An award-winning Scripps Howard News Service investigative reporting project, “Murder Mysteries,” is being cited in arguments going before the Supreme Court of the United States.
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on the case, Maryland v. Alonzo Jay King, Jr., on February 26, 2013. The case focuses on whether states can compel people arrested and charged with a serious crime, but not convicted, to provide DNA samples to be placed in the FBI’s CODIS database.
Attorneys for the Maryland Crime Victims Resource Center filed an Amici Curiae, or “friend of the court” brief, in which it uses Scripps’ finding that there were 185,000 unsolved murders committed from 1980 to 2008 to suggest the unsolved cases are an “epidemic” which states are within their rights to take exceptional measures to combat. The "Murder Mysteries" investigation is cited on pages 4 and 17 of the brief.
"We take no position on the lawsuit, for or against the argument,” says Thomas Hargrove, national reporter for Scripps Howard News Service. “This is the first time anything I’ve ever done has been used in arguments at the Supreme Court.”
Scripps Howard News Service, led by Hargrove, made a database of unsolved murders across the country.
“One-third of all murders are unsolved in the United States and despite the fact that violent crime is down, we are less likely to solve a murder now than ever before,” said Hargrove.
Hargrove and his team at SHNS developed an algorithm to find suspicious clusters of murders of women that could be the work of a serial killer. A serial murderer is defined as a person who has killed two or more people in separate incidents.
“I think it’s very common for a serial murder to be missed,” said Hargrove. “We found clusters all over the country. In Detroit, it identified 10 teenage girls who had been strangled. We called to ask Detroit police about the murders, but the department couldn’t even put names to the murders we found because the office hasn’t been computerized. Officially Detroit is working hard to solve homicides, but only one murder in five gets solved in Detroit.”
Hargrove spoke at a convention hosted by the Maryland Crime Victims Resource Center about the Murder Mysteries project.
“As a result of the investigation, the groups took it on as a goal to lobby congress to create a federal commission to study reforms to the criminal justice system,” said Hargrove. “There hasn’t been such a commission since the 1960s. Chiefs of police and defense attorneys would like to see a commission and feel there needs to be a meeting of the minds on how to reform the system.”
"It's pretty cool the Maryland Crime Victims Resource Center has used the investigation in its footnotes in the brief to the court," said Hargrove.
The “Murder Mysteries” project also won the Investigative Reporters and Editors 2011 Philip Meyer Award citing the series as a sterling example of the power of precision journalism to find reveal patterns in data.
The IRE described the project as follows:
“Thomas Hargrove began the project by wondering if the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Report could be used to detect the work of serial killers among the nation’s more than 185,000 unsolved murders. He discovered that local police failed to report thousands of murders to the FBI and spent months using Freedom of Information laws to gather details of more than 15,000 unlogged murders across the country. After building what experts say is the most complete database of unsolved murders available, Hargrove developed a unique algorithm that used the statistical technique of cluster analysis to identify the likely traces of serial murders, as marked by victims of similar demographics killed by similar means. Police in at least eight cities have acknowledged that the clusters found by Hargrove are either confirmed serial cases or are likely to be such. The database was placed online so readers could do their own interactive analysis of local murders, and the entire dataset is available for anyone to download and explore. At least one armchair detective has used the data to find a cluster that police in his area agree is the work of a heretofore unacknowledged serial killer.”
You can read more about the IRE award here.