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The Challenges in Prosecuting Cold Case Murders

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The Challenges in Prosecuting Cold Case Murders

When it comes to solving crimes, few are as challenging as cold case murders. These are cases that have gone unsolved for years, sometimes even decades, leaving families and communities in a state of uncertainty and fear. The passage of time can make it difficult to gather evidence, locate witnesses, and build a strong case against a suspect. In this article, we will explore the unique challenges that prosecutors face when trying to bring justice to cold case murders.

The Importance of Physical Evidence

One of the biggest challenges in prosecuting cold case murders is the lack of physical evidence. Over time, evidence can degrade or be lost entirely, making it difficult to establish a clear link between a suspect and the crime scene. DNA evidence, for example, may have been mishandled or contaminated, rendering it useless in court. Without strong physical evidence, prosecutors must rely on other forms of evidence, such as witness testimony or circumstantial evidence, which can be more challenging to present convincingly to a jury.


  • The case of the Golden State Killer, Joseph James DeAngelo, is a prime example of the challenges posed by the lack of physical evidence in cold case murders. Despite committing a series of crimes between 1974 and 1986, DeAngelo was not apprehended until 2018. The lack of DNA evidence linking him to the crimes made it difficult for investigators to identify him as the perpetrator.
  • In another case, the murder of JonBenét Ramsey in 1996, the lack of physical evidence has hindered the investigation. Despite extensive efforts to gather evidence, including DNA testing, the case remains unsolved.

Witness Reliability and Memory

Another significant challenge in prosecuting cold case murders is the reliability of witnesses and their memories. As time passes, witnesses may forget details or misremember events, making it difficult to establish a clear timeline of the crime. Additionally, witnesses may be hesitant to come forward due to fear or a desire to move on from the past. This lack of reliable witness testimony can make it challenging for prosecutors to build a strong case against a suspect.


  • In the case of the murder of Hae Min Lee in 1999, made famous by the podcast “Serial,” witness testimony played a crucial role. However, as the case was revisited years later, some witnesses’ memories had faded, leading to inconsistencies in their statements.
  • In the case of the Zodiac Killer, who terrorized California in the late 1960s and early 1970s, witness testimony has been crucial in piecing together the crimes. However, due to the passage of time, some witnesses have passed away, making it impossible to gather their testimony.

Advancements in Forensic Science

Despite the challenges posed by the lack of physical evidence, advancements in forensic science have provided new opportunities for prosecuting cold case murders. DNA testing, for example, has become more sophisticated and can now yield results from even small or degraded samples. Additionally, new techniques, such as touch DNA analysis, have allowed investigators to gather DNA evidence from surfaces that were previously thought to be impossible to test. These advancements have the potential to breathe new life into cold case investigations and provide prosecutors with the evidence they need to bring a case to trial.


  • In 2018, the arrest of the Golden State Killer was made possible through the use of DNA evidence. Investigators used a technique called genetic genealogy to identify a suspect by comparing crime scene DNA to publicly available DNA databases.
  • In the case of the murder of Angie Dodge in 1996, advancements in DNA testing led to the exoneration of Christopher Tapp, who had been wrongfully convicted of the crime. New DNA evidence pointed to a different suspect, who was subsequently arrested and charged.

Statute of Limitations

One significant challenge in prosecuting cold case murders is the statute of limitations. In many jurisdictions, there is a time limit within which a crime must be prosecuted. Once that time limit has passed, the case cannot be brought to trial, regardless of the evidence available. This can be particularly frustrating for families and investigators who have worked tirelessly to gather evidence and identify a suspect, only to be told that the case cannot proceed due to the passage of time.


  • In the case of the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, the statute of limitations had expired, preventing any further prosecution of the case. Despite new evidence coming to light in recent years, including a confession, the case remains officially unsolved.
  • In some jurisdictions, such as the state of New York, there is no statute of limitations for murder. This allows prosecutors to bring cold case murders to trial, regardless of how much time has passed since the crime was committed.

Public Interest and Media Attention

Cold case murders often generate significant public interest and media attention. This can be both a blessing and a curse for prosecutors. On one hand, public interest can lead to new tips and information coming forward, which can help advance the investigation. On the other hand, media attention can create pressure to solve the case quickly, potentially leading to mistakes or rushed investigations. Prosecutors must carefully navigate the balance between public interest and the need for a thorough and unbiased investigation.


  • The case of the Black Dahlia murder in 1947 generated significant media attention and public interest. Despite the intense scrutiny, the case remains unsolved to this day.
  • In the case of the murder of Natalee Holloway in 2005, media attention played a significant role in keeping the case in the public eye. However, the intense media scrutiny also led to false leads and misinformation, making it difficult for investigators to separate fact from fiction.


Prosecuting cold case murders is a complex and challenging task. The lack of physical evidence, unreliable witnesses, and the passage of time all present significant obstacles to bringing justice to victims and their families. However, advancements in forensic science and the dedication of investigators and prosecutors offer hope for solving these long-standing mysteries. By understanding the unique challenges involved in prosecuting cold case murders, we can work towards improving investigative techniques and ensuring that justice is served, no matter how much time has passed.

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