Looking through the thick files with hand-written addendums and cassette taped interviews added throughout the years — the physical representation of hundreds of hours of work — the detective voiced his frustration.
“You can see there’s a lot of work put into these,” Floyd County Police Department Capt. Tommy Shiflett said, eyeing the yellowed sheaves of paper gathered in an unsolved murder investigation. “We had leads and a strong suspect but could never get the evidence needed for an arrest.”
Picking up the sealed manila envelope containing information about a man whose body was found all but decimated three decades ago, he dropped it on the table.
“That’s who did it,” he said, then dropping another sealed file. “And that’s why. But we can’t prove it, not yet.”
All the days of work, the multitude of hours talking to witnesses and examining evidence without closure leaves a sense of a job unfinished.
“It’s frustrating,” Shiflett said. “There’s no police officer who wants to leave a case undone.”
In the vast majority of unsolved murder cases there is a suspect and there is evidence pointing to a suspect — just not enough evidence to arrest and convict that suspect.
Any unsolved crime is a nagging reminder of an unfinished job. Justice isn’t served and in many cases someone literally gets away with murder.
The best chance of solving a homicide is within the first week, Shiflett said, and a large percentage of murder cases are cracked within that time range.
But as time moves on, some of the cases remain unsolved.
After the first days, leads begin to dry up. After months, memories fade and people move on.
After years, the file is shelved — brought out for review on occasion, but the chances of being solved decline exponentially.
After decades, witnesses may die and even investigators begin forgetting circumstances of the crime.
Getting a break
Occasionally there’s a break, even in an old case, and it’s enough to rekindle the investigation.
“Sometimes a witness will come forward that police had no idea was a witness in those days,” said Rome Police Department Captain Terry Autry.
“A lot of times people may know something — it may not seem important, but it may be.”
Some of these murders occurred before DNA evidence processing was available. That technology may have been enough for an arrest.
The rape kit for one murder was lost at some point during transfers between Rome and the Atlanta crime lab over the past 25 years, Autry said, and that may have been the key to prosecuting the crime.
But even with the missing kit, evidence gathering has changed with the technology and some things considered important to build a case now may not have been as significant 20 years ago.
“It’s frustrating,” Autry said. “They had quite a bit of evidence. There was a strong suspect, several items of circumstantial evidence but the grand jury (denied) the indictment.”
That’s the risk. Every case built by police goes through several layers of review and if it doesn’t pass muster it doesn’t continue.
Many of the suspects have gotten into trouble after the incident or havebeen to prison in connection with other cases. In some cases, even a decade later, the police will get additional information.
Autry recalled a time when an inmate in a South Georgia chain gang told police of something his cellmate once bragged about a crime — in this case a murder.
“I don’t know how it got back to us, but it did,” Autry said.
But it didn’t lead to a conviction. Jailhouse snitch testimony is considered unreliable and often doesn’t hold up to defense scrutiny in court.
And police know it’s not enough to suspect — you’ve got to be able to prove it.
“That’s the frustrating part of it. But if it were your son on trial for his life you’d want us to use facts to make an arrest,” Shiflett said. “That’s what we have to do.”
Monday - Worst fears realized
Tuesday - Minding their own business
Wednesday - Spider Webb Drive
Thursday - Convenience store killings
Friday - Almost enough
Saturday - “Pressuring the wrong man”
May 16 - Family history