Unsolved Killings Plague District

By Cheryl W. Thompson, Ira Chinoy and Barbara Vobejda
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 3, 2000

In the District of Columbia, more and more people are getting away with murder.

Fifteen hundred homicides have gone unsolved over the past decade. Nearly two-thirds of the homicides that occurred in 1999 remained unsolved at that year's end, the poorest performance in the last 10 years.

A year-long Washington Post investigation has found fundamental flaws in D.C. homicide cases: poor supervision of detectives scattered in districts across the city, hundreds of missing and incomplete case files, and dozens of cases closed without arrests under unclear circumstances. The disarray has persisted despite repeated promises of fixes, a precipitously dropping homicide rate and the arrival two years ago of a police chief brought in to reform a troubled department.

Nothing illustrates the depths of the department's problems more clearly than the handling of homicide case files, one of the most important measures of a department's "investigative integrity," according to an internal department memo.

Police administrators vowed three years ago to make improvements after the discovery that 600 files were missing. But police are currently scrambling to locate 377 closed cases that they cannot find in their headquarters, according to internal police documents.

Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said many of the files are in the possession of detectives or at the U.S. attorney's office and will ultimately be found. But in the files police could locate, 136 lacked crucial documents. And Post reporters did their own examination of 100 homicide cases that had been closed "administratively" without arrests between 1996 and 1999 and found that 29 of them did not have the documents explaining why those cases were closed, in violation of police policy. Many of these files also were missing crime-scene technician reports and witness statements. One case consisted of a two-page report detailing the facts of the death and nothing else.

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