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More people are getting away with murder. Unsolved killings reach a record high

Saint Columba Catholic Church in Oakland, Calif., commemorates every murder in the city with wooden crosses in its front garden. The city's homicide rate remains stubbornly high while its murder clearance rate remains well under the already low national average.
Eric Westervelt/NPR
Saint Columba Catholic Church in Oakland, Calif., commemorates every murder in the city with wooden crosses in its front garden. The city's homicide rate remains stubbornly high while its murder clearance rate remains well under the already low national average.

More murders across America are going unsolved, exacerbating the grief of families already reeling and worsening the largely cracked trust between police and the public, especially communities of color most affected by gun violence.

"I haven't had any word," says Mark Legaspi about the murder of his cousin, friend and business partner Artgel Anabo Jr., 39, who was known as Jun. He was shot just outside their popular Filipino fast-food restaurant Lucky Three Seven in East Oakland, Calif., May 18, 2022. "It's still emotional every day coming in here, you know?" Legaspi says nodding toward the street where Jun was murdered.

Oakland detectives released security camera footage and the license plate number of the suspected get-away car. Anabo's family believes the suspect is a man who sold Anabo a truck that turned out to be stolen. Still, there's been no break in the case and no word.

"It's definitely frustrating. Justice hasn't been served," Legaspi says. "I mean it's almost a year. I would like to know something. I don't get no answers," he says noting that he and his family haven't heard from Oakland homicide detectives for months. "You know, if there's anything, you know, even if they didn't do anything, that'd be nice to know. Instead of us hoping."

The U.S. among the worst at solving murders in the industrialized world

Legaspi's frustration and pain are shared by hundreds of families of murder victims in Oakland – and across the country – whose cases remain unsolved.

While the rate at which murders are solved or "cleared" has been declining for decades, it has now dropped to slightly below 50% in 2020 - a new historic low. And several big cities, including Chicago, have seen the number of murder cases resulting in at least one arrest dip into the low to mid-30% range.

A street mural honors the life of Artgel "Jun" Anabo Jr. near where was fatally shot just outside his Lucky Three Seven restaurant in East Oakland, Calif., in May 2022. Like more than 60% of the murders in the city, his killing remains unsolved.
/ Eric Westervelt/NPR
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Eric Westervelt/NPR
A street mural honors the life of Artgel "Jun" Anabo Jr. near where was fatally shot just outside his Lucky Three Seven restaurant in East Oakland, Calif., in May 2022. Like more than 60% of the murders in the city, his killing remains unsolved.

"We saw a sharp drop in the national clearance rate in 2020," says Prof. Philip Cook, a public policy researcher and professor emeritus at Duke University and the University of Chicago Urban Labs who has been studying clearance rates for decades. "It reached close to 50% at that time nationwide, which was the lowest ever recorded by the FBI. And it hasn't come up that much since then."

That makes the U.S. among the worst at solving murders in the industrialized world. Germany, for example, consistently clears well over 90% of its murders.

While reasons behind the drop are multi-faceted, Cook and other experts warn that more people getting away with murder in the the U.S. is driving a kind of doom loop of mutual mistrust: low murder clearance rates impede future investigations which in turn potentially drive up killings in some communities where a lack of arrests undermines deterrence and sends a message that the police will not or cannot protect them.

"Communities that are especially impacted by gun violence believe that the police are ineffective or indifferent, and as a result, they're less willing to cooperate and provide information the police need to have successful investigations," says Cook, who has several research articles on the topic coming out.

"It is undermining whatever trust there is in the police. And it's a vicious circle," Cook says.

"I certainly don't believe in anyone getting away with murder"

Oakland, Calif., is a prime example of that vicious circle. The city's per capita homicide rate remains abnormally high and its murder solve rate is among the lowest in the nation, hitting just 36% last year. If you take out the handful of older, "cold" cases that were solved during 2022, the clearance rate in Oakland just 27%, an analysis by the S.F. Chronicle shows.

"Well, I certainly don't believe in anyone getting away with murder. These cases are never closed," says Drennon Lindsey, an Oakland deputy chief who formerly led the department's homicide division. "We never give up, you know. And I also think we can only get better."

Lindsey says the veterans among her 16 detectives are often handing two dozen or more cases at a time, far above the federal recommendation that detectives carry an average of only four to six new homicide cases per year.

In addition, she says, an antiquated case management data system, which the city is working to replace, is another reason behind the painfully low clearance rate. But the biggest one, she says, is too many people are scared to talk with and help the OPD.

"People don't want to cooperate, people don't want to come to court and testify. And they're afraid of retaliation, of being labeled in their communities as a "snitch." And we're often left trying to plea and beg for the community to come forward with information to hold this person accountable for committing murder," she says.

But that mistrust is also bred by the department's chronic dysfunction.

The department remains under federal oversight and has for two decades. In that time the troubled agency has gone through a dozen leaders. And recently veteran Oakland homicide detective Phong Tran was arrested and arraigned after the Alameda County district attorney's office accused him of paying a witness thousands of dollars to lie in a murder case that resulted in two men getting life sentences. Detective Tran faces felony charges of perjury and bribery. Those two murder convictions have been tossed out.

In a statement to NPR, Tran's attorney Andrew M. Ganz called the charges "baseless" and lashed out a District Attorney Pamela Price for treating "murderers like heroes."

Price's office in a statement says it is now reviewing at least 125 murders Tran investigated "to see if we have wrongfully convicted anyone else."

"Lying and manipulating a witness are serious violations of the public trust and a threat to the integrity of the judicial system," Price says. "When the integrity of a conviction is at issue in one case, it raises questions in every other case that the detective has investigated."

The "exceptional means" clause and chronic police staffing affect murder clearance rates

The FBI defines a murder "cleared" if a suspect has been identified and arrested. But a murder can also be declared cleared through what's known as an "exceptional means." For example, if a suspect is dead, can't be extradited or prosecutors refuse to press charges.

So, criminologists note, even some cities now touting modestly improved murder clearance rates, such as Chicago, are really just artificially boosting their clearance numbers through that "exceptional means" clause.

The arrest rate per murder if is often a better indicator of how police departments are actually doing at holding killers accountable. Prof. Cook's research, for example, shows that from 2016 to 2020 the percentage of murders in Chicago with any type of weapon resulting in at least one arrest was just 33%. And in Durham, North Carolina, between 2017 and 2021 just 41% of gun homicide cases resulted in at least one arrest.

Other reasons for the further decline in murder clearance rates, experts say, include chronic police staffing and recruiting problems, and the fact that more murders are committed with firearms, which can result in fewer witnesses and less physical evidence. In addition, judges, prosecutors and juries have higher evidence and procedure standards than in the 1960s when 90-plus% of homicides were listed as solved.

Researchers say key ways cities can to try to stop the downward spiral is simply investing more in homicide investigations: improving crime labs, training, DNA testing, computer modeling systems.

White crosses with the names and ages of the dead grows with every killing

In front yard of Oakland's Saint Columba Catholic Church along bustling San Pablo Ave, a garden of simple, wooden, white crosses with the names and ages of the dead grows with every killing.

Every Jan. 1 "that garden is a garden for about a minute," says Fr. Aidan McAleenan, St Columba's pastor looking at the roughly two dozen crosses already posted in the yard. "And then is just gets grows and grows" all year. "My biggest concern, and I prayed about this, there are about 100 people walking around Oakland now who will not be walking around Oakland at the end of the year," McAleenan says.

Parishioner Rich Laufenberg makes the wooden crosses and dutifully "plants" them every week or two. "I do it as some kind of service work, I hope, and to let people know that we have a major violence problem here in Oakland," he says. Regularly, Laufenberg says when placing the crosses he'll find family or friends of a victim praying or just gazing in stunned silence at the lives cut short

"They'll stop and look and strike up a conversation and they mention not infrequently that the relative whose cross they're looking at, that case, hasn't been solved yet."

Mark Legaspi points to a painting of his cousin Jun Anabo at the successful Filipino restaurant they founded together. "I mean it's almost a year I would like to know something," he says of his cousin's unsolved murder.
/ Eric Westervelt/NPR
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Eric Westervelt/NPR
Mark Legaspi points to a painting of his cousin Jun Anabo at the successful Filipino restaurant they founded together. "I mean it's almost a year I would like to know something," he says of his cousin's unsolved murder.

At Oakland's Lucky Three Seven Filipino restaurant, owner Mark Legaspi says he doesn't blame Oakland detectives, per se, for not solving his cousin's murder. They're overworked and overwhelmed, he says. But he wants answer. And so does his murdered cousin's son, Kiah, now 12 who was super tight with his dad. Kiah was right next to his dad when the gunman attacked.

"He saw everything. I'm just glad he ran the other way instead of following his dad. You know, because he could have got caught in the line of fire," Legaspi says. "Obviously, as a kid, seeing that, your superhero dad, you know, that will always have problem with you know, like inside," he says.

Anabo's son is doing OK, given the circumstances, he says. He's making the Honor Roll and trying to stay positive. "Just got to keep that love with him every day, you know."

The family plans to honor Anabo with a gathering at the restaurant on the upcoming May 18 anniversary of his murder.

But they'd rather celebrate a break in his case.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.