‘To the living, we owe respect. To the dead we owe truth’

Cracking cold cases often very laborious

BY Brianne Dopart : The Herald-Sun
May 13, 2006 : 9:29 pm ET

DURHAM — Sometimes it’s a case without evidence. Sometimes all of the witnesses have passed away or relocated without leaving any trace of forwarding address. As a cold case investigator, Delois West often deals with incomplete case files, cases where the lead investigator has retired or died or cases where evidence is so old it’s no longer usable.

To sharpen her skills and pick up some new ideas for pursuing cases that seem to present no obvious leads, West, along with Detective Anthony Smith and a Durham Police forensic technician attended a course at the North Carolina Justice Academy presented by experts from Naval Intelligence.

The classes, like “Sexually Motivated Homicides of the Elderly,” and “Crime Scene Reconstruction,” were free to all law enforcement.

The Herald-Sun is documenting Durham personnel’s participation as part of its Open Files series, which examines unsolved homicides in the Durham area.

Smith, who West says gets incredibly passionate about all of his cases, says he learned several things at the school that he could immediately apply.

“They did a lot of case overviews, just putting out some techniques they used that worked,” Smith said.

One of those techniques, Smith said, has to do with knowing where to draw, and where not to draw the line.

“Once you get to the end of the case, it is was it is,” Smith said, “Sometimes your witness has passed away, your evidence has evaporated. You have to weigh your evidence and see if it reaches probable cause. You have to have a very good working relationship with the district attorney and other support agencies, like the medical examiner’s office.”

Understanding and identifying where in a case police need to seek additional support is key, Smith said.

“With cold cases it’s always, ‘Did I do everything? Is there something I can check?’ And until you get to that brick wall, you have to keep evaluating what you have,” he said.

Another thing to remember, West said, is that there are some big advantages in cold cases that investigators don’t have in “fresh” cases. For instance, “with a cold case,” she said, “time is actually on your side.”

In many cold cases, information from witnesses will be different years after the original interviews, complicating the case.

“Relationships change,” West said, adding that because there isn’t a great deal of evidence in many cold cases, “You rely a lot on your interviews.”

Most important, West said, the class gave her some inspiration, including a Voltaire quote presented at the beginning of the course that caught the investigator’s attention.

” ‘To the living, we owe respect. To the dead we owe truth,’ … I just like that,” she said.


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