Cold Cases: Prosecutors Help Law Enforcement In Cold Cases
Note: This series first aired on WUWF in October.
The Miriam-Webster Dictionary defines “cold case” as “an unsolved criminal investigation which remains open pending the discovery of new evidence.” In the first of a five-part series on cold cases, Dave Dunwoody visited the State Attorney’s Office for the First Judicial District.
When it comes to the long-dormant cases, State Attorney Bill Eddins says his office works through law enforcement agencies across the district, made up of Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton Counties. Senior attorneys usually are the ones providing legal advice.
When a law enforcement agency comes to the State Attorney with new evidence on a cold case, their first step is to hear the agency’s presentation, in detail, of all the evidence, both old and new. That way, Eddins says, they get the complete picture and not just a snapshot. Once that’s complete, the next move, in the case of a homicide, is two-fold.
“One is to provide legal advice in terms of if they need to know if they can search and seize something,” Eddins said. “And the other is to issue subpoenas to gather information. Law enforcement does not have the authority to issue a subpoena, whereas we do.”
That subpoena power also extends to witnesses, forcing them to give statements, unlike law enforcement, which is subject to the Miranda Act and a suspect’s right to remain silent. The ultimate question to be answered applies to all criminal cases: whether there’s sufficient evidence to make an arrest and prosecute.
While murders get the most attention among cold-cases, investigations can be launched into non-homicides. The other most prominent cold case is sexual battery.
“One of the reasons that those two areas are the primary areas is that your statute of limitations never expires on homicide, and there’s a much longer statute of limitations on some of the sexual battery cases,” said Eddins. “And some of those statutes do not expire.”
New investigational techniques and technological advances have made law enforcement’s and prosecutors’ jobs easier over the past three decades or so. DNA testing has led the way, in being able to demonstrate to juries what Eddins calls a level of proof that they could not provide before.
Television series such as “Cold Case” are both amusing and irksome to many who have to handle such cases. In real life, they’re not so neatly tied up and done in an hour. But despite the shows’ cut-and-dried story lines, Eddins doesn’t find them very bothersome. What is bothersome, he says, is juries questioning cases where there is very little or no DNA evidence.
“And the evidence, in my opinion, may be just as strong and just as solid without DNA,” Eddins said. “There are many other types of evidence: direct evidence, confessions, statements, admissions, gunshot evidence. However, juries really place a lot of emphasis on whether or not there’s ‘DNA evidence.’”
Whenever a cold case makes it way to the courtroom, in most instances the law that was in effect at the time of the crime is the law that applies. And when a cold case heats up enough to be tried, it brings with it a special set of challenges and obstacles that are unseen in most others.
“One of the problems you have is that witnesses’ memories fade; another one is you lose track of witnesses, [and] the third one is that witnesses die,” said Eddins. “A fourth one is that all the evidence may or may not have been kept; and that’s a major issue in a cold case matter.”
And State Attorney Bill Eddins says despite advances in investigative techniques and technology, cold cases will always be a part of law enforcement.