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Witnesses, DNA and a murderer's own guilt: From unsolved homicide to case closed

The garda serious crime review team is tasked with examining cold cases, but how does our system compare with other jurisdictions?

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Getting Away With Murder: Ireland’s Unsolved Homicides will tell the story of this country’s unknown killers and forgotten victims. In this six-part series, TheJournal.ie will revisit a number of cold cases, speak to the detectives tasked with solving these murders and hear from the families left behind with no justice – but lots of questions. This week, we have delved into four cases which gardaí are still hoping to solve. Here, we look at the few ways this could happen. 

AS TIME GOES by and leads dry up, a murder case naturally starts to get less attention from investigating officers. This is the same in every country and every police organisation across the world.

After a certain point, with no new information, it becomes more and more unlikely that the killer will ever be brought to justice. But in a small number of unsolved homicides, even years after the crime has taken place, gardaí get a break in the case – that piece of the jigsaw they have been searching for.

This was seen at the start of this year with the well-known case of Irene White, who had been murdered in Dundalk in 2005. The mother-of-three was found dead in the kitchen of her home and for over a decade her case remained unsolved.

On 20 January this year, however, news broke that 34-year-old student Anthony Lambe had been arrested. He was charged the next day with the 43-year-old woman’s murder and court proceedings are ongoing.

How does the cold case system work in Ireland? 

BALTINGLASS GRAVEYARDS The site of an exhumation in 2003 in Wickow Source: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

There is no set formula for bringing a long, unsolved case to a resolution, according to experts. The answer can hang on a statement from a previously reluctant witness, a fresh test using new DNA technology or a random, unexpected piece of information provided as part of an unconnected investigation.

Superintendent Angela Willis heads up the Garda Serious Crime Review team, which looks at unsolved cases across the country.

“We’re looking at cases where you had a suspect but did not have the evidence for court, and we’re looking at the ones that are harder cases, where there are no suspects,” she explained.

In some cases it can be an incident that is so serious the public interest demands a review or there may be speculation and there is a public interest need to ensure that [speculation] has been looked at.

The model in the Republic of Ireland involves a small team reviewing the case and then reverting back to the original investigators with recommendations for other avenues to pursue.

The team meets with the senior investigating officer – usually a detective inspector or detective superintendent from the station the original inquiry took place. They agree the terms of reference for the review, including access to staff involved in the initial probe. Then they look at all documents and exhibits relating to the case.

“We look at what has already been done and see if there are other opportunities we can pursue. Are there outside experts we can bring in? Are there witnesses we can go back to?

They might have gone cold, but they’re not forgotten about – they always remain open in that circumstances could change.

“Say a relationship breaks down, a witness may not feel under the influence of a perpetrator anymore. You have DNA developments, there are some really old cases you hear of – sexual crimes – where advances of DNA have helped. Those technologies and opportunities that weren’t there at the time it was investigated.

There may be commonalities, some piece of information in another crime or a similarity that you might pick up. Someone who has knowledge of it might tell you something they heard, or new intelligence comes in after appeals.

“And sometimes the perpetrator themselves can feel a lot of guilt and can’t live with it, so they have to come and put their hands up.”

Willis’s team then compiles a report for the senior investigating officer.

Recommendations could include speaking to a witness again, or to a person who has come forward, testing a piece of physical evidence using technology that did not exist at the time or was not at an advanced stage, or following an entirely new line of inquiry that was never considered in the original investigation.

‘Falling to the bottom of the pile’

This same model was used in Northern Ireland up until 2015 when the PSNI established its own version of a dedicated cold case unit, called the ‘legacy investigation branch’.

The team of 70 staff has 1,000 unsolved murders to look at.

Deputy head of the unit, Superintendent Jason Murphy said the team works through its massive caseload “at a relatively slow pace”.

“The nature of the work demands that real forensic attention to detail. I could put 500 officers on this rather than the 70 and still make relatively modest progress over a fairly long period of time,” he told TheJournal.ie.

He said the decision to establish a specialist unit dedicated to investigating cold cases was made because these legacy cases “kept falling to the bottom of the pile”.

“There was so much current crime that trying to find the time and space to dedicate to them was increasingly difficult.

If the team identifies an opportunity to arrest, it’s all self-contained to keep on top of the caseload. That’s to make sure it’s given the appropriate level of priority and resources and that people aren’t getting pulled onto something else.

Though the work system is different, the factors that can eventually break a cold case remain the same.

He referenced the case of RUC reservist John Proctor who was murdered in the car park of a hospital in 1981. His wife had just given birth and he had been visiting her and their newborn.

“A cigarette butt was recovered at the time, but it wasn’t able to be tested. We looked at the DNA technology and identified, arrested, charged and convicted a man of murder,” Murphy said.

The DNA on the butt matched that of 54-year-old Seamus Martin Kearney. The judge in 2013 said he was satisfied the man was either the gunman, the driver of the getaway car or an occupant of the car present to provide support for the killing. That was the second time Kearney was convicted of a terrorist gun attack, having been jailed in 1984 for the attempted murder of Ulster Defence Regiment soldiers.

After Kearney’s sentencing, his victim’s widow June McMullan told the News Letter how the killer had lived just a mile from her home.

For 32 years he would drive by my place of work. I would see him. He would just look at you, knowing he knew who I was and that I knew who he was.

After so many years, she said she had not dared hope he would be convicted: “I am still on a high.”

Though Murphy admits, “The numbers of solved cases continue, unfortunately, to be in small numbers.

“Part of that is because terrorist organisations historically have been forensically aware and close knit, careful, about their business.”

Importance

Ryan Backmann, himself the son of a murder victim whose case remains unsolved, is the founder of an initiative called Project Cold Case in the US. The organisation supports the families of murder victims whose cases have gone cold.

He believes there is a problem globally with the attitude towards cold cases and are not treated with the importance their victims deserve.

In Jacksonville, where Backmann is based, there are four detectives and a sergeant responsible for investigating cold cases. However, this five-person unit is also tasked with investigating in-custody deaths, officer-involved shootings and all child abductions.

“That leaves them with little time for actually investigating the 1,500 unsolved murders in Jacksonville.”

“In Miami, where there are more than 2,500 unsolved cases, the cold case unit has recently been dissolved. They only had two officers working it anyway.”

He described the state of Colorado, however, as being “at the forefront of cold case management”. They have a state-wide cold case review team taskforce and also a database to track unsolved murders.

According to Backmann, the families he works with have different needs to those who have seen an arrest made in their case.

“For families like mine, we’re never going to get to that point and eventually communication stops with law enforcement – you have no communication at all with a prosecutor, with lawyers or with judges,” he explained.

When it started, we thought it was going to focus on bridging the gap between families, some of which haven’t spoken to a detective in 10 or 20 years.

The organisation works with law enforcement to try to get some answers for families, or even just to keep lines of communication open. “Sometimes they’re great and they’re willing to talk and give more information and sometimes they’re not,” he continued.

Project Cold Case also works to highlight some of these cases that have fallen out of the public eye for some time.

Source: Project Cold Case via Facebook

Backmann has been appointed to a cold-case advisory commission in Florida, which includes around 30 members from law enforcement and other investigative fields like medical examiners. He is the only citizen advocate on the commission, but he described it as a progressive initiative for highlighting the importance of these cases.

They meet quarterly and review cases in Florida to identify some of the issues agencies are having.

“In this State, we estimate that from 1980 until now, there are 15,000 unsolved murders. In the entire country, the estimate is 230,000 unsolved murders since 1980.

“That’s a huge backlog and quite honestly it hasn’t gotten the attention that is needed to really come up with solutions. We are getting there, we’re kind of at the front of this now and people are starting to pay attention.

This is not just about getting answers for the families – that’s important – this is about making sure these bad guys don’t do it again.

Lessons to be learned

Garda Superintendent Angela Willis said an important role for Ireland’s Serious Crime Review team is learning from the cases they review so they can shape future investigations and best practice.

There are lessons to be learned that we can build into future training to provide a better product going forward.

She defended the garda model of investigating cold cases.

“At the end of the day, my own view is that once the work gets done and recommendations are carried out, it is irrelevant whether that’s the review team or someone else.

“Do I deploy a whole team to Donegal or West Cork to investigate something or do we concentrate on empowering people to do it themselves? We find it is what best meets our needs – but I’m not saying that wouldn’t change in the future.”

She said gardaí treat these cases with the same importance as current murder investigations – at the end of the day, they want to bring the killers to justice.

In fact, the team of 10 will be expanding over the next few weeks, Willis revealed to TheJournal.ie. The plan is to have four teams of four officers, with each team focusing on one particular case. She said she wanted to reassure people that “they all remain live cases until they’re solved”.

“Just because this team isn’t looking at a case it doesn’t mean somebody isn’t. All of them remain under investigation.”

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