The Fairfax County Police Department staffs four detectives and a lieutenant in its cold case unit, a unit officers in the department say they are fortunate to have in an era where shrinkage and cuts are common in government agencies across the nation.
There are about 80 to 90 cold cases in the Fairfax County Police files, according to cold case detectives who spoke at a Citizens Advisory Committee meeting held Wednesday night at the Fairfax County Sully District police station in Chantilly.
The meeting was held in conjunction with the police department to give the public insight on how the agency pursues and resolves long-standing homicides, missing persons and other complex cases.
The detectives said they look at a few cases at a time and concentrate on them, as each case requires many hours of work.
“It's nothing for us to be working on a cold case for years.” Fairfax Police Det. Chris Flanagan told residents on Wednesday.
One of the oldest cold cases that was solved by the department was from 1975 when someone killed a clerk during a story robbery. In the early 2000s, some new information came to the attention of cold case investigators who were eventually able to get the suspect to confess to the crime, resulting in a 50-year sentence for him, Flanagan said.
While the goal is to resolve cases, that isn't always done through arrests, Fairfax Police Det. John Farrell said.
There are cases from the 1960s that are labeled “closed exceptional,” meaning they may be able to prove in court what happened, but authorities decide against prosecution. This could be because the suspected culprit is dead, Flanagan said.
There have been cases where police originally thought a person's death was suspicious but it was later established there was no crime committed, he said.
It's not all about arresting and charging a person in connection with a case, police said.
“Sometimes it's just as important to clear a person than to find out who is involved," Farrell. " ... Sometimes there’s things you can do through technology that vindicates a person."
The Fairfax Police work with the Innocence Project, an initiative that asks law enforcement agencies to take a second look at cases to see if there's evidence to overturn a conviction.
DNA testing is a common tool used in the course of a cold case investigation. Most Fairfax Police evidence is processed through a state lab, but sometimes private labs are used if they have access to better technology and if they follow testing protocol that makes the findings legally admissible in court, Flanagan said.
When working cold cases, detectives say they are careful not to raise the expectations of family members involved in the cases, especially if they don't know if they will be able to immediately provide closure to them.
“You want to manage your expectations,” Farrell said. “It’s very painful sometimes to reopen that aspect of their life … that’s something we’re very mindful of."
With every case, detectives say they try to keep an open mind.
"The biggest mistake is to go into a case with a preconceived notion," Farrell said.
Sometimes, cold case detectives use fourth year college students as interns to triage cases. The interns examine a case with a fresh set of eyes and are unbiased, which helps.
Farrell said he has a philosophy he uses in his work: don't do anything to make the case worse.
That includes not impeding the solving of a case, losing evidence or doing something that would result in a false confession from someone, he said.
“Careful, slow, methodical," Farrell said. " ... once we have identified a lead then we can be aggressive in how we approach them.”