Claudio Cardosaís face smiles from the side of his motherís SUV, next to the words, "It has been over a year ... Where is my sonís justice?"
"Itís to shame the police," says Maria Cardosa. "I told my detective, ĎI need something this year. I need a grand jury. I need to be able to sleep the night.í"
Her odds are not good. For years, Boston has been one of the least successful cities in the US at catching and prosecuting murderers, and itís only getting worse. Even in the "Boston Miracle" days of the early-and-mid 1990s, when Operation Ceasefire cut down on gang violence, the Boston Police Department (BPD) made arrests in just 50 percent of murders, well below the national average of 65 percent. Now the figure has nose-dived further, to less than a third of homicides solved since the start of 2004.
But even these "solved" cases donít stand up to scrutiny. Nationally, just six percent of murder defendants in urban-county trials win acquittals; in Boston, an astonishing 27 percent have been acquitted over the past eight years. Since the start of 2004, juries have found just 16 of 30 Boston murder defendants guilty. (Seven were acquitted of all charges, three were found guilty of only assault and battery, and four received mistrials.) Boston also has an unusually high number of convictions reversed on appeal or vacated as wrongful. San Francisco, for instance, has released two people wrongfully convicted of murder in the past 15 years; Boston released that many last year alone.
Simply put, the BPDís homicide unit has the worst track record of any big-city police department in the country.
At the same time, Bostonís homicide rate continues to rise, in sharp contrast with the trend in other US cities. Nationally, the murder rate is at its lowest in decades and still dropping. But Boston is on track for its highest murder tally since the early 1990s ó even though its population has shrunk. Boston had an official total of 225 homicides between 2001 and 2004 ó an increase of more than 50 percent from the previous four years. No other US city experienced anything similar.
The two phenomena may not be coincidental. A National Institute of Justice urban-homicide study found that a cityís low arrest rate leads to a higher murder rate in both that same year and the following one.
Most obviously, an unsolved murder leaves a murderer on the loose. More broadly, it reduces the deterrent effect of the law by showing that people can, in fact, get away with murder. And it leaves angry friends and family of the victim more apt to take justice and vengeance into their own hands.
Not only is Bostonís arrest rate terrible, but thanks to our incredibly overburdened court system, victimsí families and friends must wait years for a trial even if an arrest occurs. In the rest of the US, half of all murder defendants have their cases adjudicated within one year of their indictment. In Boston, forget about punishment within one year, or even two; only one homicide prosecution in the past 36 months ó out of 166 ó has seen the killer sentenced at all.
Whatís more, certain murders are even less likely to be solved. When the victim is a black man aged 17 to 35 ó as is the case in nearly half of all Boston homicides ó the arrest rate over the past six years is just 31 percent. (The map on this page shows how this has played out since the start of 2004, in the roughly six-square-mile patch of Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury where almost half of the cityís killings take place ó and where hardly any get solved.)
Local law-enforcement, political, and civic leaders have repeatedly blamed the problem on the cityís residents, saying that people are unwilling to come forward and tell what they know when a murder happens.
In fact, three years ago the BPD essentially gave up on solving murders, deciding that the lack of cooperative witnesses made the goal of actually solving crimes unrealistic. This concession appears in a policing-award application for the 2002 Unsolved Shootings Project, the BPDís response to "shootings on the rise and shooters getting away scot-free," as the BPD wrote in the application. Since solving shootings and arresting the shooters was too much to ask, "the goal of the project evolved from clearance to deterrence," the document says.
The result has been a complete failure on both counts. The homicide rate has climbed to its highest point in a decade, while arrest rates for gun homicides have plunged to the lowest ever in the city.
Thereís no reason to blame that on Boston residents. There are many obvious reasons right inside the BPDís homicide unit.
Is there any piece of our local investigatory system that hasnít been recently exposed as a total disgrace? Detectives have used sloppy, outdated techniques for working crime scenes, interviewing suspects, maintaining records, and obtaining eyewitness identifications. Untrained and incompetent fingerprint analysts have been the norm. The crime labs (especially before the new BPD lab opened in 2002) have been ill-equipped and hopelessly overburdened. The chief medical examiner canít keep body parts with the right bodies. FBI labs have been caught sending liars and junk-science practitioners to testify. Detectives canít keep track of case documents and evidence, and they cover up deals made for testimony.
And police officers lie. In just the past 12 months, in six entirely separate cases, the BPD, the Suffolk County District Attorneyís Office, the Supreme Judicial Court, a federal jury, a US District Court judge, and a commission led by a former US attorney all concluded that BPD officers had perjured themselves or lied to investigators.
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Issue Date: August 19 - 25, 2005
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