President Biden signed into law a bipartisan cold case investigation bill this week that establishes federal rights for relatives of people killed in unsolved murders.
The Homicide Victims’ Families Rights Act provides a way for families of cold case victims to officially request that federal investigators review their case with the latest available technology — and it specifically bars former investigators from leading new investigations.
It instructs agencies to keep families updated on case files and will require the federal government to publish annual statistics on cold case homicides starting in 2025.
Two former prosecutors turned members of Congress, Reps. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, and Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., introduced the bill, which passed the House and Senate unanimously 406-20.
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McCall cites the unsolved “yogurt shop murders” of 1991 as a major factor in his efforts to pass the law.
“Three decades ago, four girls were brutally murdered in an Austin, Texas, yogurt shop, but their families and communities are still reeling because the case remains unsolved,” McCall told Fox News Digital Friday. “It is my hope that the Homicide Victims Family Rights Act will deliver resources to help resolve cold cases by providing hope, justice, answers and closure to the grieving families of those whose cases have gone cold.”
Four teenage girls died in cold case murders: 13-year-old Amy Ayers, 17-year-old Eliza Thomas, 15-year-old Sarah Harbison, and her 17-year-old older sister Jennifer Harbison.
The little girls were meeting two older men who worked in the shop. All four were later found bound and gagged, with gunshot wounds to their heads and the shop set on fire.
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Four men were soon arrested – but charges were dropped after DNA evidence linked the unidentified man to the scene.
He has not been identified.
McCall, a former Texas deputy attorney general and former federal prosecutor, sent a letter to the FBI in 2019 asking the bureau to provide DNA samples from the case for Y-STR matching testing, but the FBI said the test would yield thousands of matches. and will be rendered inconclusive.
The new law requires federal law enforcement agencies to review a cold case at the written request of the victim’s immediate family if the case is still “cold” after three years and there are potential leads. The new law requires the federal government to inform family members of cold case victims of their rights.
Then the agency must “determine whether a thorough reinvestigation will lead to either potential investigative leads or the identification of a potential perpetrator.”
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“Too many homicides in our country go unsolved, leaving families and communities devastated,” Swalwell said in a statement.
Read the bill here:
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Joseph Giacalone, an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and former commanding officer of the NYPD’s Bronx cold case squad, said unsolved cold cases mean the risk of additional violence. Especially when the perpetrators are serial killers or responsible for gang or drug-related murders, he said, and 39% of homicides each year lead to no arrests.
He said he was proud to help victims’ families find closure as an investigator.
“We’re finally seeing elected officials get it right: victims matter; victims’ families matter,” he said. “This is what people like me have been crying out about for the last two years in the progressive era of criminal justice: victims and families have been forgotten. This is a step in the right direction.”
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Giacalone, who wrote a de facto textbook on cold case investigations, said the law’s requirement to exclude former cold case investigators from re-examination is another important element of the new law.
“One of the things I always talk about is, don’t read the report right away; don’t talk right away to the detectives who did the case; because you’re going to go down the same path that they go down,” he said. . “This law addresses just that…Now I hope that’s not the whole thing, because I want to talk to the case detective at the end – not just at the beginning.”
However, he said he hopes to see at least a “tweak”.
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As such, the cold case under review must have previously been under federal jurisdiction.
“The feds have access to techniques that local police departments don’t even mention,” he said. “It’s really kind of a gray area, in one instance, you get the feeling that the family can go directly to the police department, and the other says it should be a federal investigation.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the new law.