A "coin flip": Nearly half of U.S. murders go unsolved as cases rise
Police called Denita Williams in April and gave her the address of a gas station in their town of Jackson, Mississippi and asked how long it would take for her to get there.
"When I pulled up, all I see is this crime tape," Williams told CBS News.
Her son, Kenland Thompson, Jr., was shot and killed while putting air in his tires. He was 20 years old.
"The coroner had already taken his body," she said. "He was already gone."
Three months later, no one has been arrested for the murder of Kenland Thompson, Jr.
"I gave them names," Williams said, describing how she told police she would help them investigate the case herself. "I felt like I was going crazy, giving them so much. They're not doing their job."
Across a nation that is already in the grips of a rise in violent crime, murders are going unsolved at a historic pace, a CBS News investigation has found. A review of FBI statistics shows that the murder clearance rate — the share of cases each year that are solved, meaning police make an arrest or close the case due to other reasons — has fallen to its lowest point in more than half a century.
"It's a 50-50 coin flip," says Thomas Hargrove, who runs the Murder Accountability Project, which tracks unsolved murders nationwide. "It's never been this bad. During the last seven months of 2020, most murders went unsolved. That's never happened before in America."
Police are far less likely to solve a murder when the victim is Black or Hispanic, according to CBS News' analysis. In 2020, the murders of White victims were about 30% more likely to be solved than in cases with Hispanic victims, and about 50% more than when the victims were Black, the data show.
In dozens of interviews across the country, police and criminal justice experts have offered a range of explanations for these trends. Some factors are evident when visiting communities such as Jackson, Mississippi, which has suffered from one of the nation's highest murder rates.
In that city of about 160,000 people, the police department responded to 153 murders in the past year but has just eight homicide detectives to work that caseload. FBI guidelines suggest homicide detectives should be covering no more than five cases at a time.
Police Chief James Davis said his department needs more of everything to keep up with the violence.
"The whole system is backlogged," Davis said. "I could use more police officers. I could use more homicide detectives, but if the state is backed up, the court is backed up, we will still have the same problem by developing these cases that we're already doing."
Police are also contending with a breakdown in trust between their officers and the communities they serve, a result of decades of tensions that spilled over during high-profile cases of police misconduct in recent years.
That has made it harder for police to receive tips or obtain help from witnesses, said Danielle Outlaw, the commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department. Outlaw told CBS News there is a history of "systemic inequities that contribute to the mistrust" in many communities most affected by crime.
"We've gotten in our own way," Outlaw said, referring to past episodes of police misconduct. "It has to be a two-way street, as it is with any relationship."
The challenge of closing murder cases is reflected in national statistics, but is especially acute in some locations, the CBS News review found.
METHODOLOGY: Learn how CBS News analyzed FBI homicide clearance rate data
"I don't have any hope in the system"
Some states have struggled with consistently low clearance rates, CBS News' analysis shows. From Maryland to Texas, from Michigan to California, families who buried loved ones too soon await justice, often going years without answers.
Three-year-old Terrell Mayes, Jr. had celebrated Christmas with his family just one day before he was killed by a stray bullet, his life cut short as he fled up the stairs to safety inside his north Minneapolis home. More than 10 years later, his mother, Marsha Mayes, still grieves — and still longs for the day that her son's killer will be brought to justice.
"I want the killer to know you can't run," Mayes said. "God knows everything."
But she still knows little more than what she did more than a decade ago: that the person who killed her child hasn't been caught.
During the 10 years since Terrell's murder, the Minneapolis Police Department recorded 418 homicides committed and only 221 solved — a clearance rate of about 53%, according to CBS News' analysis of FBI data.
In Los Angeles, Barbara Pritchett-Hughes mourns her own loss. Her son Devon Hughes, 15, was caught in the crossfire outside of a church in 2007. His killer was caught just four days after the shooting and is in prison to this day.
But nine years later, in 2016, another tragedy: her other son, DeAndre Hughes, was shot and killed just steps away from their front door.
"Not again, not again," Barbara said she remembers thinking after she heard the news. "And I prayed, and I asked God to don't allow this to happen again."
Barbara said she initially thought DeAndre's murder would be solved just as quickly as Devon's. But some six years later, she still doesn't know who's responsible.
In 2020, the Los Angeles Police Department reported a clearance rate of about 55% — slightly better than the national average. But that clearance rate masks a deeper problem: like in many cities, police are less likely to solve the murders of Black victims.
Between 2016 and 2020, the average clearance rate for Black homicide victims in Los Angeles was just 45%, according to CBS News' analysis of data submitted by the LAPD to the FBI. For White victims, it was 70%.
The LAPD recorded 351 homicides in 2020 — 36% more than the previous year. Chief Michael Moore pointed to that spike, along with the pandemic, as explanations for the city's clearance rate. He also cited a lack of community trust in police that prevents potential witnesses from coming forward.
"The solving of a crime, a homicide particularly, is dependent on community trusting police," Moore said.
The city of Los Angeles is now offering a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of DeAndre's killer. Barbara implores anyone from the community to come forward.
"Tell, because if this was your loved one you would want someone to tell," she said.
An incomplete picture?
In Chicago, police don't report clearance data through the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting program, so CBS News submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for Chicago Police Department (CPD) data. In 2020, that data showed, the department's murder clearance rate was about 44% — 16% less than the national average.
But that doesn't show the whole picture. The CPD data distinguished between cases that were cleared because a suspect was arrested and charged, and those cleared for other reasons. Those cases — so-called "exceptionally cleared" murders — are closed even though a suspect wasn't prosecuted.
Exceptional clearances are supposed to be rare — reserved for unusual cases such as when police identify the suspect, but that suspect is dead, Hargrove said. That's not the case in Chicago, where, in 2020, half of the homicide cases police closed were exceptionally cleared.
One of those exceptionally cleared cases was that of Diego Villada, who, in April 2017, was murdered in an alley in broad daylight on the city's Northwest Side after being jumped by two men. His sister, Anna Villada, watched it happen.
"One of the dudes told Diego, 'Start running, because this is the day that you die,'" Anna said.
Diego tried to get away but was shot in the head. Anna tried desperately to save him, but it was too late. He died in the hospital two days later.
Anna said she made direct eye contact with Diego's killer immediately after the shooting and described him to police. The man she identified was arrested the same day, but wasn't charged due to lack of evidence, according to spokespeople from both CPD and the Cook County State's Attorney's Office.
Police exceptionally cleared his murder case due to that lack of evidence exactly four years after he was killed, on April 1, 2021.
Without those exceptionally cleared cases like Diego's, CPD's 2021 murder clearance rate was just 24%, CBS News' analysis shows.
In other words, three out of four killers in Chicago are still on the street. This lack of accountability perpetuates the cycle of violence, according to Arthur Lurigio, who teaches criminal justice at Loyola University Chicago.
"When 70% of homicide homicides don't lead to an arrest, that's a critical mass of survivors of homicide victims that are never going to experience the justice that they deserve," Lurigio said. "So, they bury their child and have to live with it for the rest of their lives, feeling that there's been no closure on the matter."
In Baltimore, a federal prosecutor hopes to tackle the problem through a partnership headquartered in a nondescript warehouse in a secure location. There, a collaboration of more than 20 local, state and federal agencies work together investigating Baltimore's most brazen drug syndicates, and a special intelligence unit identifies connections among the city's hundreds of uncleared murders.
The intelligence unit hopes to follow the "Al Capone strategy" of convicting murder suspects for other crimes being pursued by the interagency partnership.
Former acting U.S. Attorney Jonathan Lenzner started the unit, and in 2021 his office indicted 15 members of a Baltimore gang on charges related to racketeering and drug conspiracy. Prosecutors linked them to unclosed cases involving 18 murders and 27 attempted murders.
"There are homicides and non-fatal shootings occurring all across the city, [and] we have a map which shows where each of these shootings has occurred. And at times, unfortunately, and somewhat tragically, that map can look like the constellations on a clear, starry night," Lenzner said.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify the use of the "Al Capone strategy."
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