Mississippi has become one of the first states in the South to establish a cold-case unit to investigate unsolved cases, including high-profile murders.
Public Safety Commissioner Rusty Fortenberry said the new division is under the control of the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and will be located at the department's crime laboratory in Batesville. The unit will accept unsolved cases from police and sheriff's departments across Mississippi.
"It's been in the pilot stage for about a year and a half," said Warren Strain, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety. "We have been setting up the unit's infrastructure and coming up with a methodology for reviewing unsolved cases."
The Department of Public Safety is a state-run agency composed of the Highway Patrol, the Bureau of Narcotics, the MBI and the state Crime Lab.
Only a few states have cold-case units, which review unsolved cases that appear to have no active leads.
The Maryland State Police, which has a comprehensive list of cold-case units across the nation, shows only two other Southern states with similar units.
The Texas Department of Public Safety operates a cold-case unit under the control of the Texas Rangers, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has a cold-case committee, according to Maryland State Police.
In Mississippi, local law enforcement agencies traditionally have handled their own cold cases, but Strain said the agencies often lack the manpower to stay on the job.
"Cold cases are tough to work," Strain said. "New cases come in every day, and it is difficult for some smaller departments or agencies to review cold cases because of the manpower it takes. We are hoping to take some of the pressure off them."
Strain said the unit is now reviewing five cases, but he would not say what they were.
"What is exciting is that of the cold cases that we have begun to review, we found some of the strongest evidence that has come to light because of new technology that is available to us now that was not 10 or 20 years ago," MBI Director Lt. Col. Michael Berthay said Monday in a written release.
Steve Chancellor, a 30-year law enforcement veteran, is head of the unit.
"We have two people [in the unit]. As the demand grows, we will decide whether to add more people," Strain said.
Rankin County Sheriff Ronnie Pennington said the cold-case unit is a great idea that he plans to take full advantage of soon.
"When I saw that . . . I said 'Darn, I would like to get with them about a couple of cases that we have,' " said Pennington, whose department has 67 sworn officers and only five full-time investigators. "A lot of time, cases are cleared up when someone new gets in and goes over all the evidence and starts interviewing witnesses."
Pennington said he believes the unit will have many cases in the coming months.