Cold Case Confidential: Old Murder Cases Are Being Reopened - and Solved

By Bai, Matt | Newsweek, January 12, 1998 | Go to article overview

Cold Case Confidential: Old Murder Cases Are Being Reopened - and Solved


Bai, Matt, Newsweek


Old murder cases are being reopened--and solved

BOSTON HOMICIDE DETECTIVE STEPHEN Murphy was thumbing through a stack of old, yellowed case files when he came across a 1981 killing he remembered well. Someone had wandered into a flophouse in the middle of the night and savagely stabbed a man to death while he slept. At the time Murphy's investigation led to a junkie named Kevin Divens, who had mistaken the dead man for his wife's lover. Divens's rare blood type matched a sample from the scene, but a judge threw the case out because there weren't any witnesses.

Now assigned to Boston's "cold case squad," working exclusively on unnsolved murders, Murphy decided to try again. He found Divens in prison, serving time for robbery. A DNA test on the 14-year-old blood sample linked him to the murder. Then Murphy tracked down Divens's last girlfriend, who said he'd bragged about the slaying. Divens pleaded guilty and will serve an additional 10 years for manslaughter.

Fledgling detectives have always been taught that if you can't solve a murder in 72 hours, you probably can't solve it at all. But the office where Murphy and his partner work is plastered with pictures of killers who thought they'd never be found out. And the idea is catching on. From Dade County, Fla., where the trend began in the 1980s, to Minneapolis, New York and even the U.S. Navy, old murder cases are the new obsession. It's not hard to see why: the national murder rate soared between 1970 and 1990, while in some cities, four out ofl0 cases went unsolved. Now, freed up by the recent decline in murders, some departments are closing cases going back as far as the 1950s. Time-traveling cops rely on new technology like DNA and fingerprint-matching, and databases that make it almost impossible for people to disappear. They also tend to be old-fashioned gumshoes who can probe the mind of a murderer-even if he hasn't killed since the Johnson administration.

Take Linda Erwin, for instance. Hired onto the Dallas police force as a secretary in the 1960s, she quickly rose through the ranks to become its first woman homicide detective. For two years in the early '90s, Erwin solved all 25 murders assigned to her. When the Dallas cops decided to form its own cold-case squad in 1995, they turned to Erwin; she's already cleared nine cases. Steering an unmarked cruiser through the back streets of town, a 9-mm pistol strapped to her skirt, Erwin says most murderers on the run will choose to confess when confronted with the evidence. …

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