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Cold-Case Prosecutions Heating Up

The Wall Street Journal

The successful prosecution last month of a California man in the killings of two young New York City women in the 1970s was the most dramatic sign that a revival in unsolved murder investigations was under way across the city.

The surge comes despite the decimation of the New York Police Department cold-case squad, a once-vaunted unit that lost resources as the department shifted money and personnel to fight terror.

Instead, prosecutors and detectives attached to the city's district-attorney offices are leading the effort. Their work has been aided by advances in DNA-based forensic techniques, and today's reduced murder rate in New York has freed up investigators to reinvestigate old killings.

The medical examiner's office has received 85 inquiries in the past six months from prosecutors and investigators probing cold cases, said Sheila Dennis, head of the office's cold-case team. She called that a "significant increase" in interest compared with the years before the city began to draw on cold-case grants awarded by the National Institute of Justice.

Those grants, $500,000 in total since 2009, have flowed to the medical examiner's office, district attorneys' offices and the NYPD. The medical examiner's office has increased from two to 10 the number of employees whose duties now include working on cold cases.

Since 2009, the office has completed work on 117 cold cases, most referred to it by the district attorneys' investigators. Out of those, it has discovered 24 DNA profiles of people, which have been uploaded into local, state and national databases, said Ms. Dennis. Investigators haven't matched all the DNA profiles to suspects, though some have led to charges.

In most of the unsolved murder cases, investigators sift old evidence in hopes of making DNA matches to suspects—many of whom turn out to be already incarcerated on other charges—or to establish leads for more traditional, shoe-leather detective work.

Depending on the office, investigators focus on close-contact homicides—stranglings, sexual assaults or stabbings as opposed to shootings—because they can yield tangible evidence such as fingernail clippings or stains on victims' clothing that even decades later can now be tested for DNA.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance set up a Forensic Sciences/Cold Case Unit, after his election in 2010, and the unit was the city's first to take advantage of the federal cold-case funding. The unit's work has led to five convictions and four other cases in which suspects have been charged in cold case murders or rapes.

"These cold cases are really devotional acts," Mr. Vance said. "There's lots of work to do but if you just don't say you're going to do it and use your resources and make a commitment to it, it will never get done."

He said the team, led by its chief, Melissa Mourges, and Martha Bashford, head of his office's sex-crimes unit, are working through approximately 3,000 cold case files sitting in police warehouses.

At its height in the late 1990s, the NYPD's cold-case squad had approximately 60 detectives and supervisors, said Joseph Pollini, a former Cold Case Squad supervisor. Today, police say, eight detectives and two supervisors work in the unit.

Paul Browne, the NYPD's chief spokesman, said one reason for the squad's reduction is fewer cold cases remain to be solved. From 1990 to 2000, the city averaged about 1,480 homicides a year. Since 2001, that number has gone down to about 540 killings a year, according to FBI and NYPD statistics.

The NYPD's cold-case squad detectives are brought in to aid in nearly all of the unsolved investigations the district attorneys offices are pursuing these days. Any number of investigative approaches can reheat a cold case.

Traditional police work proved to be critical in the case of Rodney Alcala, who was already on California's death row for a string of murders and rapes. For two years, Mr. Vance's cold-case team re-examined the old evidence in the case. They fanned out across the U.S. to interview more than 100 potential witnesses and obtained Mr. Alcala's dental records to compare them to a bite mark left on one of the victims. They linked an alias Mr. Alcala was known to use to a note left by one of the victims. He pleaded guilty in January to murdering the two 23-year-old women and was sentenced 25-years-to-life.

Also in December, investigators with Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson's cold-case unit pulled evidence from two 1993 homicides, got a DNA match from a database and went to the Mount Vernon home of Lucius Crawford. Police say Mr. Crawford, 60, had served a total of 30 years behind bars on three convictions dating to 1973 for knife assaults on women. At his home, authorities say they found the body of a woman who had been stabbed to death. Mr. Crawford now has pleaded not guilty to the three murders.

Rachel Singer, director of DNA Prosecutions in the Bronx district attorney's office, estimated it had about two dozen cold cases in which they found evidence that is being tested in hopes of matching it to a suspect. She said the office had "whittled down" thousands of unsolved cases to approximately 650 they will reinvestigate.

The Queens district attorney's office took a slightly different tack using its portion of the grant money to re-examine all unsolved first-degree rape and other sex crimes over a 10-year period, said Eric Rosenbaum, chief of the office's DNA Prosecutions Unit. Mr. Rosenbaum said he used June 1996 as the starting point of his project because the statute of limitations made it impossible to prosecute cases older than that. The office reinvestigated 594 unsolved sex assaults that had occurred between 1996 and 2006—mostly rapes. Of that, he said, they found evidence that potentially could lead to as many as 56 prosecutions being brought.

Mr. Vance absorbed some criticism when his office indicted Mr. Alcala, who had been in prison for years on a death sentence. But he said authorities had a "moral commitment" to follow up when they could on unsolved murders.

"If you had a loved one who went through an experience like losing a son or a daughter that's what you'd expect from law enforcement," he said. "This is a mission and the mission doesn't change simply the case is old."