In the January/ February 2021 issue of the Texas Observer, reporter Lise Olsen investigated the growing backlog of homicide cases in Texas and its impact on the state’s communities. This is part of an ongoing, national “cold case crisis” with growing numbers of unsolved murders across the country. Tom McAndrew, one of the experts on the Cold Case Investigation Working Group, explained that “Cold cases constitute a crisis situation, for all unsolved homicides potentially have offenders who have never been apprehended.” Police departments are solving a lower percentage of homicides than ever before. According to the National Institute of Justice, there are 250,000 unresolved homicide cases nationally, and over 100,000 cases have accumulated over the past 20 years.
Olsen’s reporting localized this national issue to Texas. According to the Law Office of David A. Breston, there were 1,403 murders in Texas in 2019, a six percent increase from 2018. Olsen found that the Texas cities of Houston, Arlington, Killeen, and Lubbock cleared 40 percent or less of reported homicides in 2019. A combination of limited and ineffective use of resources and the number of serial killers operating in the US have contributed to the problem. For example, Olsen noted that the Dallas Police Department initially assigned one homicide detective out of 3,000 officers to reexamine cases that could be related to serial killer Billy Chermirmir. She also reported that the nation’s first public database of serial killers, maintained by Radford University and Florida Gulf Coast University, indicates that ten serial killers caught in Texas were responsible for 250 deaths since 1970. Ellen French House, the daughter of Norma French, who was murdered by Chermirmir, stated in the article that “’If the Dallas PD had put the dots together and sent out flyers, my mother wouldn’t be dead.’”
Corporate media covered the crimes, however, there was limited contextualization of the wider “cold case crisis.” The major outlet that covered this crisis is “The Crime Report” (TCR) on November 28, 2018. The TRC’s site claims it “is the nation’s only comprehensive news service covering the diverse challenges and issues of the [twenty-first] century criminal justice system in the U.S. and abroad.” Olsen’s report gave a more in-depth, impactful look into the issue in comparison to these sources, because she localized a national issue. Statistics clearly indicate the presence of a problem but hearing from the victims’ families humanizes the impacts of the crisis. Olsen included statistical information from reliable sources, intimate details about each of the victims and their circumstances, and quotes from the victims’ loved ones, taking the story beyond the mainstream media’s typical legal focus.
Source: Lise Olsen, “Undetected,” Texas Observer, February 8, 2021, https://www.texasobserver.org/undetected/.
Student Researcher: Angel Kontra (Salisbury University)
Faculty Evaluator: Shannon O’Sullivan (Salisbury University)