In a city that averages 12 homicides per year over the last 10 years, police investigator Lt. Fred Forsythe said he’s cautiously optimistic that homicide numbers might be lower than usual this year, with only one so far in the city six months into 2012.
“I don’t want to jinx it,” Forsythe said Friday. “But we’ll be very happy if it’s only one.”
Not that one homicide is OK, Forsythe said, especially one that he said has only been “partially solved.”
The killing of Dequirea Royal, a former National Guard sergeant who was shot to death at Constantine Homes in April, technically doesn’t count as an “unsolved murder” for statistical purposes for the department, Forsythe said, because police have made an arrest in the case. Yet that isn’t the same thing as saying it’s a closed file on Anniston’s only homicide so far this year.
“It’s an ongoing open case until we have everyone involved and they’re brought to justice,” Forsythe said.
Unsolved homicides in the United States have seen a rise over the last 50 years, even as homicides as a category of crime have gone down, according to statistics collected by the FBI. In 1965, 91 percent of homicides committed in the United States were cleared. In 2008, the clearance rate nationwide was at 64 percent. The FBI numbers are compiled from clearance numbers reported by police departments; for Anniston police, a case is considered “clear” when an arrest is made.
Comparatively speaking, Anniston is doing OK as far as numbers are concerned. Forsythe said since 2000, the Police Department has been able to clear roughly 80 percent of the homicides committed in the city. It’s an approximate figure that can get muddled due to a whole host of reasons, he said.
Take the Royal case as an example. In April, police arrested and charged Kenmonte Jacobe Winsley in the killing of the sergeant, but police are still actively investigating what they believe may have been involvement from others. The homicide is “clear,” but it’s hardly solved, Forsythe said.
Then there’s the thorny issue of classifying a missing person. Oxford police Lt. L.G. Owens said classifying a missing person as a homicide can be nearly impossible.
“There has to be some evidence that he’s dead,” Owens said. “You just don’t know in these cases. Maybe they don’t want to be found.”
It’s an issue that’s come up a few times for the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office, said Sheriff Larry Amerson. In those cases, even if all signs point to foul play, there needs to be evidence — usually a body — to rule a homicide.
“The logical conclusion is you’re talking about someone who is no longer with us,” Amerson said about Karen Steed, a Piedmont woman who went missing in 1997. “There’s no other evidence of her being alive that’s ever come to light.”
But the Sheriff’s Office has a better record than Anniston when it comes to unsolved homicides. According to Amerson, there’s only one — the case of Melody Evans, a Jacksonville woman whose body was found in 2010 in Ohatchee Creek — on the books.
“We have suspects and have attempted to get warrants,” Amerson said about the Evans death. “But after discussion with the District Attorney’s office, we decided it was best to attempt to get some additional evidence.”
Amerson said the Sheriff’s Office has been lucky, but he also attributes the high clearance rates to the way the county attacks homicide investigations.
“Our policy has been to pour every resource we can into the investigation,” Amerson said. “Every investigator will get pulled off whatever else they’re working on, and I’m not reluctant in the least to call in any other agency. My belief is an overwhelming, rapid response is the most effective way to solve a homicide.”
Call it the 48-hour approach, which has become a oft-referenced frame of time established in popular consciousness thanks to the A&E television documentary show “The First 48,” which follows investigators solving homicides and collecting crucial evidence within the first 48 hours.
“We talk to the last people who saw them, find all their friends and family, go to where they hung out,” Amerson said. “That show is pretty true to what we really do.”
If after 48 hours the leads go cold, it often becomes a waiting game.
Anniston police Sgt. Josh Doggrell said there’s no time frame in place to solve a homicide. Sometimes it’ll take years for new evidence or new witnesses to come forward.
In the case of Shaquita Murray, a woman killed in December of last year after a blow to the head, Doggrell said police interviewed 30 to 40 people in the first 48 hours, but are now still waiting for lab results to come back to give them forensic evidence in the case.
“The public has a hard time understanding that,” Doggrell said. “They watch these shows when they have the forensic evidence back by the next commercial.”
It’s not the only misconception the public gets from TV shows on how homicide investigations work, Forsythe said.
“You see a triple homicide and they solve it an hour,” he said. “We’re still trying to get everyone on the scene in the first hour.”
That might be the hardest thing, Forsythe said, when dealing with unsolved homicides — the disconnect between the work investigators are doing and what the public realizes is going on. Forsythe said homicides take precedence over anything else in the department, and any leads, tips or rumors that come their way are taken seriously and investigated, whether the crime happened yesterday or 15 years ago. The reason is simple: Unsolved homicides frustrate law enforcement officials as much as they frustrate the public and the victim’s loved ones.
“We’re required to be here eight hours every day, but when you got a homicide investigation, you can be here three or four days straight without ever going home,” Forsythe said. “And even when they go home, it’s not out of their minds. They’re still thinking about it.”
And thinking about the victims’ families too, Doggrell said. He said it’s the thing that drives him crazy about those fake cop shows — the scene when an investigator promises the family they’re going to get the guy who did it.
“You can’t tell people that,” Doggrell said. “They look to you to help them, you can’t promise something like that, because if you let them down, that’s frustrating.”
It’s ultimately why it’s hard to close the case file on a homicide, Amerson said.
“If you work a murder, you begin to know that family, because we learn everything we can about the victims,” Amerson said. “We get to know their friends, their habits — it’s a true personal involvement. No one in this business likes to walk away and leave that family with no closure and know there’s a killer out there.”
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.