What Is a Cold Case?

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Physical evidence is frequently required in cold case investigations. Learn about the characteristics of cold cases as well as examples of cold cases that have been solved.


What Is a Cold Case?

A cold case is a crime that has not been legally resolved by investigators. Clear witnesses, suspects, and evidence are required to solve crimes; without these elements, cases can become cold. These cases have the potential to perplex police departments and thwart law enforcement agencies such as the FBI. Unresolved investigations that last more than a year can be disastrous for the family members of victims in unsolved murder, sexual assault, or missing persons cases.

In certain states, criminal investigations involving homicide and sexual assault are not subject to a statute of limitations and can last as long as necessary. To reopen case files, cold case squads will seek new evidence (human remains, fingerprints, crime scene eyewitnesses, camera footage). Forensic science is also used by cold case units to better understand older cases and original investigations.


Characteristics of Cold Cases

Cold cases are difficult to solve because they contain an element of mystery and the passage of time.

Mystery: Cold cases may include violent crimes where the perpetrator ensures that evidence is difficult to find, or serial killers who relocate and pose a threat to public safety. Unidentified individuals, who may lack identification or other distinguishing characteristics, may also be cold-case perpetrators.

Time: Cold cases are also distinguished by long gaps in new evidence. This is especially true for crimes committed years or decades ago when advanced technology could not easily identify a sex offender or locate an original suspect. Victims' families may request case reviews in unsolved homicides and other crimes to check on investigative progress, but the reality is that some cold cases never get solved.

Cold cases involving the disappearance and murder of white people, particularly white women, receive more attention and media coverage than crimes against people of color due to systemic inequities.


3 Examples of Cold Cases

Cold cases can be solved by detectives using investigation, credible testimony, and useful evidence. Consider the following examples of unresolved and solved cold cases:

1. Shaun Ritchie's disappearance: Ritchie went missing in 2014 at the age of twenty, and witnesses last saw him in the Strichen area of Aberdeenshire, Scotland. His family believes he was murdered over a debt, but the case has remained unsolved.

2. Tanya Nicole Kach's kidnapping: Tanya Nicole Kach, an eighth-grade student, went missing for ten years after being kidnapped by a school security guard. After ten years, she escaped from the guard's second-story bedroom. In 2007, the guard, Thomas Hose, pleaded guilty.

3. The murder of Morgan Harrington: Harrington, a twenty-year-old Virginia Tech student, vanished during a Metallica concert in 2009. Six months later, police discovered her body. Years later, forensic evidence and CCTV footage identified the perpetrator as Jesse L. Matthew, Jr., who was also responsible for the 2014 murder of University of Virginia student Hannah Graham. Matthew pleaded guilty in 2016, effectively ending the case.

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