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Cold Case Program: Sexual Assault—Colorado

"Cold case" is a term used to describe unresolved cases. A case is deemed unresolved when all leads have been exhausted and there are no suspects. With the recent developments in DNA technology, detectives can reevaluate past cases and discover new leads.

The Denver Police Department's Cold Case Investigations Unit provides dedicated investigators and specialized victim assistance when cold cases are reopened.

The Cold Case Investigations Unit's goals are to—

  • Use a team approach. To address all of the victim's and/or family's needs, a multidisciplinary team approach is essential. The addition of a victim specialist has proved particularly helpful in cases in which victims are reluctant or frightened. Victim specialists can help the victims and/or families deal with their initial fears and concerns, and they can also help by building confidences and renewing cooperation.
  • Customize services. The unit contacts victims after reviewing background information on past emotional and physical responses and on whether prior contact with the system was a positive or a negative experience for victims. This information will dictate how contact is made.
  • Consider comorbid conditions. Sexual assault survivors are at risk for developing comorbid conditions along with long-term trauma. These conditions frequently include depression, anxiety disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder, and drug and alcohol abuse and dependence. The victim specialist must understand and recognize these symptoms to better assist victims.
  • Provide a private location. Privacy is particularly important in the case of a sexual assault. When disclosing new information on any case to the victim and/or family members, the initial meeting should be as discreet as possible because family and friends may not know about the incident.
  • Maintain victim contact. The Cold Case Unit maintains ongoing contact with victims. This sends a message that their cases and questions are important. Also, as the case progresses, victims may have a wide variety of issues that must be addressed. These include a loss of their sense of safety and security, as well as reemerging issues of guilt and self-blame that can be intrapersonal (e.g., loss of a sense of personal control, feeling changed, loss of income through an inability to work) or interpersonal (e.g., breakdown in the family structure and feelings of isolation as a result of a loss of social support systems).

Making the Idea a Reality
The Denver protocol took shape after evaluating more than 50 professional journal articles pertaining to cold case investigations, assessing victim services (particularly in the areas of victim and family contact), and interviewing police departments across the Nation. The protocol was developed in conjunction with the Denver District Attorney's office and the Denver Police Department's crime lab.

Additionally, the Colorado Victims Rights Amendment was revised to include cold case investigations as follows:

  • A cold case is any felony reported to law enforcement that has remained unsolved for more than 1 year from the date of the initial report to law enforcement and for which the applicable statute of limitations has not expired.
  • The identity of the perpetrator is unknown.
  • All cold case victims (until the statute of limitations runs out) shall receive information concerning any change in the status of the case. Change of status includes identification of perpetrators or recovery of new evidence.
  • Annual case updates are provided to victims, upon their written request, for cases with a statute of limitations of longer than 3 years.

Benefits to Victims
Through the implementation of the Denver Police Department's protocol, victims receive help that is specific to their situation. This includes resources, ongoing contact with the victim specialist, and an information booklet specific to the needs of victims.

In cases in which the DNA evidence does not provide a name in a sexual assault, the prosecutor can file a "John Doe" filing. In Denver, as of 2001, if a case is solved in whole or in part with DNA evidence, there is no longer a statute of limitations as long as the sexual assault was reported within 10 years.

Benefits to Victim Service Professionals
The Cold Case Unit keeps up with technological advances and helps to ensure that evidence collected is analyzed with the latest research in mind.

Lessons Learned

  • It is critical to have a cold case victim specialist accompany the detective during first contact with victims.
  • The timing of victim contact is crucial. Problems emerge when victims are contacted prematurely. This might occur when (1) law enforcement has not named a suspect; (2) no arrest has been made; or (3) if contact was made without assessing the victim's previous experiences with the system. For example, detectives had a hit on a cold case. They were able to create a DNA profile, but did not have a suspect named. There was a great deal of media involvement in the case and the detective wanted to contact the victim before the information was broadcast. The victim felt resentful that so little progress had been made and would have preferred not to be contacted at all.
  • Although the ideal scenario would be for victims to be contacted only when a suspect has been identified and arrested, this is not always possible. In the above example, there was a great deal of media involvement, and it was better for the department to contact the victim with a small amount of information rather than allowing the victim to hear about it on the news.
  • The main differences between the needs of victims in a cold case investigation and those in a new investigation are that victim reactions in older cases are often extreme.
  • The amount of contact must be dictated by victims. For some it can be weekly and for others, monthly. In some cases, victims would rather initiate contact when they have a question or concern.
  • It is critical that victims understand that investigative leads may not provide conclusive results.

Contact Information
Victim Assistance Unit's Cold Case Program
Sarah Chaikin
1331 Cherokee Street
Denver, CO 80204