Unsolved murders vex local police
by Cameron Steele
csteele@annistonstar.com
Aug 15, 2010 | 10426 views |  1 comments | 18 18 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Anniston police investitgators examine the scene at the intersection of 20th Street and Walnut Avenue, where Lucretia French was found unconscious after someone attacked her. French later died at a Birmingham hospital, and police have been unable to find her attacker.
Anniston police investitgators examine the scene at the intersection of 20th Street and Walnut Avenue, where Lucretia French was found unconscious after someone attacked her. French later died at a Birmingham hospital, and police have been unable to find her attacker.
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Last summer, 45-year-old Anniston resident Lucretia French was found face-down and unconscious on Walnut Avenue, her empty purse and wallet on the ground nearby. French was bleeding with scrapes and abrasions on her body when police responded to the scene, said Anniston police Sgt. Josh Doggrell, who investigated the case.

An ambulance rushed French to Regional Medical Center for treatment. But after doctors determined the extent of her head trauma, a helicopter flew her to UAB Hospital in Birmingham.

She lived for two weeks but never woke up, Doggrell said.

French died Aug. 1, 2009 –- four hours after her family decided to take her off life support.

Police have not been able to find French’s attacker.

“We had no witness, and no physical evidence,” Doggrell said. He said the spot where she was found was most likely not where she’d been beaten. There were few clues to be found there, either.

“There wasn’t much to go on,” Doggrell said.

Local clearance rate beats state

French’s case is the most recent of Anniston’s handful of unsolved homicides –- a small number when compared to state and national trends.

Since 2005, Anniston has had an 81 percent homicide clearance rate, records show. In other words, police have solved 48 out of the 59 homicides that have occurred over the past five years. In rural Calhoun County, the homicide number is even lower and the clearance rate higher. Records show deputies have solved 15 out of the 16 homicide cases that occurred inside the county’s jurisdiction since 2000. Oxford has seen only 12 homicides in the past 10 years -– all of which have been solved. Like Oxford, Jacksonville’s homicide clearance rate has stayed at a steady 100 percent –- police solved all three cases and the single manslaughter case since 2005.

Howard Snyder, the chief of special projects at the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, said those numbers are proof that local law-enforcement officers fare significantly better than their national and state counterparts when it comes to homicides.

Nationally, the homicide clearance rate wiggles between 62 percent and 66 percent, Snyder said.

And Alabama’s clearance rate for murder and negligent manslaughter reflects that national trend, too, hovering around 63.8 percent, according to an FBI fact sheet.

Then again, Snyder’s not that surprised local law-enforcement agencies have higher clearance rates than seen on national and state levels. Why?

Calhoun County is small. Alabama is big. The United States is bigger.

Still, the area’s clearance rate of 81 percent and up is no small potatoes, according to Wendy Regoeczi, a member of the Homicide Research Working Group –- an organization dedicated to understanding homicide trends on national, state and local levels.

“There are obviously things that are working really well there … that make clearance high,” she said.

But what are those “things” that work “well?”

Regoeczi, also a professor at Cleveland State University and director of the Criminology Research Center there, said it’s challenging to understand what makes one law-enforcement agency better at solving homicide cases —- or any type of criminal case, for that matter -— than another.

She said some of the problem is beyond police agencies’ control. For example, police can’t help the increase of drug-related homicides on local, state and national levels. Nor can they control the increase in stranger homicides —- cases in which the victim is unknown to the attacker —- Regoeczi said. Both trends make it harder for police to solve killings, the former because it generates witnesses who don’t want to talk to police for fear of getting in trouble themselves, and the latter because police can’t follow up on suspects based on the victim’s relationships.

Another problem?

The lack of data available for research, Regoeczi said.

“We don’t have great trend data, because you need access to police departments,” she said. “And that’s been a notoriously difficult thing to achieve.”

Studying clearance

Difficult, maybe, but not completely impossible, according to Regoeczi and Anniston police Lt. Rocky Stemen.

For example, “what happens in the first few minutes (after police respond to the homicide) will play a very important role in the outcome of the investigation,” Stemen said.

The importance of that initial response is one of the factors highlighted in a study published in 2000 that attempts to discern and clarify what affects police ability to solve a homicide case. Though dated, the study – first featured in the National Institute of Justice Journal 10 years ago –- is kept close at hand by researchers like Regoeczi and Snyder and local officers, like Stemen and Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson.

What makes the study unique -– and relatively able to stand the test of time, according to Regoeczi –- is that the scien-tists who wrote it had access to actual homicide case files from city police departments across the country. That un-paralleled insight enabled scientists to document how homicide cases from the last decade differed from those in the 1980s and ’90s, namely, noting the increase in drug-related and stranger homicides, Regoeczi said.

But more importantly, she said, the study documented which police response techniques improve the chances of solving homicide cases.

Those techniques include decreasing the amount of time between a death and officers’ response to the scene, securing the scene properly, seeking out witnesses to interview about the homicide, having three or more detectives as-signed to the case, and having a confidential informant in the area to provide background information about suspects, victims and witnesses to the homicide.

And those techniques are ones that local police in Calhoun County, Anniston, Oxford and Jacksonville say they try to follow religiously.

“We have so few homicides here that we are very blessed,” said Oxford police Sgt. L.G. Owens. “But we’re always prepared … have the proper procedures in place when they do.”

‘The first 48’

While some departments place more emphasis on one aspect of police response to homicide cases over another, all agencies agree on the importance of time.

“My philosophy on homicides and major crimes is to throw as many and all the resources I can at the case,” said Amerson. “The first 48 to 72 hours are the most critical.”

Stemen –- and Investigator Bruce Butterworth, Anniston’s lead homicide detective -– agree.

“It’s best if we can respond within the first 48 hours, then we can get specific data (about the case) and sometimes make an arrest at the scene,” Stemen said.

That’s because the scene is fresher, witnesses are more likely to talk and easier to get in touch with, and suspects are less likely to have gotten far, police said.

Of the 59 homicide cases Anniston police have worked over the past five years, 16 have been solved within the first 48 hours and another seven were cleared within 72.

After that initial period has passed, the investigation quickly becomes more difficult, Butterworth said.

“You know that show they have on television, called ‘The First 48,’” Butterworth asked, referring to an A&E documentary show that gives viewers a glimpse into homicide investigations. “Yeah, well, you can’t always believe what you see on TV, but that show’s pretty true.”

Following procedures, being flexible

Stemen said when it comes to homicide cases, members of his department excel at following protocol –- like taping off the crime scene, seeking out witnesses and following proper chain of command. But Anniston police also under-stand how to adapt to specific case circumstances. For example, there is no hard-and-fast rule for how many officers work a homicide case.

Most of the time, the number of investigators working a case fluctuates between two and eight, depending on the size and chaos of the scene, Stemen said. On average, between one and three crime scene technicians work homicide cases. That kind of balance between following standard operating procedure and allowing room for flexibility is something Regoeczi said is essential to high homicide clearance rates.

And for Anniston police, whose relatively large, urban jurisdiction usually nets them the most homicides, it’s a balance that seems to be working. The department’s 81 percent homicide clearance rate is 15 percentage points higher than the 66 percent clearance rate it boasted for the years 2000 to 2005.

Not only is the clearance rate for the past five years higher than those before them, it’s higher despite the fact that the most recent half-decade has seen 26 more homicide cases than the five years prior to it.

That’s a 75 percent increase in caseload, which Stemen attributes largely to the increasing drug presence in the jurisdiction covered by Anniston police.

“Crack and meth are the worst drug problems here, especially now, so violence is more prevalent here now, too,” he said. “Drugs and violence always goes hand-in-hand. I think some of the unsolved ones may have been drug-related.”

Few strangers here

And although the National Institute of Justice Journal article shows that drug-related homicides make it less likely for witnesses to speak up, local police have still been able to solve most of the growing number of homicides, partly because the area doesn’t follow the other important, turn-of-the-century trend -– stranger homicides.

Jacksonville police Chief Tommy Thompson and Owens from Oxford said none of their homicides in the last decade were stranger-to-stranger killings.

Likewise, Amerson said, about 90 percent of all county homicide victims had a relationship with their attackers.

And in Anniston, almost 100 percent of the solved homicides and even about 70 percent of the 11 unsolved cases were crimes where the victim knew the attacker, Stemen said.

And nowadays, that’s unique, Regoeczi said.

“One of the most well-documented facts is that stranger homicides are notoriously harder to clear,” she said. “And nationally, the nature of homicides has changed so that … there are fewer intimate partner homicides and … more stranger homicides.”

What clearance means

Although the successful clearance rates in the area speak well of the performance of local police, the term “clearance rate” can be somewhat misleading.

When a homicide case is cleared, it means police have arrested a suspect. It does not mean that suspect has been convicted of the crime, said Calhoun County District Attorney Joe Hubbard. That takes much longer because the burden of proof for a conviction is –- obviously –- higher than the probable cause police need to arrest someone.

As a result, there are a number of suspects in local homicide cases still pending trial. In the county, four –- or 25 percent –- of the 15 cleared homicides since 2000 are still pending trial. And only 50 percent of the 15 cases have suspects who were convicted and are serving jail time –- three cases were not prosecuted at court, and one defendant committed suicide the day of his trial.

In Anniston, 41 –- or about 65 percent –- of the 69 homicide suspects arrested since 2000 have pleaded guilty or been sentenced to prison by a jury. Four were not prosecuted, and one woman was found not guilty during a 2006 jury trial. Nine homicide cases are still pending trial, court records show. That brings the area’s untried homicide case number up to 13, when combined with the county’s statistics.

That number may seem high, but Hubbard said it’s normal for homicide cases to sit untried in the court system for months, or even years.

The reason?

Pretrial hearings, evidence-gathering and motions take longer because the stakes are higher for homicide defendants than suspects in other, less-violent crimes, Hubbard said.

In fact, expect anywhere from 100 to 300 motions to be filed and about 18 months to pass before a homicide case even reaches trial, Hubbard said. That’s especially true when it comes to capital murder cases, where the jury must decide between life in prison or the death penalty, he said.

Still, Hubbard said, clearance is obviously an important first step for all criminal cases.

“And we (the district attorneys) ride those local police pretty hard,” he said. “We want homicide cases to be better than probable cause, because we want the arrests … to mean something,”

And judging by the area clearance rates, those high expectations are something local police handle well, Hubbard said.

“We give these cases all we’ve got,” Stemen said.

***
Unsolved cases

Ask local investigators about the homicides they’ve worked, and they’ll most likely tell you about the ones that keep them up at night – the ones they haven’t solved.

“Those stay with you,” said Anniston police Sgt. Josh Doggrell, who had just developed a new suspect in the 2009 murder of Lucretia French before he was promoted from investigator to sergeant in July.

Since 2005, there have been a total of 12 unsolved homicides –- 11 in the Anniston police jurisdiction and one in Calhoun County.

“I want the victim’s families to know we’re still doing what we can to solve them,” said Anniston police Lt. Rocky Stemen.

The unsolved cases include:

Melody Evans

In March, teenagers fishing in Ohatchee Creek found the badly decomposed body of Melody Evans, a 42-year-old Jacksonville resident. According to police reports, Evans was last seen alive at a Nov. 4 bonfire at Crystal Springs -— about half a mile from Ohatchee Creek —- near Lloyd’s Road in Wellington. Deputies are continuing to interview possible suspects in the case, Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson said.

Terry Bates

In February 2008, Terry Bates, 48, was found with a broken jaw and slurred speech in the 1700 block of Wilmer Ave., Anniston police Investigator Wayne Willis said. Bates was taken to Stringfellow Memorial Hospital, where he died from an infection two weeks later. Police suspected Bates, a homeless man, had been beaten. Willis said there were never any leads in the case.

Carnell Hall

In April that year, 46-year-old Carnell Hall died after being shot in the right thigh, arm and back, police reports show. Anniston police investigator Bruce Butterworth said Hall was able to call 911 from a cell phone before he died near the 1000 block of West 15th Street. Butterworth said he’s sure there are witnesses out there who are afraid to talk.

Joe Hathorn

A couple months later, Joe Hathorn, 61, was found dead in his apartment on East Ninth Street. Police said Hathorn’s family called because they hadn’t heard from him in a long time. The cause of death was determined to be blunt force trauma to the head, but police don’t have any suspects.

Carlos Antwon Hubbard

Out of the eight Anniston homicides in 2007, only one hasn’t been cleared. On March 14, 2007, 21-year-old Carlos Antwon Hubbard’s body was found dumped on Pope Street in west Anniston, police said. Originally, Hubbard’s case was written up as a kidnapping, after people he lived with called police to tell them four men with guns kid-napped Hubbard. Police have a few witnesses but nothing solid.

Kevin Daniels, Greg Sanders, Bernard Wright

In 2006 – a year loaded down with 15 homicides in Anniston and one in Calhoun County – three murders went un-solved. In January, Kevin Daniels, 21, was found shot to death in a vacant lot in the 1500 block of Crawford Ave-nue. In March, Greg Sanders’ wife called to say her husband came home with a cut on his left wrist and had bled to death by the time she woke up in the morning. And in August, a woman called to say she had found 44-year-old Bernard Wright dead in his ransacked home on Altamont Road.

Kenneth Sheppard

Three out of six homicides in 2005 are still without suspects. In April, 31-year-old Kenneth Sheppard was shot in the head outside of Constantine Apartments. Butterworth said police had two suspects, one of whom was taken to the grand jury, but the case was no-billed.

Antonio Demetrius Dye

September saw the murder of 32-year-old Antonio Demetrius Dye, who police said was shot and killed in the after-noon in front of a large crowd of people. The shooting occurred on Brown Avenue, but so far, no witnesses have been willing to talk to police, Butterworth said.

Shanard Beverly

One month later, 18-year-old Shanard Beverly was shot after several people argued during a birthday party at South Highland Community Center. A couple of attendees began to fire guns, police said, and Beverly was the sole party-goer to sustain mortal injuries.

Stemen said police are dependant upon witnesses to help solve the remaining cases.

“For most of these to be solved, it’s going to take someone coming forward,” he said, “being unafraid to say, ‘I saw what happened.’”

Contact Star Staff Writer Cameron Steele at 256-235-3562.

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Unsolved murders vex local police by Cameron Steele
csteele@annistonstar.com

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