3) homiCiDe stuD. 195 (2020).
9 L. A. Addington, supra note 2; R. C. Davis et al, supra note 2.
10 R. C. Davis et al, supra note 2.

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